On Sunday, as part of a 9/11 commemoration ceremony, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Michael McKinley, reportedly said this (my translation from the EFE article): “Colombia has become a model of inspiration for the world for the struggle against terrorism, without sacrificing the fundamental values, democratic institutions, and objectives that we all share.”
It’s hard to know where to start with a statement as absurd as this one. First, referring to Colombia’s armed conflict as a “war on terror” is a dangerous misappropriation of terms. Then-President Uribe started using this language after 9/11 in order to garner U.S. government support and funding for his military efforts against the FARC and other guerrilla forces. The problem with calling a civil war a “war on terror” is that it transforms certain combatants into terrorists. This in turn exempts these particular armed actors from the protection of certain international laws and norms regarding human rights of combatants.
Second, the Uribe government indeed exploited this technical difference to the fullest. Over the course of its recent “struggle against terrorism,” the Colombian military has been implicated in massacres, extra-judicial killings, collaboration with illegal right-wing paramilitary forces, and more. Politicians up to the top of the government hierarchy have been accused and convicted of having close ties to these same paramilitary forces, which are among the leading violators of human rights throughout the country. (Recently, an ex-paramilitary leader accused Uribe himself of actually founding a paramilitary subgroup.)
Finally, as part of the Uribe government’s “war on terror,” a key strategy has been trying to rhetorically link human rights defenders, left-wing politicians and intellectuals, etc with the guerrillas – dangerously undermining key actors in the democratic process. I’ve mentioned this previously on the blog – on multiple occasions Uribe referred to human rights defenders as the “intellectual wing of the guerrilla,” virtually inviting violence against these types of activists and leaders. Sure enough, targeted killings of human rights defenders and community leaders have been a consistent problem in Colombia since 9/11 (and before).
It would be one thing if the U.S. feigned ignorance of these issues and then declared Colombia to be a model for countries waging a war on terror. But U.S. politicians don’t even have this excuse. Each year, the State Department is required by U.S. statute to produce a report on the human rights situation in Colombia, so that Congress can justify continuing military aid to the country. Invariably, the “memorandum of justification” is just that: a report that makes Colombia look just good enough on the human-rights front for Congress to approve more funding. Nevertheless, the reports are useful documents because they indicate that the U.S. government is aware of, and officially recognizes, a wide array of human rights violations in Colombia.
The 2010 Memorandum of Justification, for instance, describes in impressive detail many human rights atrocities in Colombia, including those perpetrated by the government in the guise of their “war on terror.” For instance, the report has a chapter on the Soacha “false positives” scandal in which Colombian troops kidnapped poor urban youths, murdered them, dressed them as guerrillas and claimed them as combat “kills” (for which their units would receive credit and be awarded resources). There are also details about every single arrest, indictment and legal proceeding against military officers and enlisted men regarding human rights violations. There are literally hundreds of cases in each category.
The State Department might point to the prosecution of these cases as examples of how Colombia is improving its human rights situation and thus is deserving of military aid. I wouldn’t agree with that, but it’s at least a logical argument to make. What isn’t logical at all is being aware of all these incidents (whether or not they are being prosecuted) and then declaring that, hey, Colombia should be a model for the rest of the world. It’s pretty hard to say with a straight face that Colombia has conducted its “struggle against terrorism,” as it were, without massive violations of human rights and undermining of democratic institutions. I’d like to hear Ambassador McKinley explain his statement a little.