Colombia: President Alvaro Uribe Seeks to Restrict Un Human Rights Group, Say Diplomats

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Foreign diplomats and rights activists have alleged that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has sought to restrict the activities of the UN human rights office that has been stationed in Bogota since 1997. Diplomats cited by the Associated Press said that Uribe was trying to remove the UN agency's right to publicly criticize human rights abuses in Colombia and to publish an annual report on the hemisphere's quantitatively worst zone for human rights violations. Diplomats say the agency is particularly vulnerable to pressure from the Uribe government since its four-year mandate expires in October. As human rights groups have heightened their criticism of his administration, the president and those close to him have expressed greater hostility to those groups.

UN group's need for charter renewal makes it vulnerable

The Bogota office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), one of 34 such missions around the world, has verified 8,100 human rights abuses in Colombia since it was founded by a convention that the government of Colombia signed in Geneva in 1997, implicating rebels, paramilitaries, and government forces alike in Colombia's four-decade-old civil war. The agency recently revealed details of the killings of 29 civilians in the last 18 months, including pregnant women and children, by security forces who claimed the victims were rebels (see for example NotiSur, 2005-03-18). Rights groups say the UN's work helped lead to the arrest of 18 soldiers, an embarrassing development for the hard-liner Uribe.

Now Uribe's government has been lobbying foreign governments to drop the agency's independent monitoring role and limit its work to technical support for the Colombian government, according to the diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Washington, meanwhile, stands out in its support of Uribe, its firmest ally in South America. Despite a March letter from 61 foreign and Colombian human rights and development organizations asking US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to support the agency's current mission, US Embassy officials in Bogota said Washington will not get involved.

A group of 80 US Congress members also sent a letter on Aug. 3 to Secretary Rice, saying the UNHCHR should not leave Colombia and calling for the State Department to "express to the Colombian government, with strength and firmness, that the State Department fully supports the renewal of the UN's mandate in Colombia." Congressional representatives like Tom Lantos (D-CA) and Frank Wolf (R-VA) signed the letter.

European diplomats say Uribe's government has intensified its campaign recently by rejecting the top choice to take over the agency--Scott Campbell, deputy director of Washington-based advocacy group Global Rights, who did field work in the Congo for the UNHCHR. Instead, the UNHCHR named Uruguayan sociologist Juan Pablo Corlazzoli to the post in the first week of July.

Neither Campbell nor Corlazzoli returned phone calls and emails seeking comment, and Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos refused to confirm the veto. But one diplomat familiar with the selection process said Santos told him that Campbell was perceived as biased because he worked for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that have criticized Uribe's rights record.

Corlazzoli, who took office in August, has experience with the Mision de Verificacion de las Naciones Unidas para Guatemala (MINUGUA) and played a role in the implementation of the Guatemalan Peace Accords (see NotiCen, 2001-01-18 and 2004-12-02). He succeeds Michael Fruhling, who had prior conflicts with Uribe.

Bogota daily El Tiempo quoted a government source as saying the UN office should not "limit itself to pointing out errors and assuming a critical position, but should bring solutions."

The Colombian government has complained the UN rights reports are unduly harsh and fail to give enough credit to Uribe's get-tough security policies for a sharp drop in reported ransom kidnappings and homicides, a common political defense Uribe makes of his "democratic security" policy. …