Colombia Delegation – Day 6

Dated:   

We had further meetings this morning with the Colombian Government, in particular the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Land. I went to the Ministry of Interior and met with Dr Andres Villamizar, Director of the National Protection Unit (NPU). The NPU is responsible for the protection programme across the country designed to safeguard those at threat of violence or assassination including trade unions, community leaders and senior government officials.

The NPU is a very new organisation, protection having previously been dealt with by the Administrative Department of Security (DAS) which was closed down at the end of 2011 following several scandal-filled years. This included allegations (a great many of which were substantiated) of links with paramilitaries, illegal surveillance of political opponents of the Government, including members of Congress.

Colombia Delegation Meetings

The process of protection is that following a request a risk assessment is carried out and then referred to a committee to decide on whether protection is appropriate and if so the level of protection to be offered. The lowest level is provision of specialised mobile phones that have a ‘walkie-talkie’ function. At the highest level of protection armed bodyguards and a bullet proof car is provided.

Complaints regarding protection that we heard included a general reduction in levels of protection for trade unionists, the fact that there is a belief that the process of risk assessments is misused for intelligence gathering and that the Colombian Constitution was recently amended to remove trade union representation from the committee that considered risk assessments and approved protection. One example that was given to us was of a trade union leader who had been allocated bodyguard protection but no car meaning that he had to travel on public transport where it was almost impossible to protect him.

Dr Villamizar presented a polished account of the work of the new department. He acknowledged the abuses of the past and said that the NPU was a new entity with a single focus of protection and had been given independence by being placed within the judicial authorities. In answer to questions he said that trade unions still made up the highest proportion of people under the protection scheme (23-25%) and had the highest allocation of maximum security. It remains the case that we heard from many trade unionists who had no protection and there are still regular assassination of trade unionists – 6 so far this year.

We expressed our concern about Liliany Obando and the fact that she had now been released from custody but has no protection. The Director at first seemed unaware of Liliany or her release. However he subsequently said that the Department had already started to consider the position in relation to her protection. The process of assessment would apparently take 60 days and we asked what interim measures could be taken.

Dr Villamizar said that if the police, army or the ‘people’s ombudsman’ (a President appointed official charged with defending human rights in Colombia) stated that there was an immediate threat of violence then a protection package could be put in place straightaway. This was very rarely done and the alternative would be, in appropriate cases, to look at some informal measures being put in place with the Police. We made the point that the involvement of these agencies gave us little hope for Liliany’s security and would be unlikely to give her very much confidence in the process at all.

We also raised issues regarding indigenous people and the land activists that would be taking steps to recover appropriated land under the Land Law and a more general point regarding funding. He said that 88 requests had been made for protection by land activists and so far 14 had been given protection. He conceded that the Department was underfunded, but said that he thought it was only to the tune of about 10%. When it was put to him that a large number of DAS employees had transferred to the NPU he said that the majority were administrative staff and of the 600 who were protection officers, 99% were on the recommendation of people already under the protection scheme.

Dr Villamizar has not long been in post of the new organisation. He certainly knew how to deal effectively with the concerns raised in the meeting. There is very little on which to judge him. Time will tell whether he and his department are truly determined to make a break with the past. If so, and none of us were confident that it would be the case, it is clear that in Colombian society there are many, many vested interests that he would need to face down.

Colombia Delegation Meetings

After the meetings at the Government Department we saw the British Ambassador again, at his official residence. We were accompanied by Liliany Obando. John Dew went out of his way to express his pleasure at Lilany’s release. He also gave a commitment to meet with her further with a view to taking an interest in her safety.

He said that the British Embassy in Colombia was very active on human rights, second only to the USA who had a much larger staff. He repeated his view from earlier in the week that one of the obstacles to a more just society was that the Colombian people were simply not as indignant as they should be in relation to human rights abuses. He expressed hope for President Santos’s Government and said he did not believe he was simply President Uribe ‘with spin’. Previously there was little by way of dividing lines between the state and paramilitaries. The present government was not the same and demonstrated some willingness to tackle abuses although there was much more that needed to be done.

We were able to speak to different members of staff and along with a number of others I spoke to the staff member who had full time responsibility for human rights. We asked about the balance between dealing with human rights and increasing British trade. There is a target to double British trade with Colombia by 2014, when asked whether there were any targets on human rights we were told that was much harder to measure and that targets were inappropriate.

I raised the case of human rights worker David Ravelo (more details here http://www.justiceforcolombia.org/campaigns/prisoners/) which is apparently a case the embassy is following. They had attended his trial twice but it had been postponed each time. Their view was that everyone had a right to ‘due process’, that the proceedings should be concluded as swiftly as possible and that it was for the Court to determine guilt or innocence. I expressed my concern, as a lawyer, that in fact the evidence against David was such that I thought the embassy should be going further and saying that a fair trial could not be based on such evidence. Testimony from former paramilitaries that had an interest in giving evidence against David, partly because he had exposed the main witness, a convicted paramilitary and also because by testifying the sentence of that witness was reduced to no more than 8 years of the original 40 year sentence.

It seemed clear that the policy of the embassy and the British Government is one of constructive engagement with the Colombian Government. The latest statement on Colombia in the House of Commons on 15 November 2011 (here, about 2/3rd’s of the way down the page) seems to give as much priority to trade if not more. In terms of human rights abuses it seems to be much more ‘carrot’ than ‘stick’. It should not be forgotten that President Santos was the Defence Minister under former President Uribe, a Government whose human rights record is well proven to be abysmal.

Over the week we had spent in Colombia, apart from government officials, no one we spoke to had any belief that the new Government was going to deliver real change as things stood. Much that is happening in Colombia is still a case of picking up where President Uribe left off. The danger of the British Government promoting President Santos as the hope for change is that it may give the impression to the Colombian Government that whatever very modest improvement has taken place is somehow ‘enough’ to be going on with.

Before I travelled to Colombia I had braced myself for what I knew would be some harrowing experiences. What I had not anticipated was just how far the people we saw had the courage, determination and spirit to keep fighting for their rights, for justice and for peace. Ultimately we could all board the plane back to the security of the UK, but it felt a privilege to be able to share, albeit briefly, the cause of trade unionists, displace communities, human rights workers and others on the ground in Colombia.

With the announcement of the FARC that they are releasing the remaining hostages and ending the practice of hostage taking there is just a glimmer of hope for peace in Colombia at the moment. I was left with the utmost admiration for the work that Justice for Colombia does with quite limited resources. Their peace campaign is vital, you can support it here http://www.justiceforcolombia.org/campaigns/peace/. Please do.


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