It sounds like an inappropriate joke, but it’s not. Colombia’s government wants to silence â€“ not strengthen, but weaken â€“ 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 Colombiaâ€™s human-rights community, allowed it to have a presence. The officeâ€™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 countryâ€™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 Commissionerâ€™s office in Colombia. If that happens, it will mean the loss of a badly needed independent, impartial and credible source of information on Colombiaâ€™s human rights situation. It will also mean the disappearance of a key â€œrefereeâ€ offering an expert critique, based on Colombiaâ€™s international human rights commitments, of the Colombian governmentâ€™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 â€“ reporting on rights violations, noting that these violations are rarely punished, critiquing policies and laws â€“ the officeâ€™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 officeâ€™s annual reports on the human-rights situation. While they have rarely disputed the reportsâ€™ 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 Commissionerâ€™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 â€“ 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 Ãlvaro Uribeâ€™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 â€œpreconceivedâ€ ideas when producing reports, and prefers scolding, or â€œseÃ±alamiento,â€ to advice or constructive criticism.
Santos even accused the UN office of issuing â€œvalue judgmentsâ€ about candidate Uribe during the 2002 election campaign, â€œportraying him as a leader of the extreme terrorist right wing.â€ 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 FrÃ¼hling, 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 Colombiaâ€™s policies and performance in line with international human rights standards. FrÃ¼hling considered this to be central to the officeâ€™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 Uribeâ€™s security initiatives and actions, such as the declaration of a â€œstate of internal commotion,â€ 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 â€“ not expansionist â€“ interpretation of international human rights law.
One of the touchiest subjects has been that of impunity for abusers, and the UN officeâ€™s allegations that Colombiaâ€™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 â€œinstitutional weakness,â€ 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 â€œpolitical willâ€ question has been outdone by the Uribe governmentâ€™s anger at the UN officeâ€™s critique of the paramilitary demobilization process. FrÃ¼hling and the High Commissioner have made clear on several occasions that the â€œJustice and Peaceâ€ law â€“ the legal framework for dealing with former illegal combatants â€“ does not meet international human rights standards.
This critique led Vice President Santos to charge in his Geneva speech that the UN and other criticsâ€™ 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 lawâ€™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 communityâ€™s expectations in the text of a law, who will take responsibility to this worsening of violence?
This argument echoes paramilitary leadersâ€™ 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 UNâ€™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 doesnâ€™t disguise the fact that the â€œJustice and Peaceâ€ law is indeed a â€œthird-worldâ€ 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 â€“ rather than a bare legislative minimum â€“ in favor of a law protecting the rights of one powerless minority in particular: the armed groups’ many victims. The current law abridges victimsâ€™ 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 â€œwe 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.â€
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 officeâ€™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 officeâ€™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.