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Congressional Testimony on Democracy, Human Rights, and US Policy towards Colombia

US House of Representatives, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere

I am honored to appear before you today. Thank you for your invitation to address the human rights situation in Colombia and discuss U.S. policy towards that country.

Mr. Chairman, members of the Committee:

I am honored to appear before you today. Thank you for your invitation to address the human rights situation in Colombia and discuss U.S. policy towards that country.

Our Americas Director, Jose Miguel Vivanco, would have liked to be here. However, he had previously committed to participate, alongside Vaclav Havel and former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos, in a meeting on Cuba being held in Germany this week and he could not cancel. He asked me to convey his appreciation for your invitation to speak.

The United States is the single most influential international actor in Colombia. It provides by far the largest amount of international assistance to that country. As a result, the positions that the United States government takes on Colombia can shape the policies of the Colombian government to a significant extent.

Used wisely, this influence can be very positive. By supporting the right actors and policies, the United States can help Colombia strengthen the rule of law and democracy, and protect human rights, making Colombia a safer, more prosperous country over the long term. The Colombian people desperately need friends in their struggle to reach these goals, and we believe the United States can be such a friend.

Colombia’s Human Rights Crisis

Today, Colombia presents the worst human rights and humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere. For four decades, ordinary Colombians have borne the brunt of a brutal conflict involving leftwing guerrillas, rightwing paramilitary groups, and the Colombian military. Trade unionists, human rights defenders, journalists, and other vulnerable groups continue to be targeted by armed groups for their legitimate work. Thousands of child combatants fight in the ranks of guerrillas and paramilitary groups. At over 2 million, Colombia’s population of internally displaced persons is larger than Iraq’s. Extrajudicial executions of civilians by the Colombian military are on the rise.

Colombia is currently the murder capital of the world for trade unionists. Those who are not killed are often threatened, attacked or kidnapped. The government says 58 unionists were murdered in Colombia in 2006, up from 40 the year before. Labor rights groups report even higher totals: 72 killed in 2006 up from 70 the year before. These killings are not random casualties of Colombia’s conflict, as the Colombian government claims. Trade unionists are especially targeted when exercising their rights to organize and bargain collectively. Often, their killers have been paramilitaries.

The overwhelming majority of human rights abuses in Colombia are never fully investigated, prosecuted or punished.

The Paramilitary Problem

Meanwhile, Colombian democracy is now facing a grave threat—perhaps the most serious it has ever faced—in the form of drug running paramilitary groups exercising direct influence at some of the highest levels of government.

Colombia’s paramilitary groups got their start over two decades ago, as death squads formed by drug traffickers and wealthy landowners to defend their interests from guerrillas or other competing groups. Over time, paramilitaries became the worst human rights abusers in Colombia, even surpassing the guerrillas in their brutality. Throughout the 1990s, paramilitaries took over large areas of Colombia not just by combating guerrillas, but by massacring defenseless civilians, killing anyone who opposed their rule, displacing peasants and taking their land, killing or bribing public officials, rigging elections in favor of their favorite candidates, and generally spreading terror throughout the country.

Paramilitaries were aided by important segments of the Colombian military that tolerated and, in some cases, openly collaborated with paramilitaries. For years, Human Rights Watch has documented and reported on the links between paramilitary groups and Colombian military units throughout the country.

More recently, it has become increasingly clear that paramilitaries’ power has spread far beyond the military. Paramilitary commanders have claimed publicly that they control 35% of the Colombian Congress. That claim is consistent with the findings of academic studies of voting patterns in the 2002 and 2006 elections as well as the evidence that is now turning up in investigations by the Colombian Supreme Court and Attorney General’s office.

Since October of last year, the Supreme Court has ordered the arrest of nine congresspersons from President Uribe’s coalition for their alleged paramilitary ties. One of the congressmen under arrest is the brother of former Foreign Minister Maria Consuelo Araujo, who was forced to resign as a result of the scandal. Their father is also under investigation for his alleged role in the kidnapping of an opposing politician and is today a fugitive, evading an international arrest warrant. Nearly 20 other current and former congressmen are under investigation on similar charges, as are numerous state and local officials.

President Uribe’s close friend and former intelligence chief from 2002-2005, Jorge Noguera, has also come under prosecution for allegedly providing paramilitaries with names of trade unionists who were later killed.

The Uribe administration’s response to the allegations has been a mixture of defensiveness and spin. When Colombia’s leading newsmagazine and other media first published the allegations, President Uribe’s response was to attack the publications, calling them malicious and dishonest, and accusing them of harming democracy. As the scandals mounted, the Colombian government later changed its public position on the issue, and has tried to spin the revelations as the result of its own paramilitary demobilization process.

But this spin has no basis in fact. None of these revelations emerged from President Uribe’s paramilitary demobilization program; all resulted from independent judicial and press investigations which are not based on information provided by demobilized paramilitaries.

The Demobilization Process

The paramilitary demobilization process is not the great success that the Colombian government makes it out to be. It is more image than substance, more about making concessions to paramilitary commanders, than ensuring that paramilitaries’ criminal networks disappear.

The Colombian government today claims that it has achieved the demobilization of over 30,000 paramilitaries, and that paramilitaries no longer exist. The State Department has uncritically repeated these claims. I would strongly caution members of the Committee not to do so.

It is true that over 30,000 individuals went through demobilization ceremonies in which they pledged not to resume paramilitary activities. But it is far from clear who these individuals were. Some may not have been paramilitaries at all, but young men who were paid to play the role for the purpose of the ceremony. The vast majority has not been required to confess or turn over illegal assets, and they have never been interrogated in any depth. I have personally interviewed many demobilized paramilitaries who had a great deal of information about the group’s drug labs, coca crops, and organizational structure, and admitted having participated in massacres and other abuses. But the government had never asked for this information. Since then, the Colombian government has lost track of several thousand of these supposedly demobilized troops: it has no idea where they are or what they are doing.

Meanwhile, both the Organization of American States and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia have reported that mid-level paramilitary commanders continue to engage in criminal activity and recruitment of new troops. In recent weeks we have received numerous credible reports about the activity of paramilitary groups in the Nariño region. These groups are reportedly fighting guerrillas over control of drug corridors and displacing thousands of defenseless civilians in the process.

Paramilitaries continue to threaten and kill civilians, including human rights defenders and others who are willing to bear witness to their crimes. Mrs. Yolanda Izquierdo, for example, a mother of five who led a group of 700 paramilitary victims who were demanding the return of land paramilitaries stole from them, requested government protection after receiving repeated threats on her life. The protection was never provided. In February, 2007, she was shot to death in front of her house.

Paramilitaries have yet to turn over more than a small fraction of their wealth. Their leaders are among Colombia’s biggest drug kingpins, but the government has yet to take forceful steps to trace their illegally acquired assets.

The Colombian government claims that 54 of the paramilitaries’ main leaders are in prisons awaiting trial. Yet according to recent news reports, only 17 of those 54 are actually paramilitary leaders, while the rest are the leaders’ bodyguards. The Ministry of Interior has also confirmed that these commanders have unrestricted access to cell phones and internet, through which they can continue communicating with their mafias. Under the Colombian government’s Justice and Peace Law, those commanders will be able to serve very short sentences of, in practice, as little as 3 years for the totality of their crimes, including drug trafficking and human rights abuses.

Many of these commanders are wanted in the United States for drug trafficking. But President Uribe has suspended orders for their extradition. He promised the US Congress that he would reinstate the orders for commanders who stopped participating in the process in good faith. But when evidence turned up last year linking the paramilitary commander known as “Jorge 40” to several hundred assassinations in the last two years, including dozens that reportedly happened after his supposed demobilization, the government said nothing. Jorge 40 remains in Colombia, enjoying the special privileges the government is granting demobilized paramilitary commanders.

It is only thanks to a ruling by the Constitutional Court last year that the demobilization process has even the slightest chance of yielding some progress in investigations and dismantlement of paramilitaries’ mafia-like organizations. Recognizing the severe shortcomings of the demobilization law, the court ruled that demobilizing paramilitaries would be required to confess their crimes, and that prosecutors must have an opportunity to investigate them.

Unfortunately, however, the Justice and Peace Unit of the Attorney General’s office has been forced to operate without the personnel it needs to fulfill this extremely important function. Currently it has only 20 prosecutors assigned to investigate the 2,696 paramilitaries who are seeking reduced sentences under the Justice and Peace Law.

Mr. Chairman, everyone recognizes that there will be some trade-off in Colombia between justice and peace. We can accept, albeit reluctantly, an outcome in which paramilitary leaders who are responsible for the murders of thousands of innocent people and the trafficking of deadly drugs to the United States spend only a few years in prison for their crimes. But if the Colombian government is going to make that enormous concession, it had better ensure that the paramilitary organizations these men command end their crimes and truly cease to exist.

The Colombian government’s current approach is likely to produce a very different outcome: The paramilitary leaders could easily gain permanent legal protection from prosecution and extradition for the crimes they have committed without giving up their assets, their troops, and their way of life. A few years from now, it will be even harder to deal with this threat. The stakes, therefore, are incredibly high for Colombian democracy.

The Colombian government is, today, under significant pressure from paramilitaries and their backers who want the government to continue making concessions to them. Vice President Santos recently said that the government would consider offering the politicians who are under investigation “different” or “alternative” sentences for their crimes. If the Colombian government continues caving into the demands of paramilitaries and their associates, it will do immeasurable long-term damage to its own country, strengthening these mafias.

The Role of the United States

U.S. policy towards Colombia in recent years has consisted of providing support to a government that has shown itself to be unwilling to confront or hold accountable paramilitaries responsible for widespread human rights crimes and illegal drug trafficking. True, the U.S. government has taken some positive steps, such as revoking the visa of Jorge Noguera. And during his recent visit to Colombia, President Bush called for independent judicial investigations of the paramilitary links to politicians. But as a rule, U.S. officials have praised the Colombian government while turning a blind eye to the actions it has taken that undermine both countries’ common interests.

I want to be clear that Human Rights Watch wants the United States to be engaged in Colombia. We have never reflexively opposed Plan Colombia, including its military aid components, so long as such military assistance was tied to human rights conditions. We look forward to the day when the United States can work in partnership with Colombian military and police forces to protect the Colombian people from lawlessness and violence, whether from rebels on the left or paramilitaries on the right.

But U.S. assistance can only be effective if the Colombian government is itself fully dedicated to that task, and free from the influence of forces that seek to divert it.

That’s why we believe that the best way for the United States to help Colombia is by using its leverage to focus the Uribe government on taking concrete and effective actions to meet the paramilitary threat to democracy and the rule of law. Such actions should include, at a minimum:

  • breaking paramilitary commanders’ links to their groups by restricting their communications, including taking away their cell phones;
  • extraditing paramilitary commanders who are wanted in the United States and have continued committing crimes after their demobilization;
  • seizing paramilitaries’ illegal assets;
  • substantially increasing the number of prosecutors charged with investigating paramilitary groups, as well as the resources assigned to them;
  • unequivocally committing itself to full investigation and appropriate punishment of paramilitaries’ collaborators in the political system and military, without exception;
  • establishing an effective victim and witness protection program.
  • inviting the Organization of American States to monitor the upcoming 2007 elections, including pre-electoral activities, threats against candidates, and campaign financing by illegal armed groups.

The United States should make it clear to the Colombian government that what is at stake here is not only US financial assistance, but also ratification of the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. We have nothing against such an agreement in principle. But before rewarding Colombia with the prize it seeks most, the United States should ask it to meet some basic conditions. Given Colombia’s record, it is not unreasonable for the United States to insist that Colombia show verifiable results in investigations of killings of trade unionists, and reduce anti-union violence by truly taking apart paramilitary mafias.

Finally, the United States can help Colombia by increasing its assistance to Colombia’s civilian population, including displaced persons, human rights defenders, and other victims of armed groups. It should also consider substantially increasing its funding for institutions, like the Attorney General’s office, the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court, and the Inspector General’s office, that have shown the will to confront paramilitaries. The people working in these institutions are ordinary prosecutors and judges who, with great courage and few resources, are doing extremely difficult jobs. They deserve far more recognition and support from the United States than they have received to date.

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