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Jul 082006

It sounds like an inappropriate joke, but it’s not. Colombia’s government wants to silence – not strengthen, but weaken – a UN office that monitors and reports on human rights. And it proposes to do so amid a wave of threats against human-rights defenders, growing allegations of soldiers killing civilians, and scandals involving paramilitary infiltration of the state. And the U.S. government is backing the Colombians.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has had a field office in Colombia since 1996, when the Colombian government, in response to petitions from Colombia’s human-rights community, allowed it to have a presence. The office’s mandate, which has been renewed several times, allows it to offer advice and technical support to Colombian government bodies with human rights responsibilities, to monitor the country’s human rights situation, and to issue publicly available reports and recommendations.

This mandate is to expire in a few months. Recent press reports indicate that the Uribe government is so displeased with the UN office that, while it is not going to cancel its mandate and kick it out of the country, it is going to take away its ability to make public statements and reports. The office will be reduced to offering advice and expertise on a largely confidential basis.

This would essentially mean gagging the UN High Commissioner’s office in Colombia. If that happens, it will mean the loss of a badly needed independent, impartial and credible source of information on Colombia’s human rights situation. It will also mean the disappearance of a key “referee” offering an expert critique, based on Colombia’s international human rights commitments, of the Colombian government’s controversial security policies.

At the same time, it is also the rather predictable result of an unstable situation: how long can a government unwilling to confront its serious human rights flaws approve the presence of an outside agency that publicly points out these flaws? Simply by doing their job – reporting on rights violations, noting that these violations are rarely punished, critiquing policies and laws – the office’s employees inevitably become a nuisance to a government that would rather not see such issues aired in public.

Since the 1990s, for instance, every Colombian government has been unhappy with the office’s annual reports on the human-rights situation. While they have rarely disputed the reports’ facts, they have complained about their tone and emphases, arguing that they focus too strongly on the negative.

The Uribe government, for instance, has wanted credit for the reduced violence that resulted from increased military operations and negotiations with paramilitary groups. The UN High Commissioner’s reports, however, have voiced concern about the impunity that this strengthened military continues to enjoy, and have raised warning signs about the paramilitary process – not just impunity, but the challenges of dismantling the groups, attending to victims, and making the truth publicly known.

Relations between the UN human rights office and the Colombian government worsened under Álvaro Uribe’s administration, as evidenced by a controversial June 19 speech in Geneva by Vice-President Francisco Santos. Before the new UN Human Rights Council, Santos complained that the UN clings to “preconceived” ideas when producing reports, and prefers scolding, or “señalamiento,” to advice or constructive criticism.

Santos even accused the UN office of issuing “value judgments” about candidate Uribe during the 2002 election campaign, “portraying him as a leader of the extreme terrorist right wing.” This is a charge we have never heard before, and the Colombian government has yet to produce an example to back it up.

The Uribe government granted the UN office a four-year extension of its mandate in 2002, a surprising gesture at the time. But relations with the office were troubled under Michael Frühling, the Swedish diplomat who assumed office that year and left in early 2006.

Under his tenure, the office issued a yearly list of recommendations for getting Colombia’s policies and performance in line with international human rights standards. Frühling considered this to be central to the office’s advisory role. When the Uribe government fell short on these recommendations, the office said so publicly. The office also offered public human rights critiques of Uribe’s security initiatives and actions, such as the declaration of a “state of internal commotion,” the failed attempt to gain new anti-terror powers, the use of civilians as informants, speeches attacking human rights groups, and of course the paramilitary process.

While these critiques angered the Uribe government, they were carefully worded and were derived from a careful – not expansionist – interpretation of international human rights law.

One of the touchiest subjects has been that of impunity for abusers, and the UN office’s allegations that Colombia’s government has not shown the political will necessary to punish human rights crimes. Santos alluded it to it in his Geneva speech.

Individual errors should not be presented, as is done today in my country, as institutional policies. Or institutional weaknesses that are common to many developing states, such as judicial inefficiency, should not be interpreted as a lack of political will to fight against impunity on the part of the part of the Colombian state.

This argument makes no sense. If human rights crimes in Colombia were just individual errors, it would be easy to punish them with reasonable swiftness and transparency. But the extreme difficulty of identifying and sentencing perpetrators indicates that something else is wrong. And all signs point to political will.

When cases of abuse run into miles of red tape, face difficulty getting out of the military justice system and its 96% exoneration rate, when files are stolen and judges, witnesses, prosecutors and advocates are threatened or even killed by parties who are never punished, that is more than just an “institutional weakness,” and it is insulting to call it that. It is a complete and utter lack of political will.

The UN officials are professionals. If they saw a good-faith effort to overcome institutional obstacles and punish violations committed by powerful government elements, of course they would take a more positive tone. In fact, it would be in their interest to give a strong show of international-community support to those Colombian officials who are showing that they have the will to see justice done. But that will has been tragically lacking.

But even the “political will” question has been outdone by the Uribe government’s anger at the UN office’s critique of the paramilitary demobilization process. Frühling and the High Commissioner have made clear on several occasions that the “Justice and Peace” law – the legal framework for dealing with former illegal combatants – does not meet international human rights standards.

This critique led Vice President Santos to charge in his Geneva speech that the UN and other critics’ positions would lead to more bloodshed.

During the intense debate within the country about the elaboration of the framework law for this peace negotiation, a rigorous and inflexible tendency consolidated, supported by the [UN] human rights system, which has made the law’s application difficult and has had a negative impact on sectors of the demobilized groups, endangering the stability of the process. I ask whether, if this process fails, if thousands of men take up arms again and the violence reaches unimagined extremes, if the murders of unionists and social and political leaders resume, all because of the efforts to make every single one of them respond to the international community’s expectations in the text of a law, who will take responsibility to this worsening of violence?

This argument echoes paramilitary leaders’ threats to take up arms if they disapprove of the law, when Santos should in fact be condemning such threats. The vice president also fails to mention that many former paramilitaries continue to be armed, many may still be at the command of their former leaders, and that killings of unionists and leaders have not ceased, only declined. A key reason is that the Colombian government did not give itself the legal tools necessary to ensure that paramilitary groups have truly dismantled.

The Uribe government complains that the UN’s critiques were often arrogant, treating Colombia like an inferior third-world country. If UN officials took such a haughty attitude, that is wrong and regrettable. But it doesn’t disguise the fact that the “Justice and Peace” law is indeed a “third-world” piece of legislation.

More developed or established democracies make it a priority to protect the rights of minorities. Thus, a more developed democracy would have sought broader consensus – rather than a bare legislative minimum – in favor of a law protecting the rights of one powerless minority in particular: the armed groups’ many victims. The current law abridges victims’ rights by throwing up obstacles to efforts to learn the truth, dismantle persistent paramilitary networks, and ensure the return of millions of acres of land and other property.

Instead of doing that, the government passed a weak law. And now its highest representatives go to Geneva and argue, in effect, that “we had to violate international standards and give huge concessions to a pro-government group whom we hardly bothered to fight. Those who disagree risk having blood on their hands.”

If the Uribe government takes positions like that, there is nothing that the UN office, if it fulfils its mandate, can do to make them happy. And the Uribe government is manifestly unhappy. So now the office appears likely to see its mandate severely reduced.

The international outlook makes that look even more likely. The European Union has made clear its support for the UN office to continue with its current mandate. But the United States appears to be backing the Uribe government.

The Bush administration has not yet made its position public, but State Department officials, when asked, have refused to offer explicit support to the UN office’s current mandate. The Bush administration is very unlikely to challenge the Uribe government, its best friend in Latin America, and support an office that publicly reports on abuses by a military that receives heavy U.S. support. The only thing that could change the U.S. position would be strong pressure from appropriators in Congress, particularly key Democratic senators, who have taken a past interest in the office’s functioning. But this pressure may not be forthcoming.

As a result, an important voice for human rights protection in Colombia is likely to be muzzled. The office cannot participate publicly in its own defense, though the high commissioner could help its case by making public some accounting of its key achievements.

If the office loses its ability to speak up, it will be reduced to silently offering advice to a government that, by and large, has no intention to follow it. That is a rather sterile and uninspiring mission, and it is not clear why the High Commissioner would want to stay in Colombia to carry it out.

4 Responses to “Keep the UN’s human rights mandate”

  1. richtiger Says:

    Mr. Isacson writes,”Santos even accused the UN office of issuing ‘value judgments’ about candidate Uribe during the 2002 election campaign, ‘portraying him as a leader of the extreme terrorist right wing.’ This is a charge we have never heard before, and the Colombian government has yet to produce an example to back it up.”

    Of course, Uribe’s political opponents have often made this charge. According to one Colombian “newsgroup friend” of mine, Uribe’s family has connections both to the paramilitary groups and to the drug trafficers.

    I personally haven’t been able to confirm this accusation although the very lax “Peace and Justice” law does certainly favor the paramilitaries to the detriment of their victims.

    I’ve only recently resumed following current affairs in Colombia, and I’m distressed to read
    evidence that Uribe and his government are not very concerned about human rights violations.

    I’m convinced that peace will not come to Colombia until a government is in place that is willing to safeguard human rights and spend enough money to
    meet the basic nutritional and health needs of the “absolutely poor.”

    It now appears that peace in Colombia may depend on the continued growth of Carlos Gaviria’s “Polo
    Democrático” party. Until Gaviria or someone like him is elected president of Colombia, there will be no peace.

    I’m continually frustrated by the inability or unwillingness of the Colombian elite (la oligarquía) to understand that their long-range interests depend on sharing power and wealth with the less-fortunate.

  2. Rainer Cale Says:

    I was stunned to see in El Espectador last Friday that Mancuso is refusing to give his deposition (indagatoria) in numerous HR lawsuits against him, assuming that he has TOTAL impunity under the J&P law. (The attorney-general Mario Iguaran has said that if he does not present himself at the next summons, he will be subject to capture).

    The situation is astonishing of course first and foremost for the fact that a paramilitary commander would balk at even the lax provisions of the J&P law.

    But it is also another astonishing example to me of the powerful elements within the Uribe government that stand out in sharp contradiction to the Uribe script.

    (Which also occurs, incidentally, in the private sector, the business elite, etc.–Caracol Radio was airing some MAJOR criticism of Uribe in the days right before the election, airing information that tied him or relatives of his to Pablo Escobar, paramilitaries, etc.)

    And thirdly it is another astonishing example of the sort of “devil may care” Colombian bravado without which the AUC negotiations would never have arrived to where they are now. I suppose “devil may care” isn’t the phrase–what I mean is a sort of overconfidence in things just working out their way, without guarantees and without even a basic strategy in place, and even knowing that the strategy in place (J&P law) will make them answer for more than they are willing to answer for.

    With the stakes so high, it’s amazing to me that Mancuso, Don Berna et al., have let the negotiations proceed so far on the basis of winks, nods, and ambiguous statements.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Rainer Cale writes,

    “Caracol Radio was airing some MAJOR criticism of Uribe in the days right before the election, airing information that tied him or relatives of his to Pablo Escobar, paramilitaries, etc.”

    Of course, journalists in Colombia tend to practice “autocensura” and often do thier job “en puntillas” (on tip-toes). Understandably, many reporters had rather tell a story “a medias” (halfway) than be assassinated. This is particularly true in the small towns where journalists may have direct, personal knowledge of the drug bosses and paramilitary chiefs who are the potential subjects of revealing stories.

    I’m not at all sure; but I’m guessing that the national press (Caracol, El Tiempo) is somewhat less fearful, particularly when it comes to criticizing the government and major figures in the government. I’d be glad to hear other opinions.

    I’d also be glad to hear any thoughts on Eduardo Santos, a graduate of U.T. Austin like me and now Vice-President of Colombia. (Why am I not Vice-President of the U.S., I wonder?) Santos’ family owns El Tiempo; but I suppose there’s enough professionalism at El Tiempo to preclude a servile attitude toward the administration of which the family is a part. Right or wrong?

    Well, getting back to the train of Isacson’s initial post, the lack of “political will” does show up in a judicial system that is a travesty and does little to bring to justice those who violate the lives and “human rights” of journalists, town mayors, and so many other people who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    Until there is a Colombian president with the “political will” to strive for legal and social justice, the Colombian tragedy will continue.

  4. Rainer Cale Says:

    The thing is that, while Adam’s post captures the general situation as it should be presented to Short Attention Span Theater (the US Congress), it’s interesting to take a closer look at developments on the ground which do not quite fit that picture–not for the sake of convincing congressmembers otherwise, but to better see where things are going.

    Regarding “political will,” for example:
    the serious investigations into DAS, into the Jaramundi scandal, and the ultimatum handed to Mancuso last Friday (and there are probably other examples I’m just not aware of), all seem to me to be critical fissures in the anti-NGO, rightwing agenda which Adam presents in his post as a solid, unanimous force. And for the congressional debate, it should be presented as Adam presents it. But in terms of analyzing where developments are headed, I think the factors I point to will, even in the absence of a UN mandate here, have considerable repercussions for the unfolding Colombian tragedy that will surprise people who expect things to just go on under the present course of tightening rightwing/commercial control, detrioration of political will, and so on.

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