For the present administration (as well as the former), Colombia is considered an important strategic ally in the Americas, with its “like-minded” government providing a diplomatic counterpoint to left-wing power-houses including Venezuela. This summer, the countries forged the U.S.-Colombia Defense Cooperation Agreement, designed to “facilitate effective bilateral cooperation on security matters in Colombia.” The highly controversial agreement (at least in Latin America) allows the US military increased access to Colombian bases, ostensibly to battle narco-traffiking and other regional security threats.
This partnership would be ideal, if Colombia did not have one of the worst human rights track records in the world.
This week, a panel of experts and activists addressed Congress expressing their concern for the safety of human rights defenders in Colombia. United Nations Special Rapporteur Margaret Sekaggya testified that the Colombian government has failed to curb a “pattern of harassment and persecution” that plagues the efforts of human rights activists in the country, and has cost a number of them their lives.
According to Andrew Hudson of Human Rights First, activists in Colombia are subject to “the full gamut of human rights violations, including torture, threats, misuse of state intelligence, systematic stigmatisation, unfounded criminal proceedings and impunity for violations of defenders.”
Panelists pointed to the case of Carmelo Agamez, a human rights defender from the town of San Onofre, who has spent the last 11 months in jail after being accused of consorting with a paramilitary group that he had spent his life battling. In a phone interview from his jail cell, Agamez told the Christian Science Monitor that the charges were attempt to keep him quiet.
According to the panel, much of the blame for abuses falls on the government of current President Álvaro Uribe, who has labeled human rights activists as “subversive,” even going so far as to equate them to terrorists. Kelly Nichols, executive director of the U.S. Office on Colombia, further pointed out that “the capacity of the president and his advisors to order intelligence operations without safeguards or oversight” was in need of revision.
Should the Obama administration be ‘playing ball’ with a country where 3 million people are displaced by violence while human rights activists are sent to prison on trumped-up charges? According to Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, Obama should be doing much more to push the Uribe government to truly clean up its act on human rights.
By Mary Tharin