Rights and Colombia
New York Times Editorial
September 20, 2003
Alvaro Uribe ran
for Colombia's presidency promising to crack down on left-wing
guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries while respecting civil
rights and the Constitution. New proposals from his government
make both promises ring hollow.
An amnesty bill sent
to Congress late last month is supposed to encourage Colombia's
combatants to turn in their weapons. While it can apply to both
the right-wing private armies known as paramilitaries and the
left-wing guerrillas, in practice only the paramilitaries will
use it. The impulse is understandable, but the offer goes too
far. Top commanders, killers who have massacred dozens of civilians,
would be able to avoid or walk out of prison by writing a check.
The bill would also grant impunity to Colombia's drug cartels,
as many cartel leaders are also paramilitary officials.
The bill was written
with help from American officials, who seem bizarrely sanguine
about seeing major war criminals and cocaine traffickers freed
or granted impunity. Washington grumbles — softly —
about this, but may end up financing the program.
Amnesty should be
for foot soldiers. Paramilitary leaders, and those credibly accused
of serious crimes, should be arrested. But the government and
the military — many of whose leaders have ties to the paramilitaries
— have long resisted doing so.
Mr. Uribe's other
dangerous proposal came last week, after 80 human rights groups
released a report criticizing his security measures and the military's
excessive use of force against civilians. Mr. Uribe, who apparently
felt some real human rights improvements had been slighted, responded
by calling the groups a front for terrorists. The government announced
that it would begin investigating their activities. He has since
apologized for the tone of his remarks, but not their substance.
The president has failed to distinguish legitimate criticism from
terrorism. Moreover, he has not just chastised human rights defenders,
but he has also endangered them. In Colombia's climate, his remarks
can be seen as a green light to murder.
The job of human
rights worker is riskier than that of paramilitary leader. At
least 17 were murdered last year, most by paramilitaries. Human
rights groups need protection from the government and paramilitary
leaders deserve hostility — not, as Mr. Uribe seems to think,
the other way around.