European countries must do more to support Colombian human rights groups and civil society, which are increasingly under siege, Human Rights Watch said. European Union representatives are gathering in Colombia's capital, Santafé de Bogotá, to announce aid to Colombia.
Human rights and humanitarian aid have been the centerpiece of Europe's policy toward Colombia, a sharp contrast to the overwhelmingly military approach of the United States, Human Rights Watch said. On August 22, 2000, U.S. President Bill Clinton announced he would waive important human rights conditions in U.S. aid to Colombia on "national security" grounds, a decision Human Rights Watch strongly criticized.
"The human rights situation in Colombia is deteriorating," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "Washington rejected a key opportunity to do what was right. Now Europe must step in to address this human emergency."
The Colombian government is failing to take needed steps to break the close ties between the military and paramilitary groups and to support vigorous civilian prosecutions of human rights abusers in uniform, Human Rights Watch said. The result is an increased number of attacks against human rights defenders and others in Colombia.
So far this year, four human rights defenders have been killed in Colombia and three have been forcibly disappeared. Many defenders have had to abandon their work or leave the country to protect their lives. Threats have been particularly serious in Medellín and Barrancabermeja, cities that have long nurtured vibrant human rights alliances. Many threats appear to be the work of paramilitary groups that continue to operate with the apparent tolerance and at times open support of the Colombian Armed Forces.
Civilian groups also face attack from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), which recently characterized them as "paid killers [for the Colombian military]." In a statement on why guerrillas failed to honor an invitation to an October peace meeting in San José, Costa Rica, sponsored by a broad-based coalition of human rights, peace, and community groups, the FARC dismissed the effort as organized by "the enemies of Colombia and its people."
"The suggestion that human rights and peace initiatives convert individuals into 'enemies' and legitimate targets in this war is absurd and reprehensible and must be condemned," said Vivanco. "Unfortunately, treating civilians as enemies is part of a logic embraced by all sides, leading to thousands of avoidable civilian casualties."
Government efforts to protect threatened defenders continue to be slow, insufficient, and often irrelevant, Vivanco noted. Even as government offices provide bullet-proof glass to threatened offices and distribute bullet-proof vests, defenders continue to be murdered by experienced killers. Meanwhile, the FARC targets individuals who criticize its violations of international humanitarian law, which include the killing of civilians, hostage-taking, the use of indiscriminate weapons, and the recruitment of children.
Most cases involving the murder of human rights defenders remain either in investigation or with only the material authors of the crimes identified or under arrest. Among these cases are the 1996 killing of Josué Giraldo Cardona; the 1997 killings of Mario Calderón, Elsa Alvarado, and Carlos Alvarado; the 1998 killings of Jesús Valle Jaramillo and Eduardo Umaña Mendoza; and the 1999 killing of Julio González and Everardo de Jesús Puerta. In all cases, the people who planned and paid for the killings remain at large.
This year alone, the following human rights defenders have been killed:
· Demetrio Playonero, a displaced person and human rights leader, was murdered, presumably by paramilitaries, on March 31. After shooting him in the head in front of his wife at his farm outside Yondó, Antioquia, the gunmen breakfasted, then stole the farm's cattle;
· Government prosecutor Margarita María Pulgarín Trujillo, part of a team developing cases linking paramilitaries to the army and regional drug traffickers, was murdered in Medellín on April 3, apparently because of her work. Several of her colleagues had already fled Colombia because of death threats from a gang of hired killers known as "La Terraza," a close ally of Carlos Castaño.
· On May 3, Jesús Ramiro Zapata, the only remaining member of the Segovia Human Rights Committee, was killed near Segovia, Antioquia;
· On July 11, Elizabeth Cañas -- whose son and brother had been seized by paramilitaries in 1998 and have yet to be found -- was shot and killed in Barrancabermeja. Cañas was a member of the Association of Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared (Asociación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos -Colombia, ASFADDES);
In addition, indigenous activist Jairo Bedoya Hoyos was forcibly disappeared on March 2 and remains unaccounted for. Most recently, Angel Quintero and Claudia Patricia Monsalve, members of ASFADDES, were forcibly disappeared on October 6 and remain missing.