Do Human Rights Groups Ignore the Guerrillas?

December 2000

by Adam Isacson, Senior Associate; and Abbey Steele, Intern
Center for International Policy

Human rights groups working on Colombia frequently face criticism that they ignore Colombian guerrillas' abuses. It is common during the question-and-answer sessions of conferences and seminars to hear audience members denounce us for focusing too much on Colombian military and paramilitary groups' murders, massacres, forced displacements and other crimes, while giving short shrift to the similar crimes of the FARC and ELN.

Colombia's extreme right echoes these charges. A message in our e-mail last week from a group calling itself "Dignidad Colombia" asks, "Why is it that the so-called NGOs, who call themselves 'human rights defenders,' rarely protest the guerrillas' atrocities but scream loudly when forces in opposition to the guerrillas commit these abuses? This is extremely suspicious." Paramilitary groups use the same language, as in this excerpt from a September death threat by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) against the Barrancabermeja-based Regional Corporation for Human Rights (CREDHOS): "The AUC has determined that human rights workers, particularly CREDHOS, are auxiliaries of the guerrillas. In this case, from this moment we have made them a military target &ldots; they do no more than denounce crimes of the AUC and label us constantly as enemies of peace and nevertheless do not publicly denounce the guerrillas' crimes."

We are now confronted with similar charges here in Washington. Any who attended the House of Representatives' September 21 Western Hemisphere Subcommittee hearing were treated to Rep. Dan Burton's (R-Indiana) remark that "no human rights organization ever condemns the FARC for its brutality &ldots; The credibility of the NGO organizations is suspect when they fail to condemn this sort of activity." Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Brian Sheridan, a witness at the hearing, went out of his way to say "I'd like to identify myself with Congressman Burton's comments."

There is a compelling need to address these charges and to expose them for the dangerous falsehoods that they are. These comments imply that human rights groups - many of whose members are left-of-center in their personal politics - somehow favor or support Colombian guerrilla groups. To imply this in Colombia's violent, volatile atmosphere is to compromise the safety of people who are working at great risk.

To begin with, these comments are patently false. International and Colombian human rights groups frequently go on record strongly criticizing the FARC and ELN. One need look no further than the Colombia entries in the annual reports of Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. Human Rights Watch, which releases about one major investigative report per year about a Colombian human rights issue, included a lengthy section about "Guerrilla Violations of International Humanitarian Law" in its 1999 report War Without Quarter. Amnesty USA's Andrew Miller told a congressional committee in October 2000 that his organization "has also denounced abuses of international humanitarian law carried out by Colombia's armed opposition groups, primarily the FARC, the ELN, and the EPL. Abuses committed by these groups include forced recruitment of minors, threats, abductions, "disappearances", selective killings, and massacres, among others." The Center for International Policy, which does not document individual human rights cases, nonetheless signs onto joint condemnations of guerrilla abuses and includes criticisms of the guerrillas' record in its publications. The Colombian Dilemma, published in February 2000, points out that "Guerrillas &ldots; routinely execute or massacre civilians whom they regard as their opponents, and carry out numerous indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations - at times with inaccurate makeshift bombs that claim many noncombatant victims."

Colombia's leading human rights groups are also unequivocal in their condemnations of guerrilla abuses. Two Jesuit-run NGOs, the Center for Research and Political Studies (CINEP) and Justicia y Paz, maintain an extensive, objective "data bank" of human rights violations that documents all sides equally. The Colombian Commission of Jurists, which provides the most widely cited human rights statistics, is another excellent source of information about the guerrillas' human rights failings.

Despite mainstream human rights NGOs' efforts to maintain balance, however, it is probably true that paramilitary and military abuses show up more in most groups' reporting. There are several good reasons why this might be so.

First, paramilitaries commit the majority of killings. In fact, for the past few years the Colombian Commission of Jurists - whose figures the U.S. State Department cites in its own annual human rights reports - has found the paramilitaries responsible for about three out of every four politically motivated killings in Colombia. The paramilitaries - which in many well-documented cases are aided and abetted by members of the Colombian military - also commit the majority of massacres and forced displacements of civilian non-combatants. (The guerrillas commit the majority of violations that normally do not lead to the victims' death, such as kidnapping, extortion and bombings of energy infrastructure.)

Second, calling for a government response to guerrilla human rights violations is often redundant. Colombian state authorities are already presumably taking all possible actions to bring guerrilla leaders to justice. By contrast, when a military or paramilitary violation occurs, human rights groups must demand that the Colombian state comply with its human rights commitments. Too often, these commitments are not met, and we are confronted by failures to respond promptly, to investigate thoroughly or to prosecute those responsible. A persistent pattern of state impunity makes human rights groups' recommendations highly relevant.

Third, the implications for U.S. policy are clearer. The United States is giving $2 million per day in aid to Colombia's armed forces. It is incumbent on the U.S.-based human rights community to guarantee that this aid does not benefit military units that commit abuses, either directly or by aiding and abetting paramilitaries. More specifically, close scrutiny of military and paramilitary violations is needed if existing U.S. laws are to be implemented correctly. The human rights conditions in the aid package demand thorough reporting about the military-paramilitary relationship and officers' trials in civilian courts. The Leahy Amendment, which prohibits aid to foreign military units that violate human rights with impunity, demands current information about abuses and investigations.

Fourth, military and especially paramilitary violations are under-reported in the U.S. media. Human rights NGOs' documentation of these abuses helps to fill a large, and often missing, part of the picture. "The very existence of right-wing paramilitaries is missing from many media accounts," wrote Peter Hart of the watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting in May 2000. Though paramilitary abuses are more frequent, guerrilla attacks are more likely to be reported in major U.S. metropolitan areas' daily newspapers. While wire services like Reuters and the Associated Press do a good job of documenting paramilitary abuses when they occur, their reports are usually available only to those who look for them on the Internet, as most newspaper editors don't run them. When they do, as in the New York Times' excellent coverage of the February 2000 El Salado massacre (readable as part of the Congressional Record), the stories often appear several months later (in this case, July 2000).

Finally, pressuring for the pursuit and arrest of paramilitary leaders is necessary if Colombia's peace process is ever to make significant progress. Guerilla groups that negotiated past agreements with the Colombian government have seen many of their leaders assassinated. The Patriotic Union party, sponsored by the FARC in the mid-1980s as a step toward non-violent political participation, was devastated by about 3,000 selective assassinations in seven years. These past assassination campaigns have made the present peace process exceedingly difficult, as the FARC and ELN refuse to turn in their weapons out of concern for their own security.

As Professors William Leogrande and Kenneth Sharpe explain in the current edition of World Policy Journal, "The problem has not been getting the guerrillas to the bargaining table - they have been negotiating on and off with the government for almost two decades. &ldots; The paramilitary right is a critical obstacle to a negotiated settlement of the Colombian conflict. [Colombian President Andrés] Pastrana cannot guarantee the personal security of the guerrillas if they lay down their arms." Focusing on the paramilitary problem, then, can bring the pressure needed to make a peace process in Colombia possible.

Everyone working to end Colombia's conflict wants to see all sides stop committing human rights abuses. Irresponsible accusations of bias unhelpfully distract from this common goal, and in fact make human rights groups' work more dangerous. Those who make such statements should find another way to advance their policy agendas.




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