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News ::
10 Sep 2003
Colombian President Uribe's speech to a military audience accusing human rights groups of being terrorist pawns amounted to a veiled endorsement of the assasination of human rights workers.
By Sean Donahue

Speaking to a military audience on Monday, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe crossed a dangerous line when he accused human rights activists of being terrorist sympathizers. Lashing out against a coalition of human rights groups that had issued a report documenting how policies designed to fight leftist guerillas were endangering civilians and undermining civil liberties and human rights, Uribe said ""When the terrorists begin to feel weakened, they immediately send their spokespeople for the human rights (groups)." The coalition Uribe was attacking included the Colombian Commission of Jurists, the Jesuit human rights group CINEP, and CREDHOS, a major human rights group that works closely with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations.

With the Bush administration labeling Colombia a new front in the war on terrorism, some might see Uribe's harsh treatment of his critics as an extension of the Bush doctrine that "You are either with us or you are with the terrorists." But in Colombia, calling someone a "terrorist sympathizer" or a "guerilla sympathizer" is universally understood as a way of sending a message to the officially outlawed right wing paramilitaries that that person is a legitimate target for assassination.

The fact that Uribe chose to use these words in a military setting is particularly telling. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and even the U.S. State Department have documented extensive links between the Colombian military and the paramilitaries. For decades, the paramilitaries have waged a "dirty war," carrying out the gruesome attacks the military doesn't want to bear official responsibility for - massacring villages and assassinating and "disappearing" human rights activists, journalists, union leaders, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, gays, lesbians and bisexuals, priests, nuns, and other alleged "subversives." The paramilitaries themselves are officially labeled a Foreign Terrorist Organizaton by the U.S. State Department, but that hasn't resulted in any real pressure from the U.S. for the Colombian government to end the dirty war. Instead, the U.S. is helping to facilitate Uribe's plan to give paramilitary members amnesty for their crimes and reintegrate them into society - including the government and the military.

Uribe's remarks come as the Bush administration is working with Uribe's government to develop a new plan to increase U.S. support for the Colombian military (which is already the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid,) and as the Senate is prepared to debate sending over $500 billion in military aid to Colombia. But the silence in Washington has been deafening. George Bush, Colin Powell, and key Democratic supporters of the Colombian military like Bob Graham, John Kerry, and Joe Lieberman have failed to criticize Uribe or even distance themselves from his remarks. Why the silence?

Some of the answers appear in the International Monetary Fund's [IMF] recommendations for re-shaping Colombia's economy. The IMF presumes that the best way for a country to improve its economy is to encourage foreign investment. Toward this end, the IMF has said that in order to continue receiving loans, Colombia needs to maintain an "austere buget" (cut social spending,) "restructure" (cut) social security and workers' pensions, and privatize state-owned companies. This provides foreign investors with opportunities to make huge profits buying up and running the businesses the state is selling off. But in a country where over half the population lives on less than two dollars a day, these policies are eliminating the already inadequate economic safety net, and leading to massive public sector layoffs. Coupled with the IMF policies are "free trade" agreements that allow foreign companies to dump cheap sugar, coffee, and grain on the market, driving small farmers out of business. Throughout Colombia, small farmers, teachers, utility workers, oil workers, and others are rising up to oppose these devastating economic policies. But the policies benefit and are backed by the same corporations that make huge campaign contributions to politicians in Colombia and the U.S.

The Colombian government has been able to silence some of the leaders of these social movements by imprisoning them on false charges of aiding the leftist guerillas who are trying to overthrow the government and by suspending union organizers from work and requiring them to receive "counseling" to make them more docile. The paramilitaries do what the government can't get away with - murder, threaten, and disappear dissidents. This is the violence and repression the human rights groups were speaking out against.

Threatening the lives of human rights activists should be cause for an immediate suspension of U.S. military aid to Colombia, and certainly any discussion of expanded military aid should be put on hold. The people of Colombia - and the U.S. - need leaders who take human rights seriously.

Sean Donahue is Director of the Corporations and Militarism Project of the Massachusetts Anti-Corporate Clearinghouse ( He has traveled to Colombia on human rights delegations sponsored by Witness for Peace and the Colombia Support Network, and is available to give workshops, talks, and interviews.
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