Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2 No. 8 (Fall 2002): Public Security and Human Rights: Articles: "Firm Hand, Large Heart"

Dec 31, 2002

This year has been a difficult one for activists working to improve U.S. policy toward Colombia. My organization, the Washington-based Center for International Policy, has seen its advocacy of nonmilitary alternatives lose ground in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The Bush administration has made counterterrorism a paramount goal in Colombia, increasing assistance to Colombia’s troubled security forces to complement its failing drug war.

Our Colombian colleagues and counterparts, however, face much greater challenges. Following the February collapse of peace talks between the Bogotá government and the country’s largest guerrilla group, Colombia’s decades-old conflict––which kills more than four thousand people a year––has degraded further. Fighting is intensifying among two leftist insurgencies founded in the mid-1960s—the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN)—a growing network of rightist anti-guerrilla paramilitaries known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, and government forces. The paramilitaries, which are responsible for about 80 percent of noncombatant killings, continue to benefit from local-level military support and collaboration.

Though it is the site of the hemisphere’s bloodiest conflict, Colombia also hosts one of the most sophisticated communities of human rights defenders. Their work entails publicly denouncing abuses, monitoring and reporting on national and local human rights situations, issuing early warnings and urgent actions, offering legal assistance to victims and whistle-blowers, initiating cases against abusers, supporting official investigations, and working with UN and Organization of American States human rights institutions.

In a country where more than 95 percent of crimes go unpunished and the powerful go to great lengths to protect their impunity, this is challenging and often dangerous work. A human rights defender is assassinated about once every month. Dozens of the country’s most effective activists and experts have been forced into exile in recent years. Threats and targeted violence have forced out human rights workers from some of the country’s most brutal conflict zones, making them virtual black holes of information about abuses.

The political climate in Colombia has compounded these difficulties. Government attempts to negotiate with both the FARC and the ELN ended bitterly this year. As the guerrillas, apparently unconcerned with their public image, increased their actions against the civilian population, mainstream Colombia became increasingly angry and frustrated. A majority of Colombians came to embrace a harder line, supporting a greater military role and reductions in civil liberties to restore law and order. Many came to view human rights groups––with their attempts to punish military excesses, their opposition to militaristic solutions, and their constant appeals to constitutionality and international law––to be a nuisance, or even a support to the guerrillas.

The main beneficiary of this new public mood is Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the overwhelming winner of the presidential elections in May. Uribe, a former governor of the populous Antioquia province, had been relegated to the country’s right-wing political fringe as recently as 2000. At that time, he was remembered as a sponsor of a disastrous attempt to organize legal civilian vigilance groups in Antioquia (which ended up committing dozens of abuses) and was viewed mainly as a ferocious critic of government attempts to negotiate with the insurgents. By 2002, however, Uribe––with the campaign slogan of “firm hand, large heart” and promising a frontal assault on armed groups––was able to win the presidency easily.

Upon assuming power in early August, Uribe energetically launched several security initiatives that—while popular with Colombia’s polarized and war-weary population––have alarmed the country’s human rights community. The new president inaugurated what he hopes will be a network of a million civilian informants, some of them possibly armed, passing information about potentially subversive activity to the military in exchange for small payments. Uribe declared a “state of internal commotion,” the closest thing to a state of emergency allowable under Colombia’s 1991 constitution, under which he has decreed eased rules for wiretapping, “preventive” detentions, searches of homes, restrictions on travel, and some censorship of news reporting. The interior and justice minister, Fernando Londoño, has expressed a desire to revive the “state of siege,” a mechanism outlawed by the 1991 constitution, which would allow the armed forces to interrogate civilians and try them in military courts. In special “rehabilitation zones” incorporating several municipalities each, powers to search and arrest without a warrant are even greater, citizens’ movements are monitored and restricted, and the military has some judicial police powers. A proposal to create a force of “peasant soldiers” would train and equip at least 10,000 recruits to supplement police in rural areas; when off duty, these individuals (and possibly their weapons) would return to their homes.

Opposition to these measures has become a central aspect of several human rights groups’ work. Citing a lack of transparency in their implementation and the weakness of the judicial system and other nonmilitary institutions, critics expect several of Uribe’s strategies to lead directly to a dramatic increase in abuses with impunity. Colombia’s human rights defenders worry that, as has happened in the past, peaceful dissenters––not the guerrillas and paramilitaries––will end up being the main targets. The Colombian Commission of Jurists points out that arrests without warrants cannot be aimed at the guerrillas, whose leaders already have arrest warrants outstanding: they are “directed above all against the civilian population, hence the obsession with arresting them without a judicial order.” The armed groups, the commission notes, “must be dying of laughter” in the face of Uribe’s security measures. The network of informants and the “citizen soldiers,” many argue, will blur the line between combatants and civilians in a way that plainly violates Colombia’s international human rights commitments.

With renewed negotiations far-off and guerrilla outrages multiplying, mainstream Colombian opinion sees no short-term alternatives to the Uribe government’s policies. As of this writing (November 2002), support for the new president and the Colombian military is remarkably high, nearing a 70 percent favorable rating in opinion polls. Meanwhile, esteem for human rights groups is low. Hampered by factional divisions and lacking proposals to end the violence, Colombian human rights groups are facing their most difficult period in years.

So far, several groups have been quick to react to Uribe’s policies. “Uribe will bring us back to the dark ages, to a true dirty war,” a leading Colombian rights activist told me recently. “Of course we have to respond.” With each new official decree, the Colombian Commission of Jurists has issued a statement explaining why, in its view, the measure in question is a bad idea. Groups such as the Association for Alternative Social Advancement and Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement are making an effort to monitor excesses in implementation of the state of emergency and “rehabilitation zone” decrees. Many groups are engaging the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ field office in Bogotá, which has offered several cogent reflections and analyses—in letters, press conferences, and a section of its Web site—critiquing the new government’s initiatives from the perspective of international human rights and humanitarian law.

Beyond these actions, the country’s human rights community has not shown any evidence, so far at least, that a major change in strategy is underway. It is hard to say, however, that human rights groups are missing opportunities for more effective action, since few opportunities are presenting themselves. The chief obstacle most groups face is their surprisingly low standing in mainstream public opinion. A long-standing perception that human rights NGOs are “soft on the guerrillas”—or at least using human rights advocacy to advance a far-left political agenda––has fed public mistrust and damaged groups’ credibility. This is highly debilitating. Popular distrust and disdain limit groups’ ability to mobilize support, block their access to the media, and reduce political space available for their activities. While an unpopular human rights group can still be very effective, a distrusted human rights group can hope to accomplish little.

The current political climate, along with the guerrillas’ increased attacks on poor civilian populations, has kindled greater debate on the need to address guerrilla violations, and on how to influence unaccountable groups that routinely ignore political pressure. While human rights groups may see the government’s actions as the chief underlying cause of the violence, they must denounce abuses against the establishment in order to avoid the appearance of being less partial, and without alienating their base on the political left. But unpopular and under threat, human rights groups have been unable to reach out to new constituencies, forge new alliances, or mobilize public opinion in a high-profile way. This is unfortunate, since by casting doubts and selling alternatives, the human rights community could serve as one of the only counterweights to the popular new president and his security agenda.

Colombian human rights groups need to develop “road maps” to a way out of the present violence. With the peace process extinguished, human rights groups lack proposals for guaranteeing the population’s security in the short term. While they condemn the Uribe government’s proposals and the U.S.–funded Plan Colombia as dangerous and overly militaristic, they offer nothing in their place for Colombians who are deeply afraid for their safety. Calls for renewed peace talks, broad-based social justice reforms, and free exercise of rights are important, but the promise of a state of siege may do more to assuage the fears of the average Colombian.

As this article is being written, the Uribe government is only three months old. It is too early to tell whether the new hard line in Bogotá will force a major shift in human rights groups’ strategies, or whether the Uribe administration will amount to only another swing in the pendulum, a bump in NGOs’ already difficult road. The Bush administration’s worldwide campaign against terrorism, however, may foster a climate in which the Uribe model of security thrives for some time.

A Firsthand Account Jorge Rojas Responds

As Adam Isacson explained, the situation in Colombia today places human rights activists in a very tough spot. The current hard-line policies that are rolling back civil liberties and other fundamental rights are supported by the public, which joins military officials and politicians in accusing us of being on the wrong side of the struggle. Particularly humiliating was a recent comment by the Portuguese ambassador, who called NGOs the “political wing” of the guerilla movement.

The Uribe government has taken concrete action to limit the work of human rights activists. The new president has insisted that human rights groups align themselves with his policy of “Democratic Security.” This policy has been used to justify illegitimate investigatory practices and the prosecution of activists and civilians. Uribe has put a bill before congress that, if passed, will set up a system to monitor, control, and restrict the autonomy of NGOs. The government has also obstructed international organizations that support the work of Colombian NGOs; for example, the government recently deported visiting representatives of international organizations on the grounds that they were “participating in public demonstrations.” To further restrict international NGOs, the government has increased the bureaucratic procedures and requirements needed to obtain visas.

Colombian human rights groups do not always agree on how to cope with this new situation, but we do agree on one fundamental strategy: in order to achieve security in Colombia, we must continue to focus on the implementation of human rights. We need to continue to pressure the government to recognize and ratify international laws, push for an end to the government’s military intervention, and demand a structural solution to the problem of illegal land use that will provide crop development alternatives to lucrative coca production. And, because the legitimacy of our work depends on public opinion, we must also inform people about their rights. We must make the public understand that failing to implement human rights will only lead to more insecurity.

Ultimately, security can only come from reconciliation, and the government has failed thus far in meeting its responsibility. The international community, and especially domestic institutions such as the Colombian Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, must play a more active role in discussions involving the government and civil society organizations in Colombia. And the international community needs to get serious about making changes to the international institutions that perpetuate inequality and poverty, which are the root causes of Colombia’s security problem.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Ludmila Palazzo and Marina Oyuela.

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