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19 November 2008updated 24 Sep 2015 11:01am

Uribe’s human rights legacy?

The slaughter of innocent civilians and trade unionists in Colombia has caused international outrage

By Edward L Davey

The newly appointed chief commander of the Colombian Army has unveiled a raft of new measures he says are intended to strengthen respect for human rights in his country.

The announcement comes in the wake of criticism of the ‘widespread and systematic’ killings of civilians by the military, made by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and by the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights.

General Freddy Padilla de León has been in post for just a week, since the resignation of the previous incumbent, General Montoya, over his association with some appalling human rights infringements.

The move – which purports to establish new rules of transparency, impartial investigation and increased human rights training in the Colombian Army – is being seen in part as a response by the government of President Álvaro Uribe to Barack Obama’s election victory.

Colombia’s human rights record was a key point of discussion between the two US presidential candidates during the campaign, with Obama saying his opposition to the US signing a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia was due to concerns about Uribe’s record.

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The most telling recent human rights scandal, which has shocked the conscience of the nation, has been that of the ‘falsos positivos’, or false combatant deaths.

This macabre and widely-documented abuse involves the Armed Forces’ arbitrary, extra-judicial execution of innocent young men taken from poor urban and rural areas of Colombia.

The victims are then passed off as combatants killed in battles with left-wing guerrilla group, the FARC, and used as ‘evidence’ the Army is winning the war against the Marxist rebels.

Kill rates have been tied to individual soldiers’ remuneration and to their promotion prospects within the armed forces.

Hence the incentive to produce ‘falsos positivos’ where FARC fighters have not been found.

Colombia’s paramilitary groups – criminal, right-wing organisations, often working in connection with the armed forces – are intricately involved in the killings too.

In the most recent documented case, 11 young men were transported from a shanty town outside Bogotá to be killed the following night in a small town 400km from the city, the paramilitaries played a key role as the army’s intermediaries, luring the men with the false promise of lucrative employment.

In the words of one of the mothers of the eleven victims: “My son would have never lifted an arm in combat in his life.”

The poverty and desperation of these young men from the inner-city slums, coupled with the perverse incentives created by President Uribe’s rhetoric on ‘Democratic Security’ – winning the conflict against the FARC at all costs – have combined to cause a chilling outcome. 535 more such cases of alleged ‘falsos positivos’ have been registered in the courts during the past 18 months.

Every party in Colombia’s protracted conflict have been implicated in human rights abuses of the most heinous kind – the FARC, paramilitary forces and Colombian Army alike. There is some hope that Obama’s victory, with its sharper focus on the human rights situation here, will herald significant advances in the months ahead; much will depend, however, on President Uribe, whose popularity ratings remain very high.

Edward Davey is a freelance journalist based in Bogotá

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