Olga Gutiérrez of the Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos

The Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos is the counterpart to the U.S./Colombia Coordinating Office in Washington, and the international recipient of the 1998 Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award. As "Secretaria Técnica" of the Coordinación, she is in charge of its day-to-day operation. Following are excerpts from an interview with Olga by Martin Eder during the summer of 1998. Summary and translation by M. Hope.

Question: Looking ahead to the new government of Andrés Pastrana: What in your opinion is the key issue for peace?

OG: For us, the key and central issue here is the struggle for the defense of human rights. Our general criticism of Ambassador Almudena Mazarraza and her office is that she has perhaps taken up the issue of peace with greater interest than the issue of human rights. We agree that it is very important to work for peace and to advance the peace process, but these are two distinct issues. They are intertwined, of course, but you simply cannot justify violations of human rights because there is a war going on.

This is a complicated question. Though there may be an internal armed conflict, a very complicated war, there is still a government, there is still a state, which has the responsibility to defend the rights of its citizens. But then the government presents itself as victim. The government says it cannot guarantee anything, that it is a victim of the war, that it cannot control the paramilitaries or the guerrillas or anyone, that its own personnel are attacked--which is in fact true, people from the Attorney General's office get harassed and assassinated. And so ultimately the government's position is that it can't even guarantee its own life so it cannot guarantee anything else. But for us that is an untenable position.

Our position is that you cannot hide behind the internal armed conflict to justify human rights violations. Most deaths in Colombia are not caused by the war. It is not the combatants who are dying, the deaths are of civilians. In many cases civilians die from paramilitary or army actions, or for other political reasons not necessarily related to the armed confrontation. And human rights violations are not limited to the war, they occur elsewhere. Violations occur against union leaders, workers. Why kill so many union leaders? They aren't at war, they aren't armed; granted, they do have political ideas, but supposedly we are in a democracy, supposedly we can talk, we can organize.... Human rights violations occur against grassroots community leaders, against peasant leaders. If they are unarmed, if they are not in the conflict, why kill them?

As the Coordinación, we work on several fronts. We monitor how the Colombian government responds to international pressure; we monitor the responses that the government gives the United Nations and how the office of the UN High Commissioner is fulfilling its dual mandate. We keep pestering, we propose things, we meet with the director of the office. In the case of Barranca, our demand of Mrs. Mazarraza was that her office should have issued a statement holding the state politically accountable. And as for the law on forced disappearances, while we found it pathetic that the military could block its passage, we found it worse that there was no public statement from the office of the High Commissioner calling into question how it is that the military can dictate to the rest of the government.

Nonetheless, the UN is very useful, and particularly through its technical mechanisms. We NGOs are staunch defenders of offices such as these, on-site, permanent, staffed by experts, with its dual mandate. And here in Bogotá, with Mrs. Mazarraza's office we have certainly seen a lot of substance and found it very productive. We would like to see it work. But we want to see it work pursuant to its dual mandate, which is both to monitor and to advise. For we've already had a past experience with mere advising, and it was not public. Advisers came and met with the government but nothing was ever known publicly, and so it had no political cost. We feel observation is critical, accompanied by issuing strong statements when warranted.

Yet we also have to be realistic. We believe strongly in these intergovernmental mechanisms. But ultimately these are states deciding, and not NGOs, not civilian society. The UN would never adopt a strong measure such as to come over here and intervene directly, it will always negotiate to some extent. Besides, the whole thing is quite political. The European Union is highly interested peace, particularly at this point in time. This gives good press, it has an enormous political dividend. And Spain, the principal funder of the office in Bogotá, has a particularly keen interest in working towards peace, in acting as mediator. So we have, then, an international community interested in closing ranks behind Ambassador Mazarraza, and in being persuaded that the peace issue and the human rights issue are one and the same. On some occasions other ambassadors have told us - and we need to work more with them - that what we have here is a difference of semantics and not of substance.

We don=t accept the state=s self-depiction as victim. No. As a state you have to respect the civilian population in order to guarantee the rule of law. You must uphold the minimal norms of civil and political rights, not to speak of economic rights, which are totally ignored in this country. But at the very least, the state has to be the guarantor of the right to life, to liberty, of the right to the defense of basic rights. And therefore our task is to call most emphatically upon the government to assume its political responsibility.