The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian award the U.S. government offers, and it aims to recognize those who make “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” President Harry Truman originated it in 1945, John F. Kennedy revived it in 1963, and it began to be given regularly in the 1980s.
When we last saw the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a high-profile setting, it was December 2004 and President Bush was bestowing it on Paul Bremer, Tommy Franks and George Tenet for their role in Iraq. Critics, noting the disastrous state of the Bush administration’s controversial war, charged that the President was politicizing, and thus devaluing, the medal.
On Tuesday, exactly a week before George Bush leaves office, he will make Colombian President Ãlvaro Uribe one of thirteen foreign heads of state or government to have received the medal. Uribe will be joined at the White House by two former prime ministers, Iraq coalition partners Tony Blair of the UK and John Howard of Australia.
Below is a joint statement by several U.S. organizations, including CIP, expressing strong opposition to this award. Ãlvaro Uribe reduced violence in his country by marshaling military resources against leftist guerrillas, and brokering a deal with rightist paramilitaries. But Colombia is still one of the Americas’ most violent countries, and its conflict is nowhere near ending. Organized crime and narcotrafficking remain robust, with drug production virtually unchanged. The security forces’ commitment to human rights is shaky at best. The president’s own attacks on human-rights defenders, journalists, judicial officials and political opponents are very disturbing, and in some cases a direct threat to the checks and balances on which democracy depends. Also disturbing are the allegations that so many of Uribe’s close political supporters have been paramilitary supporters too. Meanwhile Uribe is still considering a third term in office, which would put his democratic credentials deeply into question.
The decision to offer the Medal of Freedom is the President’s alone to make. As Ãlvaro Uribe is honored Tuesday, though, we just wish that a U.S. government would someday offer similar recogntion to Colombia’s thousands of other heroes. The country has no shortage of honest officials, non-governmental watchdogs, social-movement leaders and others who dream of living in a democracy under a strong rule of law. Most face constant opposition and threats from government representatives, organized crime, paramilitaries, and guerrillas too. Sadly, Tuesday’s medal ceremony is not for them.
For Immediate Release
US: Award to Uribe Sends Wrong Message
Colombiaâ€™s Rights Violations Should Bar Its Leader From Award
(Washington, DC, January 12, 2009) â€“ US President George W. Bushâ€™s decision to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to President Ãlvaro Uribe of Colombia is a disturbing example of the Bush administrationâ€™s disregard for serious human rights concerns out of zeal to show unconditional support to governments that it views as strategic allies, seven leadingÂ nongovernmental organizations said today.
The organizations include Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International-USA, Center for International Policy, Human Rights First, Latin America Working Group, Refugees International, and the Washington Office on Latin America.
Bush is giving the award to Uribe at a ceremony in the White House on Tuesday, January 13, 2009.
â€œThe Bush administration has consistently turned a blind eye to Colombiaâ€™s serious human rights violations,â€ said the organizations. â€œIts selection of Uribe to receive this award only further tarnishes the Bush administrationâ€™s own reputation on human rights issues in the region.â€
The groups pointed out that President Uribe has repeatedly taken steps and carried out policies that are damaging to human rights in Colombia.
Under President Uribeâ€™s watch, there has been a dramatic increase in reports of extrajudicial killings of civilians by the Colombian Army. And while Uribeâ€™s government has strongly confronted the abusive left-wing guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Uribe has failed to take a similarly clear stance against equally abusive drug-running paramilitary groups, who have massacred, raped, and forcibly displaced thousands of Colombians in recent decades. Fundamental flaws in a paramilitary demobilization process under Uribe have permitted many of the groups to continue to engage in abuses under new names. The president’s verbal attacks on his countryâ€™s human rights defenders have been frequent and disturbing. And Uribe has often opposed efforts to break paramilitariesâ€™ influence in the political system, including by making unfounded accusations against the Supreme Court justices who are investigating more than 70 members of the Colombian Congress for links to paramilitaries.