10/29/2010 06:14 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Colombia, U.S. Leaders Talk Cooperation While Community Leaders Continue to Die

Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and an unprecedented host of high-level U.S. officials visited Colombia on October 24 and 25. One positive outcome was the establishment of a "human rights and good governance working group" between the U.S. and Colombian governments.

The Deputy Secretary praised President Santos for accomplishing "an astounding amount in an ambitious and wide-ranging agenda that builds on the successes of President Álvaro Uribe and prior administrations."

Take a deep breath, Deputy Steinberg. If all is going so well in Colombia, why are so many community leaders still dying?

It's true there's a welcome change of tone with the new government of Juan Manuel Santos, defense minister under previous president Alvaro Uribe. The government speaks respectfully with human rights and union leaders -- rather than calling them terrorists and putting their lives at risk. Vice President Angelino Garzón's recent denunciation of a death threat to community and rights groups was on target. And the introduction of bills to return land to displaced persons and provide restitution to victims, including at least some victims of government abuses, marks a departure from the long, hard years of Uribe's reign.

But the changes needed are far more than tone.

Attacks and threats against human rights and community leaders in Colombia continue full blast since the president's August 7th inauguration, as detailed in a report by a Colombian human rights coalition. Paramilitary and new armed groups retain control over territory. Colombian armed forces collaborate with these illegal groups in many areas--and continue to commit abuses. Soldiers threaten relatives and lawyers of victims of extrajudicial killings by the army. Government authorities still all too often fail to prosecute rights violations and protect individuals and communities at risk.

Norma Irene Pérez, La Unión human rights committee president, was found dead August 13th, three weeks after she helped organize a public hearing about graves filled with hundreds of unidentified bodies next door to an army base in La Macarena. Then-President Uribe had publicly denounced the organizers.

Displaced leader Hernando Pérez was assassinated September 19th, the same day he attended a ceremony in which the government returned land to 34 families. He asked for protection after receiving threats, but government authorities termed his risk level "ordinary" and denied him protection. He is one of at least 46 murdered leaders who had been working for return of land in the last three years. Four have been assassinated since Santos's inauguration.

Indigenous leader Rodolfo Maya Aricape was murdered October 14th. He had denounced threats against him but had not received government protection. María Elena Galindez and Ramiro Inampués had been preparing to negotiate with the government over indigenous land rights. On September 28th, they too were found dead. According to the National Indigenous Organization (ONIC), 70 indigenous persons have been assassinated this year.

National Association of Black, Indigenous and Campesino Women members were warned August 12th to flee or "you will be cut into pieces and there will not even be mass graves for you."

Meanwhile, Colombia is keeping up its reputation as the most dangerous country in the world for unionists. Six union leaders have been murdered and 24 have received death threats since Santos's inauguration, with 36 unionists killed this year through August, according to the National Labor School.

Pedro Elías Ballesteros Rojas, Judicial Branch Workers Association member and judge in Villa del Rosario, was gunned down September 4th inside his house. "He was an upstanding person, as a son, brother, neighbor and citizen," said his sister.

Those seeking to protect human rights still can receive punishment rather than praise from the government. Colombia's Attorney General on September 1st dismissed Angela Maria Buitrago, known as the "iron prosecutor" for her forthright prosecutions including the landmark Palace of Justice disappearance case. David Ravelo Crespo from Barrancabermeja was detained September 14th, one of many Colombian human rights leaders being prosecuted on what appear to be trumped-up charges.

President Santos must address these problems at the root. Virtually none of thousands of death threats against defenders have ever been successfully investigated. Those who threaten and kill defenders must be brought to justice.

2010 has seen steps backwards in achieving justice for killings of civilians by the army. The transfer of cases from military to civilian courts has slowed to a trickle, and in civilian courts, there were far fewer convictions. If the Santos Administration really wants to make good on its words, all suspected cases of murder by the armed forces must be transferred to civilian courts and vigorously tried.

The victims and land bills are positive developments. But they face a rocky road ahead in a legislature with members tied to paramilitaries who benefited from displacement. Both bills must be consulted with victims. The land bill so far does not ensure return of Afro-Colombian and indigenous collective lands. And if a land bill ever becomes law, the government still has to protect the people whose land is returned. Right now they are dying by the score.

Deputy Steinberg's speech praised Colombia for over the past decade "shaping itself into a model of democratic development." Yet State Department officials see the same reports we do of more than 3,000 civilians killed by the U.S.-funded Colombian armed forces to jack up body counts. They know that the DAS intelligence agency illegally spied on Supreme Court justices, human rights groups, unions, opposition politicians and journalists in a scandal far worse than Watergate. They know that every day, defenders in Colombia are under attack and communities are displaced.

If Colombia is ever to be "a model of democratic development," its leaders need to make tough institutional changes to strengthen the rule of law. The human rights and governance working group may be a good step. But another way the United States government could help is by speaking about human rights honestly.