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President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Obama,

I am writing to offer some observations about human rights in Colombia in anticipation of your meeting with the President of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, on June 29.

Our organization has closely monitored Colombia's human rights and humanitarian situation for decades.  We have serious concerns about the Uribe administration's record on and commitment to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.  Unfortunately, for years, the Bush administration in the United States offered virtually unconditional support to the Colombian government, turning a blind eye to many disturbing policies and actions by the Uribe administration. 

President Uribe will likely seek a continuation of the Bush policies, including through rapid ratification of the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), and continued high levels of US military aid.  We urge you to hold firm to the position you laid out during the presidential campaign, making clear that-independently of the closeness of the US-Colombia relationship-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.  We also urge you to make clear that the United States will enforce existing human rights conditions on military aid, and that the future of military assistance depends on the Colombian government's, and especially the military's, respect for the rights of civilians.

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.  Below, we offer some background on Colombia's human rights situation, and describe some of the most serious human rights problems we hope you will raise with President Uribe.

Overview of Human Rights in Colombia

Colombia has for decades been embroiled in a brutal internal armed conflict involving left-wing guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN), paramilitary death squads (previously known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC), and the Colombian armed forces.  The guerrillas and paramilitaries are on the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.  The paramilitaries have for years been deeply involved in drug trafficking and it is believed that the guerrillas increasingly profit from drugs as well.  All the armed groups commit abuses against civilians.  As a result, more than 3 million Colombians (out of a population of about 40 million) have been forced to flee their homes.  Colombia has the second-largest population of internally displaced persons in the world after Sudan.  Thousands have been killed, forcibly "disappeared," kidnapped, raped, and tortured.

Typically, the Bush administration justified its virtually unconditional support for Colombia's government by citing drops in certain major indicators of violence in recent years.  The rate of kidnappings, homicides and massacres are, in fact, significantly down compared to the peaks they reached around 2002, which is a positive development. 

In part the change reflects the fact that the Colombian armed forces pushed the FARC out of major cities and away from highways where they were kidnapping civilians and committing other highly visible abuses.

But the numbers also changed because, after a bloody expansion campaign marked by frequent massacres of civilians, drug-running paramilitary mafias (which have historically collaborated closely with senior officers and units of the Colombian military) consolidated their control over large swaths of the country.  Having taken control, paramilitaries have later maintained it primarily through threats and targeted killings.  The paramilitaries also heavily infiltrated the political system, rigging elections and buying or threatening candidates to secure an enormous degree of influence in local, regional, and national governments.  Today, more than 70 members of the Colombian Congress are under criminal investigation or have been convicted for allegedly collaborating with the paramilitaries.  Nearly all these congresspersons are members of President Uribe's coalition in Congress, and the Uribe administration has repeatedly taken steps to undermine the investigations and discredit the Supreme Court justices who have taken the lead in starting them. 

Meanwhile, other indicators of abuse have remained constant or have been trending up.  The rate of alleged executions of civilians by the Army has skyrocketed in recent years.  The FARC has continued using child soldiers and committing killings in more remote areas, and has significantly ramped up its use of antipersonnel landmines.  After dropping for years, killings of trade unionists went up last year.  And the rate of internal displacement is now close to its 2002 peak, with 380,000 persons becoming newly displaced in 2008, according to reliable statistics compiled by CODHES (Consultoría para los derechos humanos y el desplazamiento), the main NGO in Colombia monitoring displacement.

Illegal Surveillance and Attacks on Critics and the Supreme Court

In February 2009 Colombia's leading newsmagazine, Semana, reported that the Colombian intelligence service (the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, known as DAS), which answers directly to President Uribe, has for years been engaging in extensive illegal phone tapping, email interception, and surveillance of critics of the Uribe administration.  President Uribe has denied any involvement in ordering the illegal surveillance, and has suggested that the surveillance targeted members of his administration and the opposition equally.  But initial results from the investigations by the Attorney General's Office show that the illegal interceptions focused almost entirely on major opposition political figures, such as former President César Gaviria and presidential candidate Rafael Pardo, Supreme Court justices investigating the infiltration of paramilitary mafias in the Colombian Congress, independent journalists, trade unions, and human rights NGOs. 

This illegal surveillance is consistent with a broader pattern of verbal attacks and intimidation of critics by President Uribe and senior administration officials.  President Uribe has repeatedly made baseless accusations against critics, often linking legitimate human rights work, journalism, or union activity with the FARC, discrediting and endangering the targets of his attacks. 

For example, in February 2009, Uribe spoke of an "intellectual block of the FARC" that talks about human rights "to make [Colombia's] soldiers and police more timid" and that travels to Europe and the United States expressing opposition to the FTA.  Uribe made this public comment just a week before several distinguished Colombians, including a former judge, were set to travel to the United States to testify before the US Congress about violence against trade unionists-a key issue in the US debate over the FTA.

Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issued reports in October 2008 about the human rights situation in Colombia. After their reports were released, President Uribe accused Amnesty International of "blindness," "fanaticism," and "dogmatism." He also publicly accused José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, of being a "supporter" and an "accomplice" of the FARC.

In recent years Uribe has said trade unionists are "a bunch of criminals dressed up as trade unionists."  He has railed against his country's own Supreme Court, which has spearheaded ground-breaking investigations of paramilitary infiltration in the Colombian government (the "parapolitics" investigations), accusing its members of representing "terrorism."  He has claimed that opposition politicians are "terrorists in business suits."  And he has accused assistant Supreme Court justice Ivan Velásquez, who is in charge of coordinating the "parapolitics" investigations, of trying to frame him for murder by offering illegal or inappropriate benefits to an imprisoned paramilitary to testify against Uribe (an investigation by the Attorney General's office later found that, in fact, Velásquez was the one who the paramilitary and others were framing).  After Velásquez was cleared, last year, Semana magazine revealed that senior Uribe advisors held a meeting in the Presidential Palace with another paramilitary leader to discuss supposed evidence against Velásquez (which also turned out to be false). 

In a country like Colombia, where human rights defenders, trade unionists, journalists and judges have often been killed for their work, accusations of this sort coming from the president can put the person against whom they are directed at risk.  More broadly, such statements create an environment of intimidation that can chill public debate and criticism of the government's policies.  And they raise serious questions about the Uribe administration's respect for democratic pluralism. 

We urge you to convey to President Uribe the United States' grave concern over the illegal surveillance by his intelligence service, as well as his repeated verbal attacks on his critics and those who seek to investigate paramilitary influence in the government.   

Army Killings of Civilians

In recent years there has been a substantial rise in the number of extrajudicial killings of civilians attributed to the Colombian Army.  As documented by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, many human rights organizations, and most recently, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, army members, under pressure to show results, take civilians from their homes or workplaces, kill them, and then dress them up as combatants killed in action to increase their body count.

The alleged executions have been occurring throughout the country and involve multiple army brigades.  The Attorney General's Office is reported to be investigating more than 1,000 such cases involving more than 1,700 victims in recent years.

President Uribe for years publicly denied the problem existed, and accused the human rights groups reporting these killings of helping the guerrillas in a campaign to discredit the military. After a major media scandal in September 2008 over the executions of several young men from Soacha, a low-income neighborhood of Bogotá, Uribe dismissed 27 members of the military, including three generals.  There have been several more dismissals since then.  But President Uribe continues to claim that these are only a few isolated cases, emphasizing that there are only "22 proven cases" and charging that there are hundreds of "false allegations."

Army commander Mario Montoya, who had been the subject of allegations linking him to abuses and paramilitaries, resigned in November 2008 right after the Soacha scandal.  Uribe appointed him as ambassador to the Dominican Republic.  Montoya's replacement and reported protégé, General Oscar Gonzalez Peña, commanded the 4th Brigade of the Army when it had one of the worst records of extrajudicial executions in the country.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions visited Colombia in June.  In preliminary findings, he noted that "[t]he sheer number of cases, their geographic spread, and the diversity of military units implicated, indicate that these killings were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military."  He pointed out that the Colombian military justice system contributes to the problem by obstructing the transfer of human rights cases to the ordinary justice system.  His final report will address these and other issues, including possible incentives to members of the military that contribute to the killings. 

The executions, which the Special Rapporteur described as "cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit," stand out as one of the most serious abusive practices by state agents we have documented in Latin America in recent years. The frequency of the executions and the failure of President Uribe to acknowledge the gravity and scope of the problem, or to institute adequate measures to prevent it, should raise questions about the purposes for which US military aid is being used, and the effectiveness of continued aid.  We urge you to express this concern to President Uribe, and to press him to take immediate, meaningful steps to put a stop to this practice.

Ongoing Anti-union Violence and Impunity

Colombia has the highest rate of killings of trade unionists in the world. More than 2,700 unionists are reported to have been killed since 1986, according to data collected by the National Labor School (Escuela Nacional Sindical or ENS), Colombia's most prominent labor rights organization.  After hitting a peak in the 1990s, the rate of killings dropped for several years, but it has recently risen again, to 49 killings in 2008, from 39 in 2007, according to ENS numbers (the Colombian government's statistics are consistently lower overall, as they exclude members of teachers' unions).   The killings have continued this year: the ENS had registered 20 killings of trade unionists in 2009 as of mid-June.

Impunity for the killings is the norm.  As of March 2009, Colombia's attorney general reported that since 2000, there had been 184 convictions for anti-union violence.  This number reflects a large increase in convictions starting in 2007, when it became clear that the impunity in these cases was an obstacle to ratification of the FTA, and the Attorney General's office established a specialized group of prosecutors to reopen many of the uninvestigated cases.  But 96 per cent of the killings remain unsolved.  Even at the current rate of convictions, it would take 37 years for prosecutors to get through the backlog.  

More broadly, as Human Rights Watch explained in detail in testimony before the US Congress earlier this year, there are good reasons to doubt the seriousness of the commitment to reduce impunity over the long term.[1]  For example, the specialized prosecutors are only investigating a small subset of the total cases, and do not have a clear plan to review the remaining cases.  Also, many of the convictions that have already been obtained involve paramilitaries who are participating in what is known as the Justice and Peace Law process.  Under that process, in exchange for dramatically reduced sentences of five to eight years for all their crimes, supposedly demobilized paramilitaries accept responsibility for various crimes-including union killings.  But they generally don't explain the circumstances surrounding the crimes.  As a result, the convictions do little to clarify the truth about the killings, or to advance accountability.   And once the Justice and Peace process is over, it's likely the conviction rate will drop again.

Some of the killings are attributable to the military, guerrillas, or common crime, but by far the largest share are attributable to paramilitaries, who have typically stigmatized unionists as guerrilla collaborators.   As explained below, paramilitaries' mafias remain active and continue to pose a threat to trade unionists, which remain unable to fully exercise their rights without fear of being threatened or killed.

We urge you to make clear to President Uribe that for the FTA to move forward, Colombia must show a meaningful, concrete, and sustained change in this pattern of violence and impunity.

New Paramilitary Groups

The Uribe administration claims that paramilitary groups have demobilized.  But, as documented in several Human Rights Watch publications, the demobilization process implemented by the Uribe administration was seriously flawed.  In its aftermath, key portions of paramilitary groups remained active and many new groups have appeared, often led by mid-level paramilitary commanders.  The current groups operate in a similar fashion as the old paramilitary groups, engaging in threats, targeted killings and forced displacement of civilians. 

The increased activity and conflict among these groups explains the rise in several indicators of violence in the last couple of years, including the substantial rise in forced displacement nationwide.  For example, after dropping for years, violence in the city of Medellin has shot up, with murders jumping from 771 in 2007 to 1044 in 2008, a 35% increase, largely due to the activities of new groups.  The former head of the Attorney General's office in Medellín, who is also the brother of Uribe's interior minister, has come under investigation for alleged links to these groups.

The strength of the new groups can be directly traced to the failure of the demobilization process, which never addressed the key question of how to identify and prosecute the underlying sources of support of paramilitary groups-their financial backers and collaborators in the military and political system.  On the contrary, when some institutions of justice in Colombia-including, most notably, the Colombian Supreme Court-have attempted to investigate links between politicians and paramilitaries, President Uribe has publicly attacked them.

We urge you to make clear to President Uribe that the United States views these new groups as a serious threat to security, human rights, and democracy in Colombia, which must be confronted just as vigorously as the FARC.  We also urge you to emphasize that the institutions of justice have a fundamental role to play in ensuring the dismantlement of these mafias, and that it is crucial that they be respected.

Thank you very much for your attention to these serious concerns.  We look forward to working with you in shaping an effective and principled US policy towards Colombia.


Kenneth Roth                                                

Executive Director

[1] Testimony of Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, Hearing on Examining Workers' Rights and Violence against Labor Union Leaders in Colombia, United States House of Representatives,
Committee on Education and Labor, February 12, 2009.

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