Obama & Human Rights Watch -- Colombia Must Improve Human Rights

During the last debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, Senator Obama took a firm stance against passage of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in light of the continued targeting of Colombian trade unionists for assassination and in light of the Colombian government's continued failure to prosecute these crimes. Just yesterday, Human Rights Watch issued a damning human rights report on Colombia and echoed Senator Obama's view that the U.S. Congress should "continue to delay ratification of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement until Colombia shows concrete and sustained results in reducing impunity for trade unionist killings and dismantling the paramilitary mafias responsible for many of the killings." See, HRW's Breaking the Grip? Obstacles to Justice for Paramilitary Mafias in Colombia.

At the time of this writing, forty-three (43) union members have been killed in Colombia so far this year, bringing to 475 the total killed since President Uribe took office in 2002. And, as Obama and HRW noted, there is near total impunity for these crimes, with the government successfully prosecuting less than 3% of the over 2600 trade union assassinations since 1986.

In addition, while Senator McCain was certainly correct in the debate when he claimed that Colombia and its President, Alvaro Uribe, constitute the U.S.'s number one ally in the region, HRW's new report paints a picture of Uribe as a major obstructer of the process to cut the fatal ties between the Colombian government and the murderous paramilitaries in that country. Those considering further military aid to Colombia and the passage of the FTA should pay close attention to the details of this report which are nothing less than horrifying.

As the HRW explains in a report which belies the claims of President Bush and Senator McCain that Colombia is somehow a shining beacon of democracy in Latin America:

"In Colombia, more than in almost any country in the Western hemisphere, violence has corroded and subverted democracy. Too often, killings and threats - not free elections or democratic dialogue - are what has determined who holds power, wealth in the country. Nowhere is this more evident than in the relationship between paramilitary groups and important sectors of the political system, the military and the economic elite.

Paramilitary groups have ravaged much of Colombia for two decades. Purporting to fight the equally brutal guerillas of the left, they have massacred, tortured, forcibly 'disappeared,' and sadistically killed countless men, women, and children. Wherever they have gone, they have eliminated anyone who opposed them, including thousands of trade unionists, human rights defenders, community leaders, judges and ordinary civilians. To their enormous profit, they have forced hundreds of thousands of small landowners, peasants, Afro-Colombians, and indigenous persons to flee their families' productive lands. The paramilitaries and their supporters have taken the abandoned lands, leaving the surviving victims to live in squalor on city fringes, and leaving Colombia second only to Sudan as the country with the most internally displaced people in the world."

As the HRW goes on to explain, the paramilitaries have only been able to wreak such havoc with the support of the Colombian military -- which the U.S. has funded with over $4 billion of military assistance, and counting, since 2000 -- as well as with the support of key political leaders connected to President Uribe. As for the ties between the military and the paramilitaries, HRW notes that "[t]he close military-paramilitary collaboration in several regions allowed the paramilitaries to commit massacre after massacre of civilians largely unimpeded and with impunity."

Moreover, while the Colombian Supreme Court has been involved in a valiant effort to uncover and end these connections between the government and the paramilitaries, President Uribe has himself been actively interfering with the Supreme Court's efforts in this regard. As HRW explains, President Uribe has "[r]epeatedly launched personal attacks on the Supreme Court and its members in what increasingly looks like a concerted campaign to smear and discredit the Court; [o]pposed and effectively blocked meaningful efforts to reform the Congress to eliminate paramilitary influence; [p]roposed constitutional reforms that would remove the 'parapolitics' investigations from the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court."

HRW further explains that President Uribe proposed an intiative in 2007 that would have allowed "politicians who collaborated with paramilitaries to avoid prison altogether which would have had a devastating impact on the investigations." Quite tellingly, HRW relates that, "[f]ortunately, President Uribe tabled this proposal after it became evident that it would become an obstacle to the ratification of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. It is unclear what would happen if the pressure related to ratification of the trade deal were dropped." In other words, HRW believes that had President Uribe simply been given the FTA that he so desires, he most likely would not have withdrawn this proposal. So, the lesson is, of course, that if the U.S. really wants labor and human rights to improve in Colombia, we must continue to withhold the FTA from Uribe unless and until these improvements are actually made.

Meanwhile, as I write this piece, over 10,000 sugar workers are on strike in Colombia against near slave-like conditions as well as wages (on average, $220 a month) which fall below the Colombian legal minimum wage and which are insufficient to support the average 6-person household of the workers. These strikers have been met by military forces sent by President Uribe to violently put down their lawful strike. Joining these workers in demonstration are thousands of indigenous who are protesting against the violent repression and forcible removal of their people by the paramilitaries. The indigenous have demanded a meeting with President Uribe to discuss their concerns. In response, Uribe ordered troops to descend upon them as well. So far, over 70 indigenous have been seriously wounded by the troops who have opened fire upon them.

This is the reality of Colombia and of President Uribe who President Bush counts as one his closest allies and friends. In this case, we can certainly judge President Bush and the U.S. government as well for the company that they keep.