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American Shame in Colombia

As Noam Chomsky has often cautioned, when considering foreign relations, and especially military intervention, states should always heed the primary Hippocratic oath – “First, do no harm.”   The U.S. has certainly disregarded this admonition with reckless abandon in Latin America, and Colombia is the foremost example of this, at least at the present time.   Human Rights Watch appears to concur with this judgment.

Thus, Human Rights Watch  (HRW) just released its annual human rights report on Colombia, and it is not pretty.   The punch line of the report is most damning of the United States and its role in that country’s abysmal practices – undoubtedly, the very worst of this hemisphere.

As HRW concludes, after its litany of atrocities being committed by the Colombian state and its paramilitary (death squad) allies,

The U.S. remains the most influential foreign actor in Colombia.  In 2011 it provided approximately US $562 million in aid, about 61 percent of which was military and police aid.   Thirty percent of US military aid is subject to human rights conditions, which the US Department of State has not enforced.   In September 2011 the State Department certified that Colombia was meeting human rights conditions.

HRW explains in detail that the human rights violations the U.S. is aiding and abetting in Colombia are indeed the worst imaginable.   As HRW explains, in Colombia

paramilitary successor groups continue to grow, maintain extensive ties with public security force members and local officials, and commit widespread atrocities.   There has also been ongoing violence against rights defenders, community leaders, and trade unionists.

According to the HRW report, the paramilitary death squads, whose power flows from “[t]oleration of the groups by public security forces,” actively “engage in drug trafficking; actively recruit members, including children; and commit widespread abuses against civilians, including massacres, killings, rapes and other forms of sexual violence, threats and forced displacement.”   HRW notes that, “[i]n January 2011 Colombia’s national police chief publicly stated that such groups are the largest source of violence in Colombia.”  This is a significant admission because the U.S., to justify its continued military support for Colombia, would have the public believe that it is the left-wing guerillas who are most responsible for the violence in Colombia.   In fact, this is not true.  Rather, it is the paramilitary death squads who bear this responsibility, and it is these death squads, allied as they are with the official Colombian security forces, which are being supported by the military aid the U.S. is sending to that country.

Moreover, while the U.S. attempts with a straight face to portray Colombia as a “democracy,” contrasting this with countries such as Cuba or Venezuela which the U.S claims lack democratic values, the recent HRW report makes it clear that Colombia is not recognizable as a democracy in any real sense.  Thus, HRW explains that

Candidates campaigning for the nationwide and  local elections in October 2011 were also frequently killed amid reports of alleged links between candidates and armed groups.  According to the Colombian NGO Mision de Observacion Electoral, 40 candidates were killed in 2011, representing a 48 percent increase in such crimes reported during the 2007 local elections.

If the murder of political candidates were not bad enough, HRW explains that there is “ongoing infiltration of the political system by paramilitaries and their successor groups.  . . .  Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office reported that 119 municipalities faced a high risk of electoral violence or interference by paramilitary successor groups during the October 2011 local elections.”

In addition, as HRW explains, the Colombian military has been guilty of more than 3,000 extrajudicial killings of civilians in what is known as the “false positive” scandal wherein “army personnel murdered civilians and reported them as combatants killed in action, apparently in response to pressure to boost body counts.”   This “pressure to boost body counts,” moreover, is coming ultimately from the U.S. which is pursuing an aggressive anti-insurgency policy which rewards the Colombian military for its killing of guerillas.

Meanwhile, and of special concern to the labor movement in the U.S., HRW confirms that Colombia remains the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists with 28 unionists killed in 2011.  And, this year has gotten off to a horrible start.  Thus, in recent days, three (3) trade unionists have been killed in Colombia – at least one (Victor Manuel Hilarion Palacios) by the Colombian armed forces themselves.    In another instance, Mauricio Redondo, a leader of the USO union (the oil union of Colombia and that country’s oldest union) was murdered along with his wife, leaving five children orphaned.   Again, such killings do nothing to slow down U.S. aid to the Colombian regime.

Much is to be learned from the case of Colombia.   For one, it puts a lie to the U.S.’s claim, often used to justify U.S. military intervention, of supporting democracy and human rights abroad.   In the case of Colombia, the U.S. is indeed fueling massive human and labor rights abuses by supporting a regime that it is literally at war with its own people.

This brings us to the next and most important lesson – violence is not working in Colombia to end the insurgency or to bring about positive change.  And yet, it is violence that the U.S. is choosing to use ostensibly to advance such ends.   Apparently, the U.S. (the proverbial hammer seeing nails everywhere) does so because violence has become the only tool the U.S. knows to solve problems, despite the fact that this violence almost invariably exacerbates these problems and indeed creates many others.   It is clear that in Colombia the only viable solution for a lasting peace, and for real prosperity, is a negotiated settlement to the armed conflict.  Tragically, it is such a settlement which the U.S. has refused to support over the years.

Indeed, as Colombia Reports explained, the U.S. has actually put out a call in recent days for countries throughout the region to step up concerted, violent assaults on the guerillas in Colombia.   Meanwhile, as Colombia Reports also explained, it is Cuba which is hosting secret peace talks between insurgents and the Colombian government.

As in the case of Haiti where the Cubans have sent doctors to fight cholera and the U.S. sent soldiers to fight the population, it is Cuba which is playing a positive, peaceful role in our hemisphere; not the U.S.   This fact should be humbling to our leaders in the U.S. if they indeed know humility or shame.

Daniel Kovalik is Senior Associate General Counsel of the United Steelworkers (USW). 

More articles by:

Daniel Kovalik teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

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