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(Washington, DC) - President Barack Obama should raise human rights concerns on June 29, 2009, during his first official meeting with President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia, Human Rights Watch said in a letter made public today.

The seven-page letter, signed by Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth and sent to Obama on June 24, offers a detailed overview of Uribe's human rights record and urges Obama to move away from the Bush administration's unconditional support for the Colombian government. In particular, Human Rights Watch urged Obama to make clear that ratification of the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), which is now stalled, and continued high levels of US military aid would depend on the Uribe administration's respect for basic principles of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.

"We urge you to hold firm to the position you laid out during the presidential campaign, ... making clear that your administration's support for the FTA will turn on whether Colombia's workers can exercise their rights free from the fear that they will be killed," Roth said in the letter. "We also urge you to make clear that the United States will enforce existing human rights conditions on military aid."

The letter highlights several serious human rights problems and threats to democracy in Colombia, including:

  • Recent scandals over widespread illegal surveillance and wiretapping by the national intelligence service, which answers directly to Uribe. The surveillance focused almost entirely on major opposition political figures, such as former President César Gaviria and Supreme Court justices investigating the infiltration of paramilitary mafias in the Colombian Congress, as well as on journalists, trade unions, and human rights organizations.
  • The repeated verbal attacks and intimidation of critics by Uribe and senior administration officials, who often try to link legitimate human rights work, journalism, or union activity with the brutal left-wing guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
  • The frequent extrajudicial killings of civilians attributed to the Colombian Army, which the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions recently described as "systematic." The Attorney General's Office is reported to be investigating cases involving more than 1,700 alleged victims in recent years. Uribe refuses to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem.
  • Ongoing anti-union violence, with the offenders rarely brought to justice. Colombia has the highest rate of killings of trade union members and leaders in the world. More than 2,700 are reported to have been killed since 1986, according to data collected by the National Labor School (Escuela Nacional Sindical or ENS). The ENS recorded 49 such killings in 2008, up from 39 in 2007. It recorded 20 of these killings this year as of mid-June. Ninety-six percent of the killings remain unsolved.
  • The increased activity of new armed groups linked to paramilitaries, despite their supposed demobilization. The new groups operate in a similar fashion as the old paramilitaries, engaging in threats, targeted killings, and forced displacement of civilians.

Partly as a result, there has been a recent rise in certain abuses, including forced displacement. Last year, more than 380,000 persons were internally displaced. Violence in the city of Medellin has also shot up, largely due to the activities of new groups.

The letter emphasized that institutions of justice have a fundamental role to play in investigating and dismantling paramilitary groups. As Human Rights Watch has documented in past reports, Uribe has repeatedly taken steps that could undermine investigations of paramilitary influence in the political system.

"We hope that you will also take the opportunity to express to President Uribe the importance of acting in accordance with basic democratic and human rights principles, including respect for the separation of powers and for the role of civil society," Roth said in the letter.

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