It's a story that never made the press, a story that speaks volumes about a human rights crisis ignored for far too long. It is certainly a story worth recalling as Colombian President Alvaro Uribe visits Canada this week and Canada inches closer to finalizing a free-trade deal with Colombia.
Last June, paramilitaries entered the Colombian hamlet of San José de la Turbia. They warned the community the Colombian navy was nearby and claimed they were working together. They called out the name of Tailor Ortiz. When he raised his hand, the paramilitaries said, "We're going to kill this one right away." They tied Tailor up and shot him in the head. Then the terrified onlookers were warned: "Each time, we'll come for someone else." The next day, most of the families living in San José de la Turbia fled the area.
In the first half of 2008, some 270,000 other Colombians fled their homes, a 41-per-cent increase over 2007. Indeed, the number of internally displaced in Colombia is now the second highest in the world, after Sudan, and numbers as many as four million people.
Yet the Uribe government has been aggressively promoting resource-rich Colombia as a post-conflict, investor-friendly society, claiming credit for successfully demobilizing illegal paramilitaries and making human rights violations largely a thing of the past.
This is the message that President Uribe will no doubt bring to Canada this week in an attempt to win support for the controversial free-trade agreement negotiated with the Canadian government.
But Amnesty International's carefully documented reports reveal a different reality, an ongoing human rights nightmare experienced most acutely by individuals and communities who continue to bear the brunt of a decades-long armed conflict.
Some indicators of conflict-related violence have improved, such as kidnapping and hostage-taking. Yet other indicators have deteriorated. Indeed, all parties to the conflict -- state security forces, paramilitaries and guerrilla groups -- continue to be responsible for widespread and systematic violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.
In Colombia, such abuses are frequently committed as a means to forcibly remove civilian communities from areas of economic interest, much of which is inhabited by indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. Forced displacement has paved the way for the misappropriation of these lands, mostly by paramilitaries, but also by guerrilla groups.
It is estimated that more than four million hectares of land may have been stolen by paramilitaries in this way. These lands are often in areas with mineral, oil or agro-industrial potential. Rather than guarantee the return of stolen land, some government policies may end up legalizing ownership by paramilitary groups and their backers. Meanwhile, those who try to return to their communities or defend their land face threats, attacks and murder.
In the past five years, more than 1,000 indigenous people alone have been killed. The vast majority of these killings have not been properly investigated nor have the perpetrators ever been brought to justice. Indeed, while there has been progress in a number of high-profile investigations, impunity remains the norm in most cases of human rights abuses.
In 2008, there was also a dramatic upsurge in killings of trade unionists and threats against human rights defenders, principally by army-backed paramilitaries who continue to operate in many parts of the country.
Canadian MPs who meet with President Uribe would do well to ask why he has made repeated public statements equating the defence of labour and other human rights with subversion. For example, following the publication of an Amnesty International report on Colombia last November, the president accused us of "blindness," "fanaticism" and "dogmatism." He publicly accused the Americas director of Human Rights Watch of being a "supporter" and an "accomplice" of FARC guerrillas. Similar accusations have been levelled at Colombian trade unions and human rights organizations, equating their legitimate work with "subversion." Such accusations can and do lead to threats and attacks.
The president should also be asked about allegations he has sought to undermine recent investigations by the Supreme Court into evidence of links between legislators who support him and paramilitary groups, as well as what action he plans to take to address what the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights refers to as links between certain members of the armed forces and "new illegal armed groups."
Above all, MPs should ensure that the Canada Colombia Free Trade Agreement is subjected to a thorough, independent human rights impact assessment. Under international law, economic actors are both accountable for the human rights impacts of their activities, and responsible to ensure they promote human rights. Given the nature of widespread human rights abuses in Colombia, due diligence is needed to ensure the trade agreement does not make a bad situation worse.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Alex Neve: Challenge Alviro Aribe on Human Rights
Here's an op ed in the Ottawa Citizen from Amnesty International Canada secretary general Alex Neve, arguing that Colombian President Alvaro Aribe should be asked some tough questions about human rights when visiting Canada this week: