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Colombia: Social justice


Colombia’s progress must not leave social justice in its wake

by Sue Branford, Latin America Bureau*


Juan Manuel Santos has made many positive changes, but more action is needed on human rights for Britain to forge closer links.

Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, greets David Cameron in Downing Street this week. Photograph: Getty Imagest


When he took over as president of Colombia in August 2010, it seemed likely that Juan Manuel Santos would continue with the tough policies of his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe. This has proved far from the case. Santos has been putting his own print firmly on his administration and has sought to rebrand himself as a caring, even progressive president. Indeed, he has clearly angered Uribe by his efforts to distance himself from his former mentor.

In marked contrast to Uribe, Santos has brought leftish people into his administration, including Angelino Garzón, the former general secretary of CUT (the equivalent of the UK’s TUC), who has become vice-president. And he has dismantled the infamous administrative security department (DAS), which, under Uribe, was infiltrated by the notorious far-right paramilitary groups.

There have also been surprising changes in foreign policy – particularly towards Brazil, the emerging South American power. Whereas Uribe mistrusted Brazil’s then president, former trade unionist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Santos opened the First Colombia-Brazil Investment Forum in Bogotá in August with the words: “When they ask me what I want to be when I grow up, I reply, ‘I want to be like Lula’.” He was greeted with laughter and applause, not least by Lula, who was attending the seminar.

One of Santos’s most symbolic breaks with the previous regime was his declaration in his inauguration speech: “We shall move from democratic security to democratic prosperity.” Democratic security was Uribe’s label for a policy of putting Colombia on a war footing, paying informers to spy on their neighbours and dismissing human rights organisations as allies of the guerrillas. In contrast, Santos has sought dialogue with human rights organisations. Another measure given a cautious welcome by civil society is the victims and restitution law, which seeks to bring justice to the 5.2 million displaced people who lost relatives, homes and land to the guerrillas and, more often, to the paramilitaries, during Uribe’s war for “democratic security”. The Jesuit thinktank Cinep called it “the first step towards reparation and restitution for the victims of dispossession and displacement”.

The problem comes with the other steps. Santos’s key to “democratic prosperity” is the more intense exploitation of Colombia’s natural resources. It is here that he seeks British investment, with the British government an enthusiastic cheerleader. There are two questions that need answers. First, can Santos control the still vigorous paramilitaries, who murdered 14 land claimants between August 2010 and June 2011? The paramilitaries’ political backers are still part of the power base that Santos inherited from Uribe. And how will he deal with the rights of small farmers and indigenous communities to some of the areas that will be of particular interest to foreign investors? In an era of climate change, it is also a bad sign that environmental requirements have been relaxed for mining and energy projects.

Serious doubts also remain in the key area of human rights. Santos served as Uribe’s minister of defence between 2006 and 2010. He was a hardline minister, closely linked to the so-called “false positive” scandal by which innocent civilians were shot, put in guerrilla uniforms and passed off as guerrilla fighters shot in combat. Since coming to office, Santos has done little to curb human rights abuses. In his first year in office, 54 human rights defenders, trade unionists and community leaders were killed, the highest level in Colombia’s history. The vast majority – about 98% – of these crimes remain unpunished.

Louise Winstanley, director of ABColombia, the Colombia advocacy project of leading British and Irish development agencies, said: “Our concern is that those who are defending victims and land rights that are being killed in ever greater numbers – 54 in Santos’s first year. While ABColombia agencies support trade, it is not at the cost of undermining human rights. The question we have is: how is the UK going to ensure that it doesn’t subordinate human rights to trade and encourage British business to benefit from illegal land grabs?”

There are many concrete changes afoot in Colombia, but those relating to social justice and the rights of victims are, as yet, promises. If the British government is to forge closer economic links with Colombia, it must make sure that this closer relationship is dependent on Santos doing far more to protect human rights and to implement his promises of land restitution.

*First published in the Guardian

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