President Barack Obama must place human rights at the top of his agenda when meeting this Monday with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. However, discussion of respect for human rights in Colombia is likely to be overshadowed by the pending Free Trade Agreement, currently stalled in the U.S. Congress.
"It is crucial that President Obama send the right message, with the right tone. Colombia is a close partner of the United States, which makes it all the more important that we voice concerns about human rights violations and the rule of law," said Gimena Sánchez Garzoli, Senior Associate for Colombia, Washington Office on Latin America.
President Uribe's visit comes at a time when Colombia is awaiting his final word on whether he will run for a third term in May 2010, a step that will require the country to amend its constitution. If he runs and wins, President Uribe will face few checks on executive power, as his chosen political allies will be in control of all judicial and oversight bodies.
President Uribe is embroiled in a number of human rights, corruption and abuse of power scandals. Evidence continues to emerge that for seven years, Mr. Uribe's presidential intelligence agency (DAS) engaged in illegal wiretaps and surveillance of hundreds of human rights defenders, journalists, labor leaders, opposition politicians, and Supreme Court judges. The presidential agency spied on their families, and even international and U.S.-based human rights organizations.
Some of the most frequent targets of the DAS spying have been Supreme Court judges charged with investigating widespread allegations of ties between the president's political allies and drug-funded paramilitary death squads. The so-called "para-politics" scandal has put over 30 percent of Colombia's Congress, and many governors and mayors, under investigation, on trial, or behind bars. Nearly all of the implicated politicians are members of pro-Uribe parties.
Meanwhile, months after Colombians were shocked by revelations that the army killed dozens of young men in a Bogota slum, government forces continue to murder innocent civilians with tragic frequency. Colombian human rights groups are still documenting new cases of extra=judicial executions and an alarming spike in forced disappearances.
President Uribe exacerbates these problems by regularly labeling non-violent human rights activists as terrorists. For example, President Uribe recently spoke on national television about renowned human rights journalist Hollman Morris, saying that his journalism was "deceitful and a glorification of terrorism" and that it "is important to distinguish between friends of terrorists who act as journalists and those who are real journalists." Such attacks endanger human rights defenders, publicly stigmatize them, unleash the intelligence services against them and result in a surge of death threats.
Colombia continues to be the most dangerous place in the world for labor activists. So far this year, 21 trade unionists have been assassinated. Efforts to bring perpetrators to justice are inadequate as 95% of labor killings remain unpunished. For these reasons it is imperative that President Obama, both publicly and privately, conveys a strong message on human rights to his Colombian counterpart.