The Stigmatisation of Human Rights Defenders in Colombia

May 11 2010: For President Uribe Velez, human rights defenders are “politically interested individuals who hide themselves behind the banner of human rights and ultimately serve the cause of terrorism.” During his presidential reign, this practice of accusation and criminalisation of government critics has been constant. Both national and international human rights organisations have suffered accusations of being “the political arm of the guerilla” and of acting as “spokespersons for terrorism with the aim of discrediting the state.”

For President Uribe Velez, human rights defenders are “politically interested individuals who hide themselves behind the banner of human rights and ultimately serve the cause of terrorism.” (Presidential Statement, 8 September 2003). During his presidential reign, this practice of accusation and criminalisation of government critics has been constant. Both national and international human rights organisations have suffered accusations of being “the political arm of the guerilla” and of acting as “spokespersons for terrorism with the aim of discrediting the state.” Amongst those accused have been Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Colombian organisations such as CINEP, Justicia y Paz and Comité Permanente de Derechos Humanos. Such accusations from the President and his government stigmatise all those who work to defend human rights. And, worse still, these accusations place them in the sights of state and paramilitary forces. Reports have already revealed that the Presidential intelligence service, DAS, has been carrying out operations aimed at discrediting a wide range of NGOs, social movements and opposition parties, (El Espectador, 14 December 2009), while organisations stigmatised by the President himself have received threats and attacks from a range of both state and non-state actors.

A Historical Strategy of Disrespect

These types of unfounded accusations are nothing new – nor is their use an isolated practice. Already in the late 1980s and early 1990s, lists of trade unionists, lawyers, and human rights defenders were being made public with accusations of subversion and complicity with the guerilla. These lists would appear in various channels of communication, sometimes signed by death squads, and on other occasions signed by the state security services themselves. (Hernando Calvo Ospina: Colombia, laboratorio de embrujo) Even more cynical was the fact that in the same period the Army, in the face of numerous denouncements, began to open human rights offices in all of its bases in an attempt to clean-up its image at the same time as assuming a role that essentially belongs to civil society. It is doubtful that individuals selected from the Army to be responsible for human rights would be the most suitable to judge violations committed by that very same military institution. This is even more doubtful reading a confidential report from 1995: ‘…the subversion, directly or indirectly, has a correlation with NGOs, especially those from the domestic left, that, supported by foreign money and in manifest agreement with leftist groups, have launched an offensive against the state and the Armed Forces, grouping them as systematic human rights violators’. (“Asunto, apreciación Coyuntural Nacional”. Teniente Coronel José Domingo García García, Jefe de Estado Mayor de la Quinta Brigada, 2 de Marzo de 1995)

General Herminio Sanchez Vargas, in his thesis from the Inter-American Defence College (formerly known as The School of the Americas) goes even further. He links human rights organisation with the attainment of capital ‘from kidnapping, drug-trafficking and assaults’, affirming that ‘at the international level the activity of the narcoguerrilla is concentrated on using NGOs to denounce human rights violations committed by the Armed Forces’, and that, ‘to achieve their objectives they use conviction and words…aspects more dangerous than arms and armies’. (“Las ONG de derechos humanos en Colombia”. Ejército de Colombia, Monografía, Colegio Intramericano de Defensa. Washington (Abril 1997))

Such attitudes can be seen to form part of the Doctrine of National Security, a strategy which the United States has imposed throughout Latin America since the beginning of the Cold War. The policy dictates a strict control over social conflicts in countries that are deemed to exist in the US “zone of influence”, silencing and marking as an internal enemy any movement that challenges the interests of US expansionism. In Colombia the Doctrine has taken various forms, most recently with the policy of Democratic Security. In this programme, championed by President Álvaro Uribe, this characterisation of human rights organisations as part of the internal enemy has been re-assumed with force: it has become part of his political programme, worsening further the repressive strategy focused against them.

Uribe’s Strategy of Stigmatisation

The delegitimisation of human rights defenders in Colombia is now a well established political strategy. A political strategy that has been systematic throughout the Presidency of Alvaro Uribe. Since his first election in 2002, whether through baseless criminal proceedings or damaging public statements, Colombian officials have sought to discredit, disrupt, and stigmatise the work of both national and international human rights organisations. Working in an environment which, by its very nature, entails a huge amount of risk, this stigmatisation, from the very institution that should be offering protection, enhances considerably the dangers encountered. If it were not for its systematic nature, the practice could be called reckless. The fact is, however, there is nothing at all reckless about its deployment: it is a political strategy aimed at silencing potential critics.

The stigmatisation of human rights workers often centres around baseless accusations of direct or indirect guerilla collusion. As well as generally creating a more dangerous environment, such statements often lead to direct reprisals for those stigmatised. In spite of this worrying reality, and numerous condemnations, both national and international, the strategy has continued unabated.

In the very first years of the Uribe Presidency, the presence of such a strategy could already be seen. In September 2003, the President declared various Human Rights organisations “politicians at the service of terrorism,” accusing them of using the “banner of human rights in order to undo the work of the Public Forces and Colombian society in making areas safe from terrorism.” As a result of the accusation, several human rights organisations filed a tutela (a legal proceeding against the state) with the Constitutional Court. Despite the Court’s ruling, T-1191, reiterating the state’s responsibilities, in 2004 accusations continued.

In their annual reports of both 2003 and 2004 such accusations were condemned by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The 2004 report comments: ‘…some public declarations from high ranking government officials that display indiscriminate questioning of the work of human rights defenders and their organisations contribute to the polarisation and increase the factors of risk faced by these defenders…’.

The increased risk to which the report refers has indeed been experienced by various victims of these public stigmatisations. In February 2007, two days after President Uribe accused opposition politicians of being “terrorists camouflaged as civilians,” 70 leading Colombian NGO’s and human rights defenders received threats sent by email from a paramilitary group calling themselves the New Generation Black Eagles. As Human Rights First, a US based organisation, reported at the time, the paramilitaries’ email repeated the same accusation, using the same language, as Uribe’s statement forty-eight hours earlier. The link between paramilitary threat and Uribe comment is palpable.

It is not however only the President whose baseless accusations stigmatise and bring increased risk to human rights defenders. There are numerous government officials who can play that role. In February 2008, in the lead up to a demonstration organised by the Colombian organisation Movement for the Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE), the Presidential Advisor, José Obdulio Gaviria, made various unfounded allegations against those involved in the movement. In a national radio interview, the government official, who is a first cousin of Pablo Escobar, accused the march of being “organised by FARC.” Following his comments, those involved in the demonstration received a flood of paramilitary threats and attacks – predominantly from the self-named Black Eagles. By mid-April, five people involved in the march had been murdered. A series of international institutions, including the United Nations, the European Union, and sixty-three US Congressmen, condemned the comments and resultant attacks.

International Attention

Indeed it was Colombia’s poor human rights record that eventually led to the rejection of the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement in the chamber of the US Congress in April 2008. From this moment, with the Uribe government intent on pushing through the Free Trade Agreement, Colombian officials began to focus their attention on criticising and stigmatising human rights defenders condemning violations internationally. In May, at the opening of a transport terminal in Montería, Córdoba, Uribe accused the MOVICE leader, Ivan Cepeda, of merely using his role in the organisation to further his political aims. “There are people in Colombia like Doctor Iván Cepeda. They use the protection of victims to cover themselves….The protection of victims serve them in order to go to foreign countries and discredit the Colombian Government and Colombian institutions.”

In February 2009 in a specific attempt to discredit the international influence of the recently formed and outspoken group of politicians and intellectuals, Colombians for Peace, the President once more sought to stigmatise the general work of human rights defenders accusing them of being a direct arm of the guerrilla: “FARC’s intellectual bloc, what it does is speak out in Europe and in the United States, saying: ‘Watch out, Uribe is a paramilitary, do not approve the free trade agreement with Colombia, Uribe is a paramilitary and violates human rights’. FARC’s intellectual bloc collide with the truth because this is the government that has brought back confidence to Colombia.”

The paradox of this strategy, aimed at silencing or discrediting opposition whilst improving the image of Colombia in foreign countries, is that the very adoption of the strategy implicates the Uribe Government in both a deliberate disrespect for legitimate human rights organisations and the direct involvement in increasing paramilitary abuses. On 2 March 2009, after Uribe accused a delegation to the US Committee on Labour and Education of being motivated by “political hatred,” one of its members, Lina Malagón, a lawyer from the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), received a fax from the Capital Bloc of the Black Eagles which declared her a “military target”. As with many of the baseless accusations made by the Uribe Government, the Malagón case was condemned by a series of international human rights organisations.

Although the stigmatisations continue to receive condemnation from both inside and outside Colombia, the strategy has been unrelenting. Its continuation does not only ignore the demands of international organisations, it convenes Colombian norms: there are both UN agreements and Presidential Directives prohibiting such statements. From any government official, let alone the President himself. (For international agreements see A/Res/53/144, UN General Assembly Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1998) and precedents. For Presidential Directives see Directiva Presidencial 07 de 1999, Directiva Presidencial 07 de 2001 and also Directiva 09 de 2003.)

It is not just Colombian human rights organisations that have been victim to this strategy of stigmatisation. On numerous occasions the President has made explosive statements questioning the legitimacy and partiality of the work of respected international human rights organisations. In the final months of 2008, both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, two widely recognised organisations, released a joint statement condemning both general and specific accusations made by Uribe against the organisations. The President had accused the Director of Human Rights Watch, Jose Miguel Vivanco, of being both an “accomplice” and a “supporter” of the FARC. As Vivanco responded in the press release: ‘These ridiculous accusations are symptomatic of an administration that refuses to be held accountable for what it does. Instead of taking the country’s human rights problems seriously, the Uribe government has sought to deflect criticism by simply accusing the critics – no matter who they are – of links to guerrillas’. Indeed, after the recent 2010 release of a Human Rights Watch report, titled Paramilitaries’ Heirs: The New Face of Violence in Colombia, the Minister of Defence, Gabriel Silva, discarded the report as motivated by “political orientation and ideology….”

In September 2009 a national and international campaign was launched calling for a fundamental change in the Government’s approach to human rights defenders. Carrying the title Colombia: Human Rights Defenders Under Threat, the campaign has brought together over 270 human rights organisations from across the globe.

The right to defend human rights in Colombia is still very far from being achieved. Dating back to before the period of the current President Alvaro Uribe, and assuming an even greater intensity during his reign, there has been a deliberate and planned process of de-legitimisation, stigmatisation, and harassment of human rights defenders. Whilst this strategy has overtly sought to weaken the impact of their work, it has only highlighted further the total disregard for human rights defenders from the Colombian Government. Such is the nature of the battle for human rights, as oppressive forces seek to silence and suppress, the struggle for those very rights grows stronger. Indeed in the case of Colombia this is proving true.

By Hasan Dodwell and Jaume Fortuño, May 2010

Photos are from the 2008 protest mentioned in the article, and are published courtesy of the International Peace Observatory.

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