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Human 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.

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