Standing up for human rights in Colombia
Date of publication: June 27, 2009
Source: Boston Globe
By Andrew Hudson
PRESIDENT OBAMA and President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia will hold their first official meeting next week in Washington. While a pending free trade agreement will probably claim the media attention, Obama has the opportunity to address Uribe’s troubling human rights record directly and make clear that any agreement between the two nations will hinge on a shared commitment to upholding human rights. Will he take this opportunity?
If Obama makes clear that the protection of freedom of expression and other human rights are at the foundation of his administration’s relationship with Colombia, he will break with President George W. Bush’s unfortunate legacy of ignoring human rights concerns while remaining close to the Uribe administration. If he continues with the past administration’s flawed approach, he will not only undermine the ability of the United Sates to promote human rights and the rule of law in Colombia, but also will miss the chance to restore US credibility in Latin America.
Before tackling trade, Obama should ask his Colombian counterpart to take these steps:
Stop undermining freedom of expression and attacking human rights activists. A new scandal in Colombia reveals the precariousness of human rights there. Colombia’s presidential intelligence agency has engaged in illegal wiretaps and surveillance of hundreds of human rights defenders, opposition politicians, and Supreme Court judges.
However, wiretapping is just the tip of the iceberg. A recent investigation by the Colombian attorney general proved what human rights defenders have been saying for years: that instead of protecting them, the intelligence agency has engaged in “intelligence offensives’’ that included sending defenders death threats and initiating malicious criminal investigations against them for bogus links to terrorism. These specious investigations, which result in arbitrary detentions, endanger the lives of Colombian human rights defenders and undermine their work. The agency was also reportedly responsible for sending a bloody doll to human rights lawyer Soraya Gutierrez with a note reading, “You have a pretty daughter. Don’t sacrifice her.’’
End the “cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit.’’ Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, recently used that phrase to describe killings by the Colombian Army. Alston stated that they were “more or less systematic’’ and have not been sufficiently investigated. Obama should stress the importance of ending these killings by Colombian security forces, and of fully investigating and prosecuting those responsible for such crimes.
Delay any trade agreement until labor rights activists are protected. Obama’s support for a free trade agreement should depend on Colombia’s progress in stopping government harassment of trade unionists and in holding perpetrators accountable for killing labor rights activists.
Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world to be a labor organizer. In the presidential debates last year, Obama stated that Colombian “labor leaders have been targeted for assassination on a fairly consistent basis and there have not been prosecutions.’’ He should be as forthright in his meeting with Uribe as he was on the campaign trail. For free trade to benefit workers, their labor leaders must be free to speak out without fear of reprisal.
A free trade agreement would represent a major reward to the Colombian government, and the prospect gives the United States considerable leverage. American pressure is one of the only means to improve the human rights situation in Colombia.
Obama’s engagement on these issues Monday would have tangible results on the ground. He must use this meeting as an opportunity to demonstrate that his administration will put people before profits from trade.
Andrew Hudson is senior associate for Latin America at Human Rights First.