As Colombian Vice President Angelino Garzón visits Washington, DC, representing the recently inaugurated government of Juan Manuel Santos, he is saying all the right words. Now Colombia needs to see the deeds.
After eight years of the Uribe Administration's charged rhetoric that put human rights defenders' lives in danger, it's a relief to hear the Colombian government saying publicly that human rights defenders have a legitimate role in society, and that differing opinions must be respected. It is encouraging to hear from Vice President Garzón that the government is committed to building a modern, democratic society and that collaboration of security forces or government officials with criminal groups is shameful. It is positive to see the new administration focus on reparations and land return for victims of violence.
Yet since President Juan Manuel Santos came to office in August 2010, Colombia has witnessed a striking wave of violence against local human rights defenders, union members, LGBT activists, Afro-Colombian and indigenous community leaders, and leaders of displaced communities. At least 8 community leaders defending their rights to return to land from which they have been violently displaced have been killed since the inauguration. For more information see the Latin America Working Group Education Fund's report on this violence, and the human rights challenges facing President Santos.
Behind this violence is the resurgence of paramilitary and criminal gangs, which were never completely dismantled in 2005's partial demobilization. As the brutal paramilitaries did before, these groups target local leaders who seek to defend the rights of their communities. According to Human Rights Watch, massacres escalated in 2010, to the largest number since 2005. Colombia continues to be a world leader in assassinations of trade unionists -- 42 were murdered in 2010 as of mid-December.
The Santos Administration has not yet made significant progress in addressing this or other human rights challenges inherited from the previous administration, in which President Santos served prominently as defense minister. These challenges include:
• dismantling paramilitary and criminal networks that have regrouped and expanded. The previous administration refused to take this matter seriously. The new administration, although it has made a few important captures and begun to employ joint military-police action against the groups, has not yet developed an effective plan to address this critical threat, including by vigorously suspending, investigating and prosecuting security force and government officials suspected of collaborating with criminal networks.
• achieving justice for the more than 3,000 extrajudicial executions of civilians by members of Colombia's security forces during the Uribe Administration. In this horrific, widespread scandal, members of security forces killed civilians outside of combat, dressed them up in guerrilla uniforms, and claimed them as enemy dead. Often, young men were lured with promises of jobs so that they could be killed to rack up body counts. Many cases still have not been transferred from military courts, where they go nowhere, to civilian courts, and cases in the civilian justice sector, even the notorious Soacha cases, are stalled.
• successfully prosecuting those responsible for massive illegal wiretapping of the Supreme Court, civil society and political opposition and replacing the notorious DAS intelligence agency. While serious investigations have begun, they have not yet concluded. Successful prosecutions must include those who ordered the illegal wiretapping, and new safeguards must prevent misuse of intelligence services.
• ending baseless prosecutions against human rights defenders, and instead, ensuring successful investigations of attacks and threats against them. Virtually no effective investigations of threats take place, although many threats turn into violent reality. Vigorous investigation of murders of trade unionists, including material and intellectual authors, while grouping investigations to identify patterns behind the crimes, is key to reducing Colombia's still-astounding level of violence against trade unionists and establishing a climate in which labor rights are fully respected.
This week, Vice President Garzón meets with Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and many members of Congress. Let's hope that our policymakers welcome the better rhetoric, but delay advancing on the pending free trade agreement with Colombia. Instead, they should strategically press for real, sustained improvements in human rights: dismantling illegal armed groups and ending all security force collaboration with them, protecting human rights defenders, union activists, land rights leaders and communities; and bringing the massive illegal wiretapping and the more than 3,000 cases of civilians killed by security forces to justice.
Let's hope they say: We value the better words. Now let's see the action.