Open Letter to Colombian President-Elect Alvaro Uribe Velez

Wednesday, June 19 2002

Mr. Alvaro Uribe Velez
President-elect of Colombia

Dear Mr. Uribe:

As you make your first official visit to Canada as President-elect of Colombia, we are writing to you on behalf of a broad cross section of Canadians and Canadian institutions to express our profound concern over the state of human rights in your country. We call on you to take decisive measures to ensure an authentic and inclusive peace process aimed at achieving a negotiated political settlement to the armed conflict.

Throughout the past decade, a growing number of Canadian organizations have developed close bonds of cooperation and friendship with Colombian partners. We have provided accompaniment and support to churches, human rights and peace groups, trade unions and other social organizations. Time after time, we have been deeply moved by the courage and resilience of so many women, men and children in your country who are committed to building a nation in which peace with justice is a reality and in which human rights are upheld and respected.

But there are many obstacles to the peace that Colombians desire so much and there are real reasons for concern.

During the past decade, more than 40,000 Colombians have been killed in political or socio-politically motivated violence. At present, human rights groups in your country are documenting a daily average of twenty killings or forced disappearances in socio-political violence. This is double the number reported four years ago when President Pastrana took office. Almost one hundred per cent of these crimes go unpunished.

Canadians have watched with mounting horror and indignation as thousands of your country’s finest sons and daughters – grass-roots organizers, trade unionists, social activists, indigenous leaders, political figures, journalists, church and human rights workers, to name but a few – have been murdered in cold blood, forcibly “disappeared” or compelled to flee into exile following repeated death threats or attempts against their lives. Those that survive and remain at work or in their communities live under constant threat with no respect for their rights.

The legitimate work of trade unionists is seriously hindered by the systematic and widespread violation of fundamental workers’ rights. Indeed, Colombia has the dubious distinction of being the most dangerous place in the world for a trade unionist according to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).

Increasing numbers of Colombians have been forced to abandon their homes and livelihood and it is estimated that more than two million of them – the majority of these, women and children – are now internally displaced people, many of them living in conditions of extreme poverty.

Disturbingly, successive administrations have refused to take decisive action to address and bring an end to the abuses. Indeed, for more than a decade, the United Nations – and other international bodies such as the Organizations of American States (OAS) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) – have formulated a series of clear and precise recommendations aimed at improving the situation of human and trade union rights in your country. Yet the vast majority of these recommendations have gone unheeded.

In many cases your predecessors and their representatives abroad have sought to excuse their inaction with the argument that the situation is “complex” and that the abuses are being committed by “dark forces” beyond their control. Successive administrations have established – often with great fanfare – programmes and institutions that give the appearance of political will to address the human rights situation in the country. Yet, more often than not, these have amounted to little more than public relations exercises.

We do not dispute that the Colombian situation is complex. The presence of a long-standing armed conflict is an important source of violence in your country. Guerrilla armies have been responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law, which we deplore and to which they must be held to account. These have included deliberate and arbitrary killings of civilians, kidnappings and hostage-taking as well as indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on military targets – at times using gas cylinder explosives.

However, there is overwhelming evidence that the vast majority of political killings and disappearances are committed by paramilitary groups, often acting with the direct support or acquiescence of the state security forces. For these abuses, the Colombian state is accountable, for it remains the responsibility of the government to ensure that at all times – whether at war or not – state agents respect fundamental human rights and the rule of law.

Disturbingly, this year’s report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted there was a “noticeable contrast between the Government’s tough discourse against paramilitary groups and both its actions and failure to assess the extent of public servant’s ties to these groups.”

The UN, among others, has documented many cases where the authorities had been alerted about impending massacres and, having had the capacity to respond, took no preventative measures. In her recent report issued earlier this year, Ms. Hina Jilani, Special Representative of the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders, stated that the authorities “regularly receive reliable and detailed information about the precise location of permanent paramilitary bases and checkpoints, which are often within walking distance of army camps, yet fail to act against them.”

Mr. Uribe, as Colombia’s next President, you have the capacity to reverse this trend and give your fellow citizens a more hopeful future by pursuing a policy founded on respect for the human rights of every Colombian.

Still, like many others in the international community, we are profoundly concerned by statements you have made in recent months of the need to create a vigilante network of one million Colombians to work with the security forces. Many fear, with just cause, that this will lead to the increased involvement of the civilian population in the conflict, thereby depriving it of the protection to which it is due under international humanitarian law. The proposal not only disregards the right of the civilian population not to be involved in conflict situations but there is also the risk that the history of the growth of paramilitarism in Colombia will be repeated and that such structures will end up serving as an adjunct to the paramilitary.

We were likewise disturbed by proposals you have put forward to introduce anti-terrorist legislation that would grant, among other things, judicial police powers to the security forces. This goes against the spirit of the recent ruling by the Supreme Court in which it declared similar measures contained in the Law on Defence and National Security to be unconstitutional. It also risks strengthening the mechanisms that, so far, have ensured impunity by covering up responsibility for human rights violations committed by both the armed forces and paramilitary groups linked to them. We believe there is no dichotomy between security and human rights and that only by fully observing human rights can there be true security.

As Colombia’s next President, we urge you to develop a coherent and comprehensive human rights policy that respects UN, OAS and ILO conventions and other instruments that Colombia has ratified. Further, we call on you to fully implement the recommendations made by these bodies; among them, the ILO recommendations calling for support and assistance to trade unions and the longstanding recommendation of the UN and OAS calling on the Colombian government to permanently disband paramilitary groups by apprehending, trying and punishing those who belong to, lead, organize, support or finance them. As Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, you will have the power and responsibility to remove from active duty those members of the state security forces who engage in human rights abuses or who continue to support paramilitary groups through acts or omissions.

We note your recent statements, opening the possibility of renewed peace talks. We encourage you to translate these statements into a firm commitment to pursue a negotiated political settlement to the armed conflict. Such a process must include the active participation of the country’s social movements, and be based on full respect for human rights and international humanitarian law. We firmly believe that a humanitarian agreement to protect the civilian population should be at the centre of any negotiation.

Mr. Uribe, during the last few years, the Colombian government has made vigorous efforts to attract Canadian trade and investment. But you must know that a growing number of Canadian citizens are raising serious questions about the ethics of allowing expanded trade links to be fostered in a country with a government that allows its own citizens to be killed with impunity and that severely restricts the right to freedom of association, collective bargaining and a free press.

Please be assured that we offer our continued support for every effort to reach a firm and lasting peace based on justice and respect for human rights, and that we will remain vigilant to the situation in Colombia.


Church and religious organizations (40)

1. Patricia Steenberg, Executive Director, KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives
2. Most Reverend Jean Gagnon, President, Social Affairs Commission, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops
3. Robert Letendre, Executive Director, Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace
4. Andrew Ignatieff, Executive Director, Primate's World Relief and Development Fund, Anglican Church of Canada
5. Rev. Christopher M. Ferguson, Executive Minister, Justice, Global and Ecumenical Relations Unit, United Church of Canada
6. Rev. Stephen Kendall, Principal Clerk, The Presbyterian Church in Canada
7. Margaret Clare Ford and Carol Dixon, Clerks, Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers)
8. Hector Poblete, Coordinator, Comité chrétien pour les droits humains en Amérique latine
9. Rev. Robert Faris, Coordinator, Canadian Churches Forum for Global Ministries
10. Rev. Dr. Stewart Gillan, Executive Director, Churches Council on Theological Education in Canada
11. Dr. Douglas Pritchard, Canada Coordinator, Christian Peacemaker Teams
12. Sister Gisèle Turcot, sbc, President, Canadian Religious Conference
13. Sister Maria Bierer, IBVM, General Leader, Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Loretto Sisters), Toronto
14. Rev. Jack Lynch, S.F.M., Superior General, Scarboro Missions
15. Very Reverend David Nazar, S.J., Provincial Superior, Society of Jesus, Upper Canada Province
16. Sister Delia Calis, Provincial Leader, School Sisters of Notre Dame
17. Sister Anne-Marie Conn, rscj, Society of the Sacred Heart (Canada)
18. Sister Margaret Kane, CSJ, General Superior, Sisters of St. Joseph of Hamilton
19. Sister Eva Janning, CPS, Provincial Superior, Missionary Sisters of the Precious Blood in North America
20. Very Reverend Lorford A. Keasey, C.R, Provincial Superior, Congregation of the Resurrection
21. Fr. Bob Mokry, o.f.m., Provincial Minister, Province of Christ the King, Franciscans of Western Canada
22. Kenneth J. Decker, CSB, Acting Superior General, Congregation of St. Basil
23. Sister Mary Louise Brink, Congregational Leader, Sisters of Charity of Halifax, Nova Scotia
24. Michel Merizzi, M Afr, Provincial Superior, North American Province, Missionaries of Africa
25. Pat Fitzpatrick, CSSp, Provincial Superior, Spiritans TransCanada Province
26. Sister Marjorie Myles, Superior General, Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception
27. Sheila M. Moss, SSA , Western Canada Province, The Sisters of Saint Ann
28. Frances Brady, OLM, Congregational Leader, Our Lady’s Missionaries
29. Sheila McKinley, OSU, General Secretary, Ursuline Religious of Chatham
30. Josephine Badali, cnd Province Leader for Congregation of Notre Dame, Visitation Province
31. Lorraine Caza, Congregation Leader, Congregation of Notre Dame, Montreal
32. Joan Quinn, CSC – Provincial, Sisters of Holy Cross
33. Sister Lucy Germain, CSJ General Superior, Sisters of St. Joseph of Pembroke
34. Ernie Regehr, Director, Project Ploughshares
35. Sister Helen Harding, Congregational Leader, Sisters of Mercy of Newfoundland
36. Sister Sandra Shannon, General Assistant of Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, Kingston
37. Jean Bellefeuille, Responsable du Carrefour de Pastorale en monde ouvrier (CPMO)
38. Denis Frotin, Pasteur, des Églises-Uni
39. Jean Greffard, communauté des capucins
40. Paula Kline, Director, Montreal City Mission

Trade union organizations (17)

41. Kenneth V. Georgetti, President, Canadian Labour Congress
42. Buzz Hargrove, President, Canadian AutoWorkers Union
43. Lawrence McBrearty, National Director for Canada, United Steelworkers of America
44. Judy Darcy, National President, Canadian Union of Public Employees
45. Deborah Bourque, National President, Canadian Union of Postal Workers
46. Brian Payne, President, Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada
47. Elaine Price, President, Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour
48. Barbara Byers, President, Saskatchewan Federation of Labour
49. Jim Sinclair, President, BC Federation of Labour
50. Wayne Samuelson, President, Ontario Federation of Labour
51. Kathy McVean, President, Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association
52. Dave C. Haggard, President, Industrial, Wood and Allied Workers of Canada
53. Fred Muzin, President, Hospital Employees' Union, BC Health Services Division, CUPE
54. George Heyman, President, BC Government and Service Employees' Union (BCGEU)
55. David Chudnovsky, President, BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF)
56. Barry O'Neill, President, CUPE BC
57. Roger Fortin, CSN, Trois-Rivières

Human Rights, Development and Other Non-Governmental Organizations (23)

58. Gerry Barr, President, Canadian Council for International Co-operation
59. Kathleen Mahoney, Interim President, Rights and Democracy
60. Francine Néméh, Présidente, Association québécoise des organismes de coopération internationale
61. Neil Tilley, Chair, Atlantic Council for International Cooperation / Conseil atlantique pour la coopération internationale
62. Scott Harris, Executive Director, Alberta Council for Global Cooperation
63. Karine Rainville, Coordinator, Ontario Council for International Co-operation
64. Rhonda Spence, President, CoDevelopment Canada
65. Patricia Rebolledo, Executive Director, Horizons of Friendship
66. Rieky Stuart, Executive Director, Oxfam Canada
67. Zonibel Woods, Director of Government Relations, Action Canada for Population and Development
68. David Blair, President, Canadian Association of Labour Lawyers
69. Nancy Bennett, Executive Director, Developing Countries Farm Radio Network
70. Manuel Rozenthal, Canada Colombia Solidarity Campaign
71. Iliam Burbano, Coordinator, Canadian Colombian Association
72. Suzanne Loiselle, Director General, Entraide Missionnaire
73. Sister Theresa Nagle, SSND Social Justice Office
74. Jim Dahl, Director of Global Operations, Christian Children’s Fund of Canada
75. Dr. Kevin Chan, Co-Chair, Canadian Society for International Health
76. Dr. Viviana Patroni, Director, Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean, York University
77. Joan Tuck, President of the Board of Directors, Social Justice Committee
78. Grahame Russell, Co-Director, Rights Action
79. Rick Berube, President, Sombrilla
80. Mulugeta Abai, Executive Director, Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture