Colombian president should stop false accusations against human rights groups

President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia should stop making false and dangerous accusations against human rights defenders, according to a joint statement released on 19 November.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) released the statement after both organizations were verbally attacked by President Uribe, for issuing reports in October criticizing his government.

After its report was released, President Uribe accused Amnesty International of “blindness”, “fanaticism” and “dogmatism”. He also publicly accused José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at HRW, of being a “supporter” and an “accomplice” of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.

In the joint statement, both organizations have called on President Uribe to stop making accusations and to instead address the human rights concerns raised by the reports.

“We would welcome a chance to debate the real issues with the president,” said Susan Lee, Americas director for Amnesty International. “But these statements belittle his office and give a green light to those who wish to harm human rights activists in Colombia.”

Amnesty International and HRW are still waiting for the Colombian government to provide measured and detailed responses to the serious human rights concerns raised in their two reports.

HRW’s report, Breaking the Grip? Obstacles to Justice for Paramilitary Mafias in Colombia assessed Colombia’s progress toward investigating and breaking the influence that paramilitaries have over many state institutions. It also described how government actions were deliberately sabotaging those investigations.

Amnesty International’s report, Leave us in peace! Targeting civilians in Colombia’s internal armed conflict said that the Colombian government was in denial about its human rights situation. Despite increasing reports of forced internal displacement, attacks against social and human rights activists and killings by security forces, the Colombian authorities are attempting to convince the international community that the human rights situation is improving.

Earlier this year, after a presidential adviser, José Obdulio Gaviria, publicly suggested that organizers of a protest against paramilitary death squads had links to guerrillas, there was a wave of threats and violence against participants and organizers of the march, including killings.

Amnesty International and HRW noted that President Uribe and other senior officials have often made similar accusations against those who criticize or stand in the way of his policies, including not only international and Colombian human rights groups, but also the Colombian Supreme Court, trade unionists and prominent journalists.

“These ridiculous accusations are symptomatic of an administration that refuses to be held accountable for what it does,” said Vivanco of HRW. “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.

Colombia’s internal armed conflict has pitted the security forces and paramilitaries against guerrilla groups for over 40 years. It has been marked by extraordinary levels of human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) committed by the security forces, paramilitaries and guerrilla groups, with civilians by far the principal victims – tens of thousands have been killed, with thousands more subjected to enforced disappearance and millions forcibly displaced from their homes.

The government of President Uribe came to office in 2002, only one year after the September 2001 attacks in the USA. It has repeatedly sought to deny that an armed conflict exists in Colombia, opting to define hostilities instead as part of the international “war on terror”.

In contrast, numerous international bodies, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, have consistently defined the situation in Colombia as one of internal armed conflict.