Recent statements by a close adviser to Colombian President Álvaro Uribe contributed to “a climate of political intolerance that fosters violence” shortly before a wave of killings, attacks, and threats against trade unionists and rights activists, a group of 22 international human rights organizations said in a joint letter to Uribe today.
Four Colombian trade unionists – some of whom were reportedly associated with a March 6 demonstration protesting state and paramilitary human rights violations – were killed between March 4 and March 11. Members of human rights organizations have been subject to physical attacks, harassment, office break-ins and thefts of files in the past weeks. More than two dozen organizations and individuals received death threats purporting to come from paramilitary groups in the capital, Bogota.
Shortly before the attacks, presidential adviser José Obdulio Gaviria made a series of statements on national radio linking renowned victims’ representative Ivan Cepeda and other organizers of the March 6 protest to the notoriously abusive guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). On February 11, one day after Gaviria first made the statements, the supposedly demobilized United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group released a statement echoing Gaviria’s allegations.
“Baseless comments such as these are profoundly damaging to Colombian democracy and human rights, and place those against whom they are made in direct danger of violence,” said the NGO coalition in a letter to President Uribe. “These statements stigmatize the legitimate work of thousands of human rights defenders, trade unionists, and victims, and can have a chilling effect on the exercise of rights to freedom of expression and free association.”
The coalition of NGOs called on President Uribe to:
- Publicly disavow statements by Gaviria and others that linked the protest organizers to guerillas;
- Reject the recent wave of attacks and reaffirm his government’s support for the protection of the legitimate work of trade unionists and other human rights defenders; and
- Ensure a prompt and impartial investigation into each of the recent attacks, hold those responsible to account, and take decisive action to dismantle paramilitary groups and break their links to state officials.
The letter, a copy of which was also sent to the US government, pointed out that “this string of threats and attacks calls directly into question the effectiveness of the paramilitary demobilization process.”
The violence comes as the Bush administration is aggressively pressing the US Congress to ratify a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia. “In the debate over the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, President Uribe has repeatedly claimed that he is protecting workers’ rights,” said the NGOs. “But the fact that President Uribe has allowed his presidential adviser to continue his harassment, even while trade unionists and rights defenders are being killed and threatened, suggests a real disconnect between Uribe’s discourse and his actions.”
The letter was signed by Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA, Refugees International, Lutheran World Relief, Washington Office on Latin America, Jesuit Conference, Latin America Working Group, Center for International Policy, US Office on Colombia, Mercy Corps, United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), Friends Committee on National Legislation, Witness for Peace, Mennonite Central Committee, Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, AFRODES USA, Conference of Major Superiors of Men, Colombia Human Rights Committee, Washington DC, Church of the Brethren Witness/Washington Office.