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Lisa Haugaard

Lisa Haugaard

Posted: August 10, 2010 12:02 PM

Nearly three thousand civilians intentionally killed by army soldiers seeking to beef up their body counts and score days off. A massive illegal wiretapping operation targeting Supreme Court judges, journalists, opposition politicians and human rights defenders. Seven human rights defenders and leaders of displaced communities killed in one recent month alone, in a nation where threats against defenders are rarely effectively investigated. In which authoritarian country opposed to the United States did these abuses take place? In none other than Colombia, often called "the United States' best ally in the Western Hemisphere." And we, the U.S. taxpayers, bankrolled this friendship to the tune of more than $6 billion.

These brutal tactics are often overshadowed by the praise heaped on Alvaro Uribe, who leaves office on August 7th, for making impressive military gains against Colombia's vicious, decades-old left-wing guerrilla insurgency. As the new Colombian president takes office, the Obama Administration should challenge its Colombian partner to demonstrate that security need not come at the expense of the right to life, as well as precious freedoms of expression and assembly.

The incoming president, former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos, has to answer for his own role in these scandals-yet his track record also shows potential for change. As Uribe's defense minister, Santos presided over a massive increase in "false positives," in which soldiers detained and killed civilians, then dressed them up in guerrilla clothing to inflate their body counts. In response to concerns raised by the United Nations and the United States, Mr. Santos instituted reforms that helped bring down the number of new killings. But this agenda is unfinished. "Estimates of the current rate of impunity for alleged killings by the security forces are as high as 98.5 per cent. Soldiers simply knew that they could get away with murder," the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions declared. Seeking to placate the military high command, Mr. Santos could try to strike a deal that lets homicides by soldiers return to military courts, where they will never be solved. Or, he could stand on the side of justice, and allow these cases to be fairly investigated and prosecuted in civilian courts.

President Santos has a chance to retire Mr. Uribe's worst practices. He could so easily choose not to call the nation's human rights defenders and investigative journalists "terrorists," a label that President Uribe used knowing full well that death threats and worse followed in its wake. He could so easily choose not to bully and threaten the Supreme Court and other judges and prosecutors, recognizing that an independent judiciary is part of a flourishing democracy. He could allow investigations of Colombia's Watergate scandal to go to the top of the chain of command, and protect the freedoms of the nation's human rights defenders, judges and journalists.

Mr. Santos should also address the renewed power of paramilitary or successor armed groups, protecting the citizenry not only from guerrilla groups but from all predatory criminals. He should return land to Colombia's millions of displaced persons-and his new agricultural minister's willingness to begin talking about this offers a small ray of hope. And the new president should set a more open style that allows for dialogue with all sectors of Colombian society.

Our best friends don't just support us right or wrong; they help us become our better selves. If the Obama Administration wants to be a true friend to Colombia, U.S. support-both aid and trade-must be conditioned upon real and lasting human rights improvements. This includes an end to killings of civilians by the army, an end illegal wiretapping, efforts to fully dismantle the nation's illegal armed groups on the right as well as the left, and a commitment to establish a climate in which human rights defenders, union leaders, prosecutors and judges can carry out their important work. Military progress achieved at the expense of basic rights and freedoms offers but a false and transitory sense of security.

Lisa Haugaard is executive director of the Latin America Working Group Education Fund, based in Washington, DC.