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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Corruption, Human Rights Scandal Rocks the Colombian Armed Forces

This post first appeared on Just Americas: A Blog by LAWG. It was written by Lisa Haugaard, Director of the Latin America Working Group .

Colombia’s Semana magazine revealed in February a massive corruption scandal involving the top ranks of Colombia’s armed forces. Officials were skimming up to 50 percent off of lucrative military contracts. “Give us 5 billion [pesos] and give the other companies 3. If we are all eating, no one will pick a fight,” said one colonel.

Top military commanders, as well as personally benefitting from this corruption, were steering contracts to officers and soldiers under investigation and detained in military garrisons for involvement in extrajudicial executions. According to Semana , “this was a system to buy their silence and ensure that they did not implicate higher-level officials in the sadly famous practice of false positives.”

Colombia’s Attorney General's office is investigating cases, known as the “false positives,” in which over 4,200 people were allegedly extrajudicially executed by members of Colombia's armed forces. Many additional cases are, inappropriately according to Colombian law, still in the military justice system. In the vast majority, these are not cases of civilians who were killed in crossfire but rather of people, usually young men from poor urban and rural neighborhoods, who were detained or lured with promises of jobs, executed and dressed in guerrilla clothing to look like enemy dead, to increase the army's body count. The majority of these killings occurred from 2004 to 2008. In 2009, reforms introduced by then-Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, including insisting that these cases be transferred to civilian courts rather than the military courts that never punished them, helped to reduce this horrific practice.

While there has been progress in some cases, the majority of extrajudicial executions remain in impunity. The vast scope of these crimes and the similar pattern throughout geographic regions suggest high-level involvement, yet investigations to date have focused on soldiers and lower-level officials, with not a single case against a general, brigade or division commander advanced beyond preliminary stages. In late 2013, a law promoted by President Juan Manuel Santos which would have resulted in more such crimes being assigned to military rather than civilian courts was struck down on procedural grounds by the Constitutional Court. President Santos has pledged to reintroduce this regressive law.

Military officials detained and jailed for extrajudicial executions continue to be held in military garrisons where they retain special privileges, can run businesses and can leave freely. Indeed, according to Semana, one “detained” colonel appeared to spend so much time in his apartment, shopping centers, and the Jockey Club that anyone wanting to see him in jail had to make an appointment. In 2011, when Semana exposed the “prison resort” of Tolemeida, the Defense Ministry promised to put an end to these privileges—but two years later, they are still endemic.

In one of the most disturbing revelations, Semana reported that armed forces chief Leonardo Barrero told an officer who was under investigation for extrajudicial executions to “get together and work up a mafia” to denounce the Attorney General’s human rights prosecutors.

The Santos Administration Responds. President Santos dismissed armed forces chief Leonardo Barrero on February 18, replacing him with General Juan Pablo Rodriguez. While Barrero’s dismissal is positive, it is concerning that General Jaime Lasprilla Villamizar has been promoted to command the army. Lasprilla oversaw a unit with a pattern of extrajudicial killings when he was commander of the Army’s 9th Brigade in Huila in 2006-07. According to an analysis compiled by Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Attorney General’s office is investigating 38 extrajudicial executions by 9th Brigade soldiers under his command, and the Jesuit research center CINEP and other human rights groups have documented an additional 37 alleged extrajudicial executions.

Spying on the Government—and the President. But this is hardly the only military scandal in the news. A Colombian military intelligence unit was revealed in January to have been spying on the government’s own peace negotiators out of “Bugglyhacker,” a Bogotá internet café. Newspaper reports indicated that army intelligence was also spying on the Attorney General’s office, police, human rights groups and journalists, in a disturbing echo of the Uribe Administration’s intelligence scandal, which resulted in the disbanding of the presidential intelligence agency, the DAS. Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón subsequently sacked two top military intelligence leaders. President Santos initially condemned the spying as illegal, and then backpedaled.

Semana magazine’s coverage also highlighted a wiretapping room known as the “Grey Room,” for which, according to the article, the CIA had provided equipment and training. While the room was supposedly intended for the army to carry out legal wiretaps with the presence of representatives from the Attorney General’s office, Semana asserted that Colombian military intelligence during 2013 used it for unauthorized wiretaps, leading to it being shut down.

In February, President Santos denounced the interception of his own personal emails. It is not yet known who was behind that spying; the President himself speculated that it was an attempt to weaken his reelection bid.

A military source told El Espectador that sectors of the military were concerned that the peace talks could result in reducing their size, limiting their mission to external defense, and limiting their social and economic power; and particularly, that they are concerned they will face justice for crimes while the guerrillas will negotiate judicial benefits.

Defense Minister Pinzón at a Center for American Progress briefing on February 27 asserted that President Santos has stated that the role and size of the military will not be negotiated in the peace talks, in contrast to peace accords in Central America and Africa. Mr. Pinzón laid out an extremely expansive vision of the role of the armed forces post-peace accord, ranging from border security to confronting drug trafficking, transnational crime and continued armed violence in an accord’s aftermath; and from addressing climate change to expanding the military’s role in development. He strongly emphasized increasing Colombia’s role in security training globally, particularly in Central America and the Caribbean. These kinds of words are intended to reassure members of the military that they will keep their substantial role and privileges if a peace accord is reached. But they are hardly reassuring to Colombian victims of violence by the armed forces and communities that have endured the brunt of the war from all sides.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

In their Homes, in their Work, Colombia's Human Rights Defenders Remain at Risk

By: Lisa Haugaard, LAWGEF

In their houses, in front of their children, in the middle of meetings, while taking their children or grandchildren to school, while eating in restaurants, while walking to or from work: these are some of the places in which 78 Colombian human rights defenders were assassinated in 2013.

Community leaders, representatives of poor farmers and victims, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, land rights champions, union leaders, LGBTI and women's rights defenders, youth leaders: these are some of the kinds of defenders assassinated in 2013. Most were poor, from far-flung parts of the country.

Many were shot with four to seven bullets. Five were tortured.

According to Somos Defensores ("We are Defenders"), a Colombian nongovernmental program that produces an annual report on attacks against defenders, the number of assassinations of defenders increased from 69 in 2012 to 78 in 2013. Of the 78 defenders assassinated, 15 were allegedly by paramilitary groups, 8 by guerrillas, 5 by members of government security forces, and 50 by unknown authors. Assassinations by paramilitary groups and security forces increased and those by guerrillas decreased in 2013 compared to the previous year. Somos Defensores speculates that the murders of defenders attributed to the guerrillas may have declined due to the current peace talks.

Defenders experienced a total of 366 aggressions against individual defenders in 2013, ranging from threats, thefts of information, arbitrary detentions and legal harassment, to assaults, forced disappearances and assassinations. One hundred and eighty-five organizations were targeted.

What was the Colombian government's response? While the Santos Administration's public discourse on human rights defenders remains much better than its predecessor's, it failed to protect defenders adequately and some government agents were responsible for abuses and harassment against them. The lack of effective investigations of crimes against defenders remains a major problem. While threats generate enormous fear amongst human rights defenders, and may be followed by assassinations, they are never investigated; impunity for threats remains at 100 percent. Break-ins of defenders’ offices in which sensitive human rights information is stolen are not taken seriously. The Colombian government must make far greater progress in dismantling paramilitary groups, the illegal armed groups that were only partially demobilized in 2005, if it is to protect human rights defenders and poor communities.

While the government maintains a vital protection program for defenders, physical protection programs are not sufficient nor do they cover all those needing protection. Despite promises to do so, the government has advanced little in providing collective protection measures for organizations and communities.

2013 was a year of tremendous social protest in Colombia, in which poor farmers and indigenous people protested the lack of policies to protect their lives and livelihoods. Repression of these protests, especially by the ESMAD riot police, was brutal. According to Somos Defensores, "ESMAD acted as a shock force against protests, with the goal of dispersing them, silencing them and bringing charges against protestors."

As the Colombian and U.S. governments meet this week in a High-Level Policy Dialogue, improving efforts to protect defenders, including by prosecuting those who threaten and kill them, is on the agenda. That’s as it should be. But now we need to see more results.

It was a year of contrasts. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is laudably pursuing a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas, the best hope in a generation to end Colombia's half century of war. His signature Victims' Law pledges to provide reparations and land restitution to Colombia's victims of violence. But in their homes and communities, Colombia's everyday heroes and heroines of nonviolent defense of human rights remain at risk.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Yes to Peace in Colombia

By: Lisa Haugaard, Latin America Working Group Education Fund

This blog appeared in the Huffington Post

As Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos met this week with President Barack Obama, it’s time to say, Yes to peace.

In November 2013, the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group signed an agreement, the second of five agreements which together will make up a final peace accord. With this second agreement, two of the most difficult topics, land and political participation, have been negotiated, showing that this peace process has a real chance to end a fifty-year war in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, kidnapped and disappeared, and some 6 million people have been forcibly displaced.

It’s positive that the U.S. government is supporting this peace process, Colombia’s best hope for a sustainable peace in decades. The United States should support it decisively. U.S. policymakers must also consider how best to support a peace accord financially once negotiations are finalized, including by reorienting aid away from military assistance and towards demobilization and reintegration programs, support for victims of violence, and mechanisms for truth, justice and reparations.

The Colombian government should facilitate greater participation for victims of violence—including Afro-Colombian and indigenous people and women—in the peace process and its implementation. Strong measures of truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-repetition are essential if this agreement is to produce a just and lasting peace, as this letter by a wide range of U.S. faith-based organizations emphasizes.

And the Colombian government would be wise to open peace negotiations with the remaining, smaller guerrilla groups, to use this momentum to put an end to war.

But Colombia cannot achieve a sustainable peace without addressing its core human rights problems. Colombia’s human rights crisis is far from over. As noted in a statement by the Latin America Working Group, Washington Office on Latin America, US Office on Colombia, and Center for International Policy:

The Colombian government must make greater progress in dismantling paramilitary successor groups. In November 2013 alone, more than 2700 people, largely Afro-Colombian, were displaced in Buenaventura, allegedly by paramilitary successor groups. These brutal groups are also responsible for many of the threats and attacks against human rights defenders and are an obstacle to implementing the government’s land restitution program. Dismantling paramilitary successor groups—including by investigating and prosecuting the members of the military and police, local politicians, government officials, large landowners and companies that continue to finance and collude with them—is essential for human rights progress in Colombia.

Colombia must bring to justice the cases of the more than 3,000 alleged extrajudicial executions, most attributed to the armed forces, committed in the past decade. The Colombian Constitutional Court's decision to overturn the new, controversial law that would have expanded military jurisdiction affords the Santos Administration an opportunity to move forward, not backward, and ensure that human rights crimes allegedly committed by soldiers are effectively tried in civilian courts. Progress in bringing to justice cases of sexual violence committed by all armed actors is also essential.

The Colombian judicial system must make advances in prosecuting threats and attacks against human rights defenders. Those who defend human rights continue to face grave risks for their work, yet attacks against them are almost never investigated, let alone prosecuted. Though the Santos Administration has implemented important protection programs, it is essential to confront the problem at its source by ending impunity in attacks against defenders.

The Colombian government must meet its obligations to respect labor rights. To secure passage of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement, which faced significant public and congressional opposition, the U.S. and Colombian governments signed a Labor Action Plan (LAP) that laid out steps that the Colombian government agreed to take in order to protect labor unionists and increase respect for labor rights. It was good to hear the White House mention this, but we need action. The Colombian and U.S. governments must fulfill the pledge they made to the U.S. and Colombian publics by signing this plan.

While the number of deaths of labor union members has declined and Colombia has created institutions and passed laws, respect for labor rights has not improved on the ground. At least 11 trade unionists have been murdered in 2013 and hundreds have received death threats. As highlighted in a congressional report, “The US-Colombia Labor Action Plan: Failing on the Ground,” indirect employment is still pervasive and growing, the inspection system is ineffective, workers’ protections are weak and the right to organize is routinely denied.

Finally, the Colombian government must make progress in safe and sustainable land restitution for victims of forced displacement as well as land titling for Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. The Santos’ Administration’s Victims’ Law represents a historic opportunity for land restitution to Colombia’s internally displaced population and reparations for victims of violence. However, land restitution has been extremely slow, and even the vast majority of those who receive restitution are not yet able to return safely to their lands, as the structures that caused displacement remain intact (see Human Rights Watch's The Risk of Returning Home and Latin America Working Group's Far from the Promised Land). Land titling of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities is also proceeding at a snail's pace.

Land restitution cannot take place safely without more decisive action by the Colombian government to address the sources of violence from all armed actors—including paramilitaries, guerrillas and the armed forces—that caused people to flee their homes in the first place. It is especially crucial to dismantle the illegal paramilitary successor groups that still wage violence in the countryside, as well as to investigate and prosecute state and private actors that aid or employ them. The Colombian government should also ramp up legal services and protection for victims, and increase protection for land judges.

Colombia is still experiencing a human rights crisis. But if a peace accord is finalized in the near future, and if the Colombian government increases its attention to these human rights and labor rights issues, there is a real chance that Colombians, including those caught for decades in one of the world’s most brutal conflicts, can live their lives in peace.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Honduran Elections: No Cause for Celebrations

By: Lisa Haugaard, Latin America Working Group Education Fund

The November 24, 2013 elections in Honduras and their aftermath are a critical moment for the direction of the country. In June 2009 a coup overthrew the elected president, Liberal Party member Manuel Zelaya. In this month´s election, Zelaya´s wife Xiomara Castro de Zelaya under the new Libre party banner ran against the National Party´s Juan Orlando Hernandez, the traditional Liberal Party, a new Anti-Corruption Party and several others.

The Supreme Electoral Council declared the National Party’s Juan Orlando Hernandez the winner, followed by Libre, with the Liberals, and the Anti-Corruption Party also receiving a significant share of votes. The newer parties’ significant vote count has altered the traditional two-party (National, Liberal) Honduran political scene.

But it is far from time to celebrate a free and fair election.

The International Human Rights Federation observation team in which Latin America Working Group participated, observing the human rights context as well as electoral mechanics, congratulated the Honduran people for a strong turnout, but observed the following serious problems:

Incentives for voting, provided by one party. The National Party had booths outside voting places where voters could pick up an envelope with their name on it with a card with discounts for telephone, food, medical care and pharmacy products. This was widespread and open, with the party having run ads promoting it.

Live people declared dead. Our small team met at least 20 people who had been declared dead and were unable to vote, as well as others whose voting places had been changed, making it difficult for them to vote. “They have not yet managed to kill me yet,” said one very angry “dead” woman we met at a Libre party booth outside a polling place. Many of these people told us that they had voted at the same voting place in last year´s primary.

Oppressive presence of the military. Honduran law unfortunately confers upon the armed forces the role of transporting and guarding electoral material and filled ballots. This law needs to be changed. The presence of the military on this election day was oppressive. Soldiers with automatic weapons had a prominent presence at voting centers, and in one case we observed soldiers frisking voters as they entered the polling place. Soldiers surrounded the transmission towers of progressive radio and television stations on election day.

Among the other problems we observed or which were reported to us were a complete lack of transparency in campaign financing, allegations that smaller parties were selling their pollwatcher credentials, immigration agents harassing some international observers, and the fact that the Supreme Electoral Council was formed by four of the nine parties running, rather than being strictly nonpartisan.

However, the allegations of fraudulent acts with the most impact would be in the transmission of votes between the polling places and the Supreme Electoral Council. Our mission noted with concern before the elections that this system appeared vulnerable to fraud. Two parties, Libre and the Anti-Corruption Party, are contesting the results of the elections and demanding to see the results from the individual polling places and a complete recount of ballots.

The Supreme Electoral Council must satisfy the legitimate demands of these parties for complete and transparent scrutiny of contested ballots. International observers should audit the vote transmission system, and the Honduran Attorney General’s office for Electoral Crimes should investigate carefully all claims of fraudulent activity.

In the long term, Honduran election law could be improved by removing the military from a role in administering elections, ensuring that the Supreme Electoral Council is nonpartisan, improving the voter rolls and ensuring transparency in campaign financing.

On the day after the elections, a small, peaceful protest by frustrated Libre voters approached the plaza where the Supreme Electoral Council had set up operations in a hotel. Some 150 heavily-armed police, including the anti-riot police with their tear gas and shields, and the black-clad military police, blocked their entrance. There was no violence, not with international electoral observers in their jackets and the international press in the nearby hotels. But what will happen now that the observers and the press have packed up and left?

The enormous frustration of voters who feel that once again the faith that they have placed in the electoral system has been violated needs to be heard and needs a solution. It must not meet teargas and batons.

The international community should be concerned about these elections and their aftermath.

We must also be concerned about the overall human rights context in Honduras. Yes, there is an extremely high murder rate due to organized crime and street crime. But there are also targeted killings of and threats against human rights defenders, including those who denounce human rights abuses, protect women´s rights and protest environmentally damaging projects such as mining and dams. Journalists and members of the LGBTI community are targeted. Police and other state actors are implicated in many cases, and the vast majority of these crimes remain in total impunity. The human rights unit of the Attorney General’s office that should investigate many of these crimes has been weakened by the recent transfer of dedicated prosecutors.

Nothing to celebrate yet.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Secretary of State Kerry in Colombia: His Check List for a Just and Lasting Peace

This post first appeared as an op-ed in Colombian newspaper El Espectador on August 11, 2013, as Secretary of State John Kerry met with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. It was written by Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director of the Latin America Working Group.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has a lot of thorny matters on his mind: who the United States should support in Egypt, should a reluctant United States get involved to any degree in Syria, how to address Russia, where relations are so frayed that the United States actually cancelled a presidential summit.

So Colombia, which is such a reliable partner of the United States, and where President Juan Manuel Santos has shown inspirational leadership in opening peace talks, may seem like an easy stop.

But Colombia is never easy.

Secretary of State Kerry comes bearing strong diplomatic support for the Colombian peace process. That’s good and important. As long as both sides are at the negotiating table, the Obama Administration stands strongly behind this process. Within the U.S. Congress, the voices raised concerning the peace process are in support, as an April letter from 62 members of Congress made clear. John Kerry is a man who believes in peace; now trying again the impossible task of moving forward a Middle East peace process, he also was involved in ending Central American wars and supporting Central American peace accords.

The United States can be counted on to provide substantial support for peace accord implementation.

We hope Secretary Kerry will also contribute to a just and lasting peace in Colombia by encouraging the negotiating teams to include the voice of victims of violence, especially as the discussion on victims approaches. If this peace is to be sustainable, victims of violence must help to build it.

If this peace is to be sustainable, it must have strong pillars of truth and justice. An independent truth commission is an essential step.

We know Secretary Kerry’s message will start with support for peace negotiations, but we hope his message does not end there. Even if an accord is signed, and on the long road to peace, Secretary Kerry would be a good friend to Colombia by talking about and helping address the still grim human rights situation on the ground.

This means talking frankly about the constitutional reform of its military justice system that leaves loopholes so that false positive cases could return to military courts. There must be justice for the over 3,500 ejecuciones extrajudiciales. U.S. security assistance is conditioned on respect for human rights, with the law stating that Colombia must effectively investigate and prosecute in civilian courts members of the security forces credibly alleged to have committed gross human rights violations. Secretary Kerry, as a U.S. senator, called on the State Department not to certify Colombia due to army abuses and lack of progress in prosecuting these crimes.

For the Obama administration, relying on the Colombian armed forces to "export" safety lessons to other countries seems a cost-effective solution to US budget woes. This is certainly a topic of discussion during the visit. But the fact that so many abuses by the armed forces remain in impunity makes it deeply concerning that the United States is encouraging the Colombian armed forces’ role in training other nation’s military forces.

Supporting a just and lasting peace also means Secretary Kerry should talk frankly about the ongoing assassinations of human rights defenders. Thirty-seven human rights defenders were assassinated in the first half of 2013. To stop the violence, threats and murders of defenders must be investigated and prosecuted. To stop the violence, the Santos Administration must do more to dismantle illegal armed groups, including paramilitary, BACRIM and guerrillas, and to prosecute the members of the armed forces, companies, politicians y public officials who finance and support them.

It also means talking frankly about the Labor Action Plan that both governments signed in order to achieve passage of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. There’s still far to go to carry out this plan. The Colombian government can highlight the fall in the murder of trade unionists as an important and positive change. Unfortunately, this has been the only positive change for a trade union movement that continues to struggle against illegal third-party subcontracting, constant harassment, and arbitrary dismissals for any degree of union activity. The Colombian government must act in favor of workers against these labor violations, implement effective inspection and sanction mechanisms to discourage the use of labor practices that restrict labor rights.

To pave the way for a just and lasting peace, the United States should encourage as well as fund the creation of meaningful protection for returned and returning communities, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. Effective protection plans can only be designed in careful consultation with the communities they are intended to benefit. The United States should continue to fund the innovative Victims’ Law. But it must be done with real protection.

So no, it’s not an easy stop. But the right words and actions from Secretary Kerry could mean a lot for a just and lasting peace in Colombia.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Little Frankness Between Friends

This post first appeared as an op-ed in Colombian newspaper El Espectador. It was written by Lisa Haugaard, Director of the Latin America Working Group. It was translated by CIP intern Ashley Badesch.

Topics that the Vice President of the United States and the President of Colombia should discuss: Washington’s role in the peace process, the fuero militar, and the Labor Action Plan.

The visit of Vice President Joe Biden to Colombia, Brazil, and Trinidad and Tobago is part of a series of diplomatic events intended to tell Latin America that it has not been forgotten. The visit follows President Barack Obama’s visit to Mexico and Costa Rica, and the leaders of Peru and Chile plan to visit the White House. In spite of Secretary of State John Kerry’s clumsy reference to Latin America as the United State’s “backyard,” these diplomatic efforts are an overdue recognition of the economic and political power and independent spirit of Latin America.

In Colombia, they will discuss economics, trade, and security issues, but one hopes that Joe Biden will also emphasize that the United States fully supports the peace process. “Just as we have supported Colombia’s leaders in the battlefield, we’ll fully support their efforts to end the conflict at the negotiating table," Biden said before his visit.

The White House has supported the peace process since its beginning, but they’ve done so with a low profile. It is now time to emphasize that the U.S. government wants to see successful negotiations and is prepared to cooperatively and diplomatically support the implementation of an agreement and, even more challenging, a just and lasting peace. This will require a different form of cooperation; cooperation by means of peace rather than war.

Despite Bush’s and Obama’s support of President Uribe, at the end of Uribe’s presidency and after the revelations of the terrible reality of false positives and the DAS scandal, the U.S. government looked with relief towards the arrival of Juan Manuel Santos, with his more inclusive discourse, his openness to negotiations, and his focus on the Victims Law. The State Department remains concerned about the impact of the constitutional reform that opens the door for human rights violations committed by the military to be investigated and tried in military courts, despite the Colombian government’s promises that this will not be the case. Paradoxically, Washington still looks at Colombia as a great security success and a model that should be “exported” to Central America and Africa.

If there is to be frankness in the discussions between Santos and Biden, it would be good that they share with each other some truths. Biden should tell Santos that it is extremely important to ensure that the soldiers and officers who have committed serious human rights violations should be investigated and tried in ordinary court proceedings. Biden should also remind him that the two governments signed a Labor Action Plan for the passage of the Free Trade Agreement, and that the commitments of this plan meant to protect the labor rights of Colombians are very far from being met.

And Santos should tell Biden that the United States needs to listen carefully to the criticism of the war on drugs. As several presidents expressed, including Santos, this war is not going to be won, and the producer and transit countries pay enormous costs in violence and lost lives. After decades of the same failed policy, it’s time to listen.

Among close friends, the truth can be told.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Over 100 Groups Call on Obama & Mesoamerican Leaders to Tackle Root Causes of Violence at SICA

This post is cross-posted with the Latin America Working Group Education Fund's LAWGBlog. It was written by LAWG-EF Program Assistant Ruth Isabel Robles.

As President Obama prepares to sit down for meetings with President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico and other fellow elected leaders from the Americas at the Summit of the Central American Integration System (SICA) in Costa Rica, over 145 civil society organizations from 10 countries throughout the Americas, including the Latin America Working Group, sent a letter to their respective presidents urging them to address their concerns regarding the dire human rights crisis in the region.

Citing an increase in violence and human rights violations, the letter calls for a shift away from the failed militarized security policies which have exacerbated violence and human rights concerns in the region towards policies that address the root causes of violence...

A common practice throughout Latin America has been the use of the armed forces for citizen security tasks, a practice justified as necessary to combat organized crime and drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). However, the undersigned organizations call for a shift away from such policies that promote an inappropriate role for the military in the region, including those supported by the U.S., noting that these policies have played a harmful role and contributed to an increase in human rights abuses perpetrated by security forces.

In Mexico, this militarized response and lack of accountability for security forces has led to the deaths of over 80,000 people in the past six years with more than 26,000 disappeared. While in Guatemala, rates of violence are similar to those seen during the internal armed conflict, which, according to the letter, jeopardizes the peace process and fragile democracy built on the 1996 Peace Accords. But, "the starkest example of a breakdown of democratic institutions" can be found in Honduras where "the rule of law has disintegrated while violence and impunity have soared."

The imposition of large-scale extractive projects on marginalized communities is also a point of concern discussed in the letter. Free Trade Agreements have exacerbated poverty and inequality throughout the region resulting "in forced displacement, especially of indigenous, peasant, and Afro-descendant communities."

These civil society groups urge leaders to come together and generate policies to address the root causes of migration. Flawed regional security policies and the imposition of mega development projects have led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, leaving countless in the Americas with few options other than to migrate. As the debate for immigration reform gets underway in the U.S. Congress, civil society groups from across the Americas call for humane and sensible immigration reform to address the policies that force individuals to migrate in the first place.

To address the human rights situation discussed above, the organizations urge their respective officials to make concrete progress on the following measures:

  • An executive action taken on behalf of the United States to stop the flow of assault weapons and other firearms across the U.S.-Mexico Border
  • Recognize and protect human rights defenders
  • Propose a new model for security cooperation that provides alternatives to the ongoing war on drugs, such as regulation rather than prohibition, strong regional anti-money laundering efforts, and withdrawal of the armed forces from domestic law enforcement. They call on the U.S. government to end military aid and instead direct resources towards strengthening the institutionalization of the rule of law in these countries.
  • Promote development through democratic dialogue with respect for human and environmental rights
  • Address the root causes of migration and stop the criminalization and deportation of migrants; investigate and prosecute crimes against migrants as they travel through Mexico, as well as human rights violations at the border and within the United States
  • Although media reports and early statements indicate that many of the discussions will focus on economic cooperation, this letter is a clear statement from civil society that human rights priorities must be squarely on the table as well.

    To read the letter in English, click here.

    To read the letter in Spanish, click here.

    Monday, February 25, 2013

    Killings of Human Rights Defenders Increase in Colombia: What Is Going Wrong?

    This post was written by Lisa Haugaard of the Latin America Working Group Education Fund. The original article can be found on the LAWG Blog. To read the original version, click here.

    "What is going wrong in Colombia?" asks the coalition of human rights defenders in Colombia. The government of Juan Manuel Santos last year invested time and funding in mechanisms to protect communities and people at risk, among them human rights defenders.

    And yet, in 2012, every five days a defender was assassinated in Colombia, and every 20 hours one defender was attacked. In 2012, 357 men and women in Colombia were attacked for their work as human rights defenders, according to Somos Defensores ("We Are Defenders"), which maintains a unified database of attacks against human rights defenders. Sixty-nine defenders were assassinated, a jump from 49 assassinations in 2011. Indeed, this is the highest number of aggressions against defenders registered by the database in the last ten years, and a 49 percent increase since 2011. The attacks include: 202 threats, 69 assassinations, 50 assaults, 26 arbitrary detentions, 5 forced disappearances, 1 arbitrary use of the penal system, 3 robberies of information, and 1 case of sexual violence.

    "Is it possible that protecting leaders and defenders goes beyond providing bulletproof vests, bodyguards and laws that sit unused on top of the desks of ineffective government officials?"
    Somos Defensores 2012 annual report.

    There were efforts to improve and expand the coverage of the protection program in the last year, according to Somos Defensores. This was driven by substantive discussions in the National Roundtables for Guarantees between local and national human rights and social organizations and government officials. In 2012, the government's National Protection Unit received 9717 requests for protective measures, of which 3668 were approved. There was little progress in implementing collective protection measures, however, which are essential for returning communities, Afro-Colombian, indigenous and other communities at risk. Contingency plans were developed for various zones by the Interior Ministry but not a single one was implemented; according to the Ministry, local authorities are responsible for implementation.

    There were advances in 2012 in judicial rulings regarding the protection of defenders, including a Supreme Court ruling that crimes against defenders or land rights leaders should be considered crimes against humanity, given a context of systematic persecution. Other advances included: the network of international agencies in Colombia established a National Prize for Defending Human Rights in Colombia, and the government pledged to launch a media campaign on the rights of defenders in 2013.

    But the sad truth is: even if protection plans were fully implemented, no amount of protection can make up for the lack of progress in investigating and prosecuting attacks against human rights defenders. Three agencies that should help the most in defending defenders--the Attorney General's office, the Ombudsman's Office (Defensoría del Pueblo), and the Inspector General's office (Procuraduría General) were "absent" in 2012. In particular, "it is discouraging that after 8 long years of silence from the administration of Volmar Antonio Pérez [the Ombudsman], we hoped for a positive change, but it did not happen."

    The 69 defenders who lost their lives include indigenous leaders, people involved in organizing over mining companies, hip-hop musicians who organized against violence, youth leaders, community organizers, heads of victims' associations, land rights crusaders, union organizers, Afro-Colombian leaders, the organizer of a women's handicraft cooperative and an LGBT defender. Of the 69 murders, 9 are believed to have been committed by paramilitaries, 11 by the FARC guerrillas, 1 by the armed forces, and the vast majority are unknown. This represents an increase of assassinations attributed to the FARC compared to the 5 believed to be committed by this guerrilla group in 2011.

    Defenders were threatened by phone, visits to their homes, and distribution of threats via pamphlets, flyers, emails and text messages. Paramilitary successor groups such as the Black Eagles, Rastrojos and Urabeños were behind the majority of threats.

    Of all types of aggressions against defenders in 2012, paramilitaries were believed to be responsible for 41 percent; guerrillas for 9 percent; the Colombian government (army, police, intelligence, Attorney General's office, etc.) for 13 percent; and 37 percent were unknown.

    Somos Defensores notes that some of the increase in aggressions listed in the database may be due to the greater determination of the human rights community in Colombia to document abuses against them despite their fears.

    The year 2012 was "an endless round of meetings, workshops, encounters, studies, cell phones for protection, bullet proof vests, bullet proof cars, bodyguards, arms and conferences to debate the eternal situation of insecurity and persecution of a legal and legitimate exercise of rights that each day costs more lives in Colombia, but without attacking the real causes of the violence against human rights defenders in Colombia: the lack of investigations, and the real prevention of aggressions, impunity, corruption, stigmatization, and the abandonment of many leaders in regions of the country that are handed over to the control of armed actors, corrupt politicians and multinational corporations."

    Tuesday, February 5, 2013

    "What Should America Do About Gun Violence?"

    This blog first appeared on the LAWG Blog. To read the original version, click here.

    That was the title of the January 30th Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to consider how Congress should move forward to address gun violence. Emotions ran high as the hearing began with a statement from Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman from Arizona who survived a gunshot wound to the head two years ago. She still struggles with speech, but as she faced the Senate members, she spoke with a determination and force belying the gravity and urgency of her message. “Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something. It will be hard, but the time is now. You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you.”

    President Obama, Democrats, and Republicans alike have expressed the desire to enact “common sense legislation” around guns in the wake of what Senator Blumenthal (D-CT) refers to as the “wake up call,” the horrific shooting of twenty children and six adults in Newtown, CT on December 14th. Although the Senate hearing reflected agreement that such tragedies must be prevented in the future, there is a lack of consensus on what constitutes a “common sense” solution. From our vantage point, five policy proposals withstood questioning in the four-hour hearing and should be key components of upcoming legislation. Here is a snapshot of these measures:

    1. Make background checks a universal practice, and close the gun show and private vendor loopholes.

    Background checks are required at gun stores but not necessarily at gun shows or in a private sale, which, according to hearing witness James Johnson, Chief of Police in Baltimore County, MD, allows forty percent of guns to be purchased without a background check. When Wayne La Pierre, Executive Vice President and CEO of the National Rifle Association (NRA), argued that universal background checks will not be effective because criminals will not submit to them, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) emphatically exclaimed, “That’s the point!” LaPierre said that improved prosecution of gun-wielding criminals is the solution. Yes, prosecution is important, but Johnson responded, “The best way to stop a bad guy from getting a gun in the first place is a good background check.”

    2. Improve the background check system by ensuring relevant (mental health) data is available.

    Hearing witness Captain Mark Kelly, husband of Gabrielle Giffords and co-founder of Americans for Responsible Solutions, described how Jared Loughner, his wife’s shooter who was acknowledged to be mentally ill, was able to buy a gun despite having been submitted to a background check because no record of his illness existed in the background check system. His illness was not on any official record, but even if it was, the state of Arizona, as confirmed by Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, has over 120,000 disqualifying mental health records that are not accessible in the current background check system. Mr. LaPierre agreed that mental health records must be made accessible in a national background check system.

    3. Ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

    LaPierre and the other anti-gun control witnesses, Lawyer Gayle Trotter and Professor David Kopel, argued that banning specific weapons or limiting gun magazines is by definition arbitrary, ineffective, unnecessary, or against the freedoms of the Second Amendment. However, Chief Johnson maintained that high capacity magazines are not necessary for hunting and the law should limit them to provide a “window of escape” while a shooter reloads. The National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence, which he chairs, fully supports the proposed bill introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

    4. Address the “matrix of failure” and adopt a holistic approach to improve our mental health system.

    Captain Kelly was the first to acknowledge that “behind every victim lays a matrix of failure and inadequacy.” Everyone agreed upon the need to improve the mental health system. Senator Al Franken (D-MN) announced he will propose the Mental Health in Schools Act, while warning to be “careful here that we don’t stigmatize mental illness.” Kelly agreed with Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and President Obama’s stated plan that funding for counselors and psychological providers in schools be increased.

    5. Enact a gun trafficking bill.

    Senator Leahy has proposed a trafficking bill to cut down on straw purchasing. This measure received the least air time and no one in the hearing discussed trafficking in terms of Mexico. Please see previous LAWG blog on how new legislation could affect the gun flow and violence in Mexico. As Gabby Giffords said, “too many children are dying.” Children are disappearing and dying in Mexico by the thousands. Combating gun trafficking makes sense across international as well as state borders.

    Tensions ran high, as usual, over the interpretation of the Second Amendment in terms of gun legislation, but Senator Leahy concluded that in upcoming sessions there should be “some areas of agreement.” Prior to the hearing, Mark and Jackie Barden published the article in the Washington Post “Make the Debate over Guns Worthy of Our Son.” Their son Daniel, a bright and considerate seven-year-old, was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. Their family member created the Facebook page “What Would Daniel Do?” to celebrate his life and inspire others to act as Daniel did, listening and making room for dialogue. Congress should continue discussion of gun control legislation with that philosophy in mind, remembering the tragedies that have brought it to the table, always keeping in mind that the impact of lax U.S. gun policies reach far beyond the U.S. border.

    Tuesday, January 29, 2013

    Colombia Civil Society and the Peace Process

    As Colombia's peace process advances, here are some words to live by.

    “We can't condemn Colombians to another one hundred years of solitude and violence.”
    --Enrique Santos Calderón, former editor of El Tiempo, brother of President Juan Manuel Santos

    “It's one thing that the victims aren't present at the table in Havana, and it's another thing to ignore their voice, deny their rights. A peace without victims will have neither political nor moral legitimacy.”
    --Senator Juan Fernando Cristo

    "The dialogue for ending the armed conflict should be a moment in which sectors of Colombian society that have been marginalized, discriminated against and excluded have an opportunity to effectively present their demands, needs and rights that have long been neglected."
    --Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos

    What has happened so far in the process? The Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas opened peace negotiations on October 18th, 2012 in Oslo, Norway, raising some hope of putting an end to the hemisphere's longest-running armed conflict. In August, the two parties had agreed upon a five-point agenda which consists of: rural development, political participation, ending the conflict, solving the problem of illicit drugs, and victims.

    With the governments of Norway and Cuba acting as guarantors for the peace process and Venezuela and Chile providing logistical support and accompaniment, the substantive talks started in Havana in November on point number one, rural development. The government and the guerrilla delegations each have 30 members, with five from each team participating at the negotiating table at any one time. The U.S. government has repeatedly indicated its support for the Colombian government's decision to enter into peace talks, although the USG is not playing a direct role in negotiations. Colombia's second principal guerrilla group, the ELN, has offered to join the talks but the Colombian government asserts that it will proceed solely with the FARC at this moment. President Santos has stated his intention to achieve a final accord with the FARC before the end of November of this year.

    The talks are closed door, although information does leak. While the FARC floats proposals aimed at more sweeping change, President Juan Manuel Santos has repeatedly made clear his determination that Colombia's basic economic and political model is not on the table for negotiation. He has stated that fundamental aspects of national life such as the Constitution, the development model, and the concept of private property are not up for discussion.

    Bones of contention. A cease-fire has been an important bone of contention. The Colombian government has so far refused to establish a cease-fire until the FARC lays down its weapons, and indeed has escalated military action in a number of areas of the country. The FARC announced a unilateral cease-fire in November, which it then lifted on January 20th, stating it would not continue as the government had not reciprocated. There were accusations that the FARC had violated its own cease-fire. Another area of contention is over keeping the negotiations under wraps; the FARC complained after President Santos's brother, Enrique Santos, gave an all-too frank media interview revealing details of the negotiations.

    Progress? Despite these differences, talks do appear to be moving forward. On the first agenda point, for example, both sides have agreed to the need to provide land to the landless and displaced, while the FARC has backed off of its longstanding demand for more sweeping agrarian reform. While some sectors—notably former President Alvaro Uribe and his active twitter account—raise objections to the negotiations, broad sectors of the Colombian public at the start of negotiations appeared to be willing to give the process a chance, even if optimism is greatly tempered by the wreckage of past failed peace efforts that litters the Colombian mental landscape.

    Civil society involvement in the peace process. There is no formal civil society involvement at the negotiating table. The Colombian government and the FARC have agreed to several more indirect mechanisms for civil society involvement at this stage. First, they have set up a web page ( where any Colombian citizen or civil society organization can submit a proposal. This very limited mechanism receives “proposals” of up to 500 words, which are provided to negotiating teams but not displayed publicly. Second, the negotiating teams asked the National University and the UN agencies in Colombia to convene working groups on the first agenda item, rural development, and to summarize and synthesize the proposals that emerge for them. Over 1300 people participated from 1200 organizations. Potentially, this kind of effort could continue for other agenda items. Third, Colombia's congressional peace commission is organizing regional forums to collect and debate civil society input.

    The negotiating teams have stated that civil society participation can be more substantial in the third phase, which is the discussion of how to implement the agreements. However, this leaves the victims of the violent conflicts – victims of the guerrillas, of government forces, and of paramilitary warlords—on the margins as crucial decisions that affect them are made, including the measure and quality of truth, justice and reparations for victims that these peace accords promise to deliver.

    Rural development ideas from civil society. In the public forums on rural development, civil society organizations called for protection for communities returning to their lands; distribution of unproductive state-owned land to small-scale farmers; building of “campesino reserve” areas where small-scale farming will be protected; promotion of opportunities for rural youth; improvement of rural infrastructure; respect for indigenous and Afro-Colombian territories, including use of “prior consultation processes” for development projects; and limits on mining exploration.

    Human rights groups raise concerns for truth and justice—and safety for the civilian population. A major network of civil society groups, Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos, raised the following concerns and recommendations:

  • Protect the civilian population now, as talks proceed. As peace talks advance, the war is only escalating in certain regions, particularly indigenous and Afro-Colombian areas. Coordinación calls on both the Colombian government and the FARC to respect international humanitarian law, including ending recruitment of minors, sexual violence, aerial bombardments of civilian populations, and military operations in indigenous and Afro-Colombian territories. The coalition called on both parties to agree to a bilateral cease-fire.
  • Provide more effective inclusion of civil society, particularly victims' organizations, in this current phase of dialogue. “Given that the agenda should address the rights to truth, justice, reparation and the guarantee of non-repetition [that abuses will not continue], how the parties can attempt to reach agreement on these issues without the participation of victims and human rights groups cannot be comprehended”; “this leaves their participation for the implementation phase, when everything has already been decided."
  • Add to the agenda the topic of justice for grave human rights abuses, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Justice “has been excluded from the agenda.”
  • Establish a fully independent Truth Commission, as a “crucial and nonnegotiable demand.” The Coordinación calls for a commitment from all actors—whether “state, para-state, and against the state” –to speak the truth about their actions that have violated the human rights of Colombia's citizens. This includes revealing what happened to the kidnapped and the disappeared. Transitional justice measures cannot be applied without truth and reparations to victims.
  • Ensure a complete and effective demobilization of paramilitary groups and paramilitary successor organizations.
  • As the peace talks advance, we hope that the voices of victims of the conflict, victims of all armed actors, whether the guerrillas, paramilitaries or state security forces, can be truly heard, and that their demands for truth, justice and meaningful reparations will be reflected in the negotiations and agreements. As Senator Juan Fernando Cristo, who had championed the Victims' Law which President Santos signed into law, cautioned, “A peace without the victims will have no political or moral legitimacy.”