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Colombia: human rights, a casualty of the war

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By Javier Farje, LAB

Eduardo_CarrenoEduardo CarreñoEduardo Carreño is a Colombian lawyer who specialises in human rights. He works with the Lawyers Collective José Alvear Restrepo, based in Bogotá, an organisation that takes its name from a well-known lawyer and social activist who, in the 1930s, worked with José Elicier Gaitán, the liberal leader whose assassination in 1948 marked the start of an insurgency that, until now, has provoked death and destruction in Colombia. Eduardo’s organisation, together with other human rights groups, has been campaigning for many years to achieve justice for the victims of the conflict. It is also strongly critical of the presence of USA military personnel and civilian contractors in Colombian military bases because it believes that this exacerbates an already explosive situation. It is opposed to violence on the part of all actors, be they the security forces, the far-right paramilitary groups, or the rebels, mainly the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC. The Lawyers Collective José Alvear Restrepo has suffered threats from those inside the security forces who feel threatened by their work. Javier Farje, from LAB, spoke to Eduardo Carreño during his brief visit to London.

LAB: Human rights organisations in Colombia were very critical of the Uribe government. It seems that President Juan Manuel Santos has tried to distance himself from what we can call “uribismo”. Is there a clear difference between Uribe’s and Santos’s style of government, especially on the issue of human rights?

Eduardo Carreño: Yes. The relationship between human rights organisations and the victims [of human rights violations] and the current president is one of mutual respect. This does not mean that the situation of human rights has improved; for us what has changed is the methods of repression used against people and victims.

LAB: When you talk about different methods, are you talking about a more subtle repression, less direct than Uribe’s, maybe more sophisticated?

EC: Let me give you an example. After we denounced extrajudicial executions, the methods changed; now we are talking about disappearances, not executions. While this new way of repression increases in the different regions, the situation gets worse, because it generates more terror. There is also the Law of Victims [and Land Restitution], which was sanctioned by the current government, where the existence of an internal armed conflict is recognised as one of the grounds for compensating the victims. It recognises that there have been victims of the armed conflict since 1985. It recognises that there are victims among the security forces, the paramilitary groups and civilians. We have a problem with this definition because we don’t recognise the members of the security forces as victims, except in a few exceptional cases, as for example when they requested more protection for their barracks and posts and the state did not provide it and they were attacked by the rebels.

LAB: Has the military and civilian US presence in Colombia declined during the current government?

us_army_in_colombia“The Colombian state does not have control and does not know who and where those American personnel are.” US soldier in the Colombian jungle.EC: No, it remains the same. Phase Three of Plan Colombia has been resuscitated; they maintain the 800 US army people in active service and the 600 civilian contractors. They enter the country directly through the military bases without any control from the Department of Immigration of the DAS [Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad – Administrative Department of Security]. In practical terms, the Colombian state does not have control and does not know who and where those American personnel are. What we have gained in relation to the United States is that the Constitutional Court has decided that the agreement to create those seven military bases was unconstitutional and has ordered the President to sign a treaty, if he wants to maintain those bases, so he does not violate the constitution.

LAB: The FARC have suffered several serious setbacks, especially with the killing of Raul Reyes, the guerrillas’ chief of international relations, and of Mono Jojoy, its military chief. Also, the top leader of the FARC, Alfonso Cano, is under siege. To what extent could the weakening of the FARC lead to an improvement in the human rights situation, in that the government and its security forces would no longer be forced to attack the civilian population?

EC: Things are more complicated than that. What we have witnessed in rural areas, where peasants live, is harassment and hostility against all kinds of peasants’ organisations. As the security forces believe that these peasants, indigenous peoples or black communities are likely supporters of the guerrillas, they attack them. It is true that, now that the guerrillas have been pushed into the jungle, the local population tends to suffer fewer confrontations and attacks by the security forces. But this isn’t always the case. In some instances, the guerrillas operate in densely populated zones. These areas tend to be inhabited by indigenous peoples. These communities have been the main victims of repression in recent years. They are attacked not only by the security forces but also by the guerrilla movement. For instance, when the FARC attack military posts in these areas, they use “cylinder bombs” [metal barrels filled with explosives]. When they throw these cylinders, they have a devastating effect on the houses of peasants and indigenous peoples, because they are very fragile.

LAB: Let’s talk about the desmovilizados [members of the paramilitary groups who have given up the armed struggle and have been demobbed]. We understand that some of you have been forced to defend their rights of those who violated human rights in order to guarantee the continuation of the peace process with them. Can you explain this paradox?

paras_desmovilizadosMembers of para-military groups give up their weapons. They demand protection for their families. Photo: El Espectador.EC: From the 40,000 paramilitaries who have been demobbed, about 2,600 of them have been murdered. They have been killed in cities that are under the control of the army. Not a single person has been arrested for these killings, and we believe that this is unacceptable. If these cities are under the control of the army, somebody should have been arrested. This reinforces complaints made by representatives of the paramilitaries, mainly those who were extradited to the United States [for their links with drug trafficking], as well as those who are in jail in Colombia. They say there are insufficient guarantees from the state and the judiciary for them to be able to confess to what really happened. They demand protection for their relatives and their lawyers, so the process can continue. Considering these demands, we the human rights organisations have publicly condemned this situation and have asked the president to protect those who are in jail and to provide guarantees for their families and lawyers. Neither their relatives nor their lawyers should pay for their criminal actions. In order to learn the truth and to achieve justice, we need to request protection for these criminals.

LAB: Let’s talk about the para-politica [politicians close to former president Alvaro Uribe who had links with the far-right paramilitary groups]. Is there also a difference between the former government and the current one in the way they deal with the para-politicos?

EC: For the time being, the judiciary is still dealing with politicians who are linked to the far-right paramilitary groups and some trials have been postponed. In that sense there are no changes, because the same former MPs who were being investigated during the government of Alvaro Uribe are now being investigated under Juan Manuel Santos.

LAB: During Alvaro Uribe’s government there were two serious confrontations with two important neighbouring countries: Venezuela and Ecuador. In the case of Ecuador, an incursion by the Colombian military to fight FARC guerrillas; and in the case of Venezuela, the ongoing political and ideological exchanges with President Hugo Chavez. Can we say that today there is a more harmonious relationship with those countries?

EC: The situation with the current President changed from the moment he was elected, not before. When he was Defence Minister [under Uribe], he was verbally aggressive towards the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian governments and he took concrete actions within their territories. [He is referring to the military incursions by the Colombian army into Ecuador and Venezuela in their pursuit of FARC rebels]. Those actions were supported or endorsed by President Uribe. This has changed, and as soon as he took office, Santos appointed different people who have made it possible to improve relations [with Ecuador and Venezuela]. As a result of this change, President Santos contacted his counterparts in the region to start a constructive dialogue, mainly to discuss economic issues.


Listen to the full interview in Spanish.

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