OTTAWA, CANADA: Colombian government defends its commitment to human rights

27 October 2006

OTTAWA, CANADA: Colombian government defends its commitment to human rights

by Robin Buyers

Not long ago, Colombian consulate officials in Ottawa were referring to
Amnesty International reports as "propaganda." They urged Christian
Peacemaker Team members to regard the testimony of a recently demobilized
fighter on an embassy-orchestrated tour and the testimony taken by
independent human rights organizations in the Colombian countryside as
having the same merit. The new Colombian Ambassador to Canada, however, has
a different approach.

Jaime Girón Duarte wants Canadians to know that "the Colombian government
shares their concerns about human rights." To that end, he invited Carlos
Franco, Director General of Colombia's Program on Human Rights, to meet with
NGO and Canadian government representatives for an "open dialogue" on 24
October 2006.

The shortcomings of the peace process with the paramilitaries under the 2005
Justice and Peace Law proved central to this discussion. Participants
raised tough questions about recognition for victims and reports of newly
armed groups.

Franco argued that amnesties and alternative sentencing are common in peace
processes, but that his government is doing everything it can to "guarantee
truth to victims, restoration of goods, and adequate justice." He admitted
that Justice and Peace Units of the Attorney General's office were late
starting, but that 15,000 cases of human rights abuses are now being
documented. Some investigations into these abuses will include the
exhumation of corpses. The Colombian government has also set up a
commission to address cases of forced disappearances.

President Uribe, Franco claimed, is committed to fighting paramilitary
groups with the same force that he is fighting guerrillas. The government
has established a policy against impunity and 700 ex-paramilitaries are in
custody for re-initiating illegal activities.

 "We opened the can of worms ourselves," said Franco. "The Colombian
government investigated the infiltration of paramilitaries into the DAS
[police service], the government, and the health sector."

But Franco wanted only government-sponsored investigations: "Why are the
NGOs and the church not participating with us in a Commission of
Verification regarding who is re-arming, and where?" he asked. "They fear
they will lose credibility if they cooperate." He did not appear to
recognize the value of independent verification by civil society groups,
especially given evidence of complicity with paramilitaries by government
officials and security forces.

In a visit to Canada earlier this month, Lilia Solano, President of the
National Movement of Victims of State-Sponsored Crimes and a past opposition
candidate for the legislature emphasized that the right to political
opposition is not well understood in Colombia. Civil society groups find
that when victims talk about state complicity in paramilitarism, they are
stigmatized as guerrillas. The Movement believes that, in spite of
government rhetoric, Uribe and his followers support impunity. "They tell
us," says Solano, "'Let's reconcile our history.' Victims are asked why
they cannot forget. We cannot accept impunity served on this bloody plate."

In a brief released on 20 October 2006, the International Crisis Group,
concluded: "Uribe must show his military and constituents that he is
serious about human rights and that there is no impunity for criminal
action. The dismantling of the paramilitaries will not produce a lasting
drop in violence unless the state can take control of the areas they
dominate, attack their criminal enterprises, principally drugs and
extortion, and immediately confront any new illegal armed groups."

With ex-paramilitaries re-arming even in CPT's Barrancabermeja
neighbourhood, the team will be well-positioned to see if the Colombian
government's new human rights rhetoric translates into a different reality
for Colombian civil society.