The Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), one of the country’s oldest and most respected human-rights groups, has just released a very thorough report on how Colombia’s human-rights situation has evolved since Ãlvaro Uribe assumed office in August 2002. “Colombia: Against International Human Rights Recommendations” represents the Colombian human rights community’s best response yet to the Uribe government’s barrage of official statistics trumpeting the success of its hard-line security policies.
The report begins with a long epigraph of excerpts from “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the Hans Christian Andersen fable about a leader whose followers vigorously support his utter denial of easily observed reality. It then asks:
What would happen if the people in the government charged with analyzing the results of the current security policy, put into practice between 2002 and 2004, find that it has been a failure? Probably, nothing would happen. The President and his government’s publicity specialists have transmitted, day after day, such a strong message of victory that it would be difficult for a simple low-level technocrat, basing himself on his humble observations of the facts of reality, to dare to contradict the avalanche of official, effective information.
The report goes on to do just that. It scores several direct hits on the Uribe government’s claims of miraculous success in the fight against illegal armed groups and the protection of human rights. The BogotÃ¡ government has backed these claims by playing a rather one-sided “numbers game,” with endless press releases and PowerPoint presentations showing declines in everything from murders to pipeline bombings. (Look no further than the website of the vice-president’s human rights program – www.derechoshumanos.gov.co – which offers little about fighting impunity or breaking links with paramilitaries but offers an annoying Flash presentation and reams of statistics. The U.S. government, eager to sell Plan Colombia, happily repeats these statistics in PowerPoint slides distributed by the U.S. Southern Command (like this PDF file) and in officials’ congressional hearing testimonies (like this one).) The CCJ’s report now makes the numbers game a two-sided affair, casting serious doubt on many of the Colombian government’s claims.
For those who don’t read Spanish or are unwilling to wade through the report’s 114 pages and 360 footnotes, here are what we consider to be its top ten findings.
- In 2003, 6,335 people â€“ over 17 per day â€“ were killed by what the CCJ calls “sociopolitical violence.” (Corresponding numbers for past years were 6,639 in 2000, 6,641 in 2001, and 7,803 in 2002.) Of those, 3,905 were not killed in combat situations â€“ they were killed “in their homes, in the street or in their workplaces.” 2,430 were killed during combat, 115 of them civilians caught in the crossfire. 7.77 percent were killed directly by the security forces, 69.34 percent were killed by paramilitaries, and 22.89 percent were killed by guerrillas. Killings of civilians by the state security forces increased from an average of 120 between 1998 and 2002 to 184 in 2003.
- The CCJ claims to have “solid information” about recent military-paramilitary collaboration in the departments (provinces) of Antioquia, Arauca, BolÃvar, ChocÃ³, CÃ³rdoba, Cundinamarca, Meta, Norte de Santander, Santander, Sucre, Tolima and Valle del Cauca. These include “cases of joint actions between members of the security forces and paramilitary groups; cases in which members of the security forces present themselves before the civilian population as paramilitaries; [and] cases in which paramilitary groups circulate unbothered in showy vehicles (including stolen ones), carrying kidnap victims without the security forces doing anything to prevent it.”
- The paramilitaries have failed to respect the cease-fire that Ãlvaro Uribe required of them as a pre-condition for holding peace talks. Between December 1, 2002 â€“ when the AUC cease-fire was declared â€“ and September 10, 2004, the paramilitaries killed or disappeared at least 1,895 civilians “in actions not directly related to the armed conflict.”
- Killings and disappearances of human-rights defenders have increased. Thirty-three human-rights activists were murdered or disappeared between August 7, 2002 and August 7, 2004. This is more than the 29 victims between August 2000 and August 2002, the 21 victims between August 1998 and August 2000, and the 24 victims between August 1996 and August 1998.
- At least 340 people were tortured between July 2002 and June 2003, a significant increase over the 242 recorded during the previous twelve months. Of the 175 cases where those responsible could be identified, state actors tortured 52 people, paramilitaries tortured 123 people, and guerrillas tortured ten.
- About 207,607 people were displaced from their homes during 2003, a sharp drop from the
more than 400,000 displaced the previous year. That downward trend appears to be proving short-lived, though; citing figures from the non-governmental organization CODHES, the CCJ notes that 130,346 people were displaced during the first half of 2004, a 33.5 percent increase over the last six months of 2003.
- As of August 2004, the Uribe government claims to have signed up 2.5 million Colombians (of a population of 44 million) as “cooperators” willing to provide intelligence about armed-group activity to the security forces. As of April 2003, 7,011 had signed up as “informants,” individuals paid to provide intelligence on a regular basis. The CCJ report notes that “the current government forgets the principle according to which, under the democratic and social rule of law, the authorities exist to protect people (article 2 of the Colombian Constitution) and not the people to protect the state. â€¦ Programs like the networks of informants and cooperators, and that of the “peasant soldiers,” lead to new forms of paramilitarism and ignore the fundamental principle of distinction between combatants and non-combatants.”
- Arbitrary detentions have increased dramatically. The CCJ counted 4,362 cases of people rounded up without probable cause between July 2002 and June 2003. In the six previous years – from July 1996 to June 2002 combined â€“ the CCJ only counted 2,869 arbitrary detentions. This sharp rise owes to the Uribe government’s policy of carrying out mass arrests.
- The report notes a dramatic change in the performance of the Colombian attorney-general’s office (FiscalÃa) since the 2001 accession of Luis Camilo Osorio as the nation’s head prosecutor. “First, the attorney-general has sought to diminish the importance of human rights violations committed by members of the security forces. Second, the attorney-general has unduly interfered, in detriment to the victims’ rights, with ongoing investigations. Since the beginning of his term the attorney-general has criticized the fact that his office’s Human Rights Unit focused on cases against members of the security forces. Finally, the attorney-general’s office has participated directly, through acts of commission, in serious human-rights violations,” particularly cases connected to the above-mentioned mass arrests. (The damage Osorio has done to his office’s human-rights protection effort was the subject of a late 2002 Human Rights Watch report.)
- The CCJ repeats statistics about worsening poverty and inequality compiled by the government’s comptroller-general’s office (ContralorÃa), among others. 64.2 percent of Colombians now live below the poverty line of roughly $3 per day; 31 percent live below the extreme poverty line of roughly $2 per day. The rural poverty rate is an incredible 85.3 percent. 0.4 percent of landholders control 61.2 percent of registered land. Colombia’s Gini coefficient (a number between 0 and 1, where 0 means everyone in the country has the same income and 1 means one person earns all the income and everyone else gets nothing) is 0.562, making Colombia one of the most unequal countries in the world.
The CCJ report takes into account some – though not all – of the observations about Colombian human rights groups’ documentation methods raised by a well-publicized October 2003 (PDF format) cable from U.S. Embassy BogotÃ¡ (which criticized the Colombian groups’ “selective emphasis on bad news”). While the CCJ provides ample clarity about its sources and methods, differing definitions of some terms â€“ such as “sociopolitical violence” or “arbitrary detention” â€“ do explain some of the divergence from the Colombian government’s numbers.
In all, though, the CCJ report makes a strong contribution to the debate over the effectiveness of Ãlvaro Uribe’s security policies. It is very highly recommended.
It’s too bad, though, that the CCJ apparently hasn’t mastered news cycles. The announcement of the new report arrived in our e-mail inboxes late on Friday afternoon. As anyone who follows the U.S. government’s disclosures of inconvenient information knows, late Friday â€“ after reporters’ deadlines and before Saturday, the day in which newspapers gain their lowest circulation of the week â€“ is the best time to avoid, not attract, publicity.