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Colombia: Rice Should Press Uribe on Rights Issues

US Secretary of State’s Trip an Opportunity to Address Impunity, Paramilitary Power

During her visit to Colombia this week, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should press the Colombian government to show substantial results in addressing the serious human rights problems that jeopardize a proposed bilateral trade deal, Human Rights Watch said today.

Rice is expected to be in Colombia on January 24 and 25 to promote a free trade agreement that the Bush administration has signed with Colombia’s government. The leadership of the US House of Representatives has announced that it will delay approval of the deal until Colombia shows concrete and sustained results in addressing impunity for violence against trade unionists and in dismantling the paramilitary death squads responsible for much of the violence.

“Instead of pressing Congress to ignore Colombia’s deplorable record, Secretary Rice should use the trade deal as leverage to press Colombia’s government to effectively confront impunity and break the paramilitaries’ power,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.

Colombia has the worst record of violence against trade unionists in the world, with more than 2,500 killings since 1985 and nearly 3,500 threats against trade unionists since 1991, according to the National Labor School (ENS or Escuela Nacional Sindical), a highly respected labor rights group in Colombia. While the numbers of yearly killings fluctuates, during the administration of President Álvaro Uribe, the ENS has registered more than 400 killings and more than 1,300 threats against trade unionists.

A significant factor contributing to the violence is the Colombian government’s persistent failure to bring the perpetrators to justice and fully dismantle paramilitary mafias that have deliberately targeted trade unionists. Fewer than 3 percent of the killings have ever been solved. Last year, the Colombian Attorney General’s office established a specialized sub-unit to reopen some of these cases. However, it is too early to assess whether the sub-unit will produce substantial results.

Meanwhile, the Uribe administration is embroiled in a growing scandal over links involving high-ranking officials and more than 40 congressmen from Uribe’s coalition with the paramilitaries. Rather than fully support investigations into these links, Uribe has repeatedly lashed out against the judges and journalists who are trying to uncover the extent of the paramilitaries’ influence.

The Colombian government claims that, thanks to a demobilization program it has implemented, paramilitaries no longer exist. However, the Organization of American States (OAS) mission verifying the demobilizations has identified 22 illegal armed groups, in which paramilitaries are actively recruiting new troops and participating in drug trafficking, extortion, selective killings, and the forced displacement of civilians.

In Medellín, one of the cities that Secretary Rice is scheduled to visit, Human Rights Watch has received disturbing reports of continuing paramilitary activity. Recently, an OAS representative who monitors paramilitary demobilization in the city received a serious death threat.

Paramilitary commanders, many of whom are wanted on drug charges in the United States, have yet to fulfill commitments to give up the massive wealth they have amassed through decades of drug trafficking, crime, and forced takings of land. Nor have they disclosed substantial information that would ensure a full dismantlement of their mafia-like structures.

Human Rights Watch pointed out that it does not oppose free trade agreements per se. However, any free trade deal should be premised on respect for fundamental human rights, including the rights of workers. It is impossible for workers to fully exercise their rights if, as in Colombia, they often fear for their lives when doing so.

The bilateral trade deal presents a unique opportunity for the US government to press the Colombian authorities to finally address paramilitary power and impunity for anti-union violence in a serious fashion. Human Rights Watch opposes approval of the trade deal at this time, until Colombia shows concrete, substantial and sustained results in dealing with these problems.

Human Rights Watch noted that by rushing for ratification of the Colombia trade deal and disregarding Colombia’s human rights problems, the Bush administration risks further damaging its credibility in a region that already questions the United States’ commitment to human rights.

“If the Bush administration keeps turning a blind eye to Colombia’s appalling human rights record, it will feed the common perception in Latin America that the United States applies a double standard on rights issues,” said Vivanco.

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