Uribe’s appointment to flotilla probe guarantees its failure

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez has been criticized for his abuses of human rights defenders. (Center for American Progress)

At the beginning of this month the Israeli government announced it would cooperate with one out of two international UN-sponsored investigation commissions into the 31 May Gaza Freedom Flotilla massacre, a move which UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon claimed was “unprecedented.” However, the details of this commission and who will take part in it — particularly the notorious outgoing president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe Vélez — cast doubt over its impartiality.

The commission is composed of four persons, one chosen by Turkey, one chosen by Israel and two chosen from a list provided by Israel. The latter two are former Prime Minister of New Zealand Geoffrey Palmer, who will be the chair, and Uribe, who will serve as vice-chair. While Palmer, an expert in international law, is an uncontroversial choice, the appointment of Uribe is as perplexing as it is shocking. It appears that “balance” in this commission involves balance between someone versed in international and human rights law and someone who is adamantly opposed to it. This notion of balance fatally weakens this commission even before it has started, and tarnishes the process of international law.

Uribe is a controversial president whose regime has engaged in severe human rights abuses; illegal surveillance and harassment of human rights defenders by the intelligence service (DAS); international law violations (such as the bombing of Ecuadorian territory); corruption; crimes against humanity and excesses by the army in their US-sponsored counterinsurgency warfare.

Uribe’s scorn for human right defenders is notorious. According to Human Rights First, “President Uribe and other administration officials have branded [human rights defenders] as terrorist sympathizers and have insinuated that illicit connections exist between human rights NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and illegal armed groups. Irresponsible comments by government officials in Colombia put the lives of human rights defenders at even greater risk and threaten to undermine the value and credibility of their work” (“Human Rights Defencers in Colombia”).

In September 2009 Colombia was visited by Margaret Sekaggya, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders from the UN Human Rights Commission. Sekaggya found that constant problems faced by human rights defenders in Colombia include “Stigmatization [of human rights defenders] by public officials and non-State actors; their illegal surveillance by State intelligence services; their arbitrary arrest and detention, and their judicial harassment; and raids of nongovernmental organizations’ (NGOs) premises and theft of information” (“Report of the Special Rapporteur …,” 4 March 2010, pp. 13-18 [PDF]).

Public officials in Colombia constantly attack human rights defenders and members of the political and social opposition as aides of “terrorists,” that is, left-wing guerrillas.

Uribe has led these attacks, calling human rights defenders “rent-a-mobs at terrorism’s service who cowardly wave the human rights flag,” “human rights traffickers,” “charlatans of human rights,” “bandits’ [ie. guerrillas] colleagues,” “intellectual front of the FARC [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia]” and he has stated that “Every time terrorists and their supporters feel they will be defeated, they resort to denouncing human rights violations.”

Uribe has referred in particularly harsh terms both to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch: “Amnesty International do not condemn international humanitarian law violations by the guerrillas and they give legitimacy to terrorism […] they go around European bureaus like library rats, gossiping in low voices, undermining Colombian institutions.” He said of the director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, José Miguel Vivanco: “Before Vivanco, a FARC defender [and] accomplice, came here to criticize our policy of democratic security, we were making serious efforts to put our country on its feet — I don’t have anything to learn from Mr. Vivanco when it comes to human rights” (“Defensores de derechos humanos: bajo el estigma del presidente Uribe,” Agencia de prensa (IPC), 23 October 2009).

This is just a brief overview of Uribe’s systematic attacks on human right defenders. In June 2010 an international human rights mission investigated the biggest mass grave in the western hemisphere — containing some 2,000 execution victims who had been dumped there since 2004 — which had just been discovered in the Colombian town of La Macarena. At the same time Uribe travelled to that very locality but not to pay his condolences to the victims’ families, or guarantee that an investigation would determine what happened there. Instead, he went to visit the local military base — exactly the same people that, according to victims’ reports, filled that mass grave with its grisly contents — to praise them for their work.

Uribe said on that occasion: “I want the country to know that now terrorists want to damn our partial victory by combining their means of struggle. Now the terrorists’ spokespeople are talking of peace to have a break in order to recover, before we achieve our final victory. Terrorism combines means of struggle, so some of their spokespersons talk of peace; others come here to La Macarena to look for ways to discredit the Armed Forces and to implicate it in human rights violations. We will not fall into that trap, stay firm!” (“Voceros del terrorismo estan proponiendo la paz para poderse recuperar: Uribe,” El Espectador, 25 June 2010).

It is hard to believe that, in spite of Uribe’s appalling human rights record, he has been chosen to be part of a UN human rights commission. Going beyond Uribe himself, any representative of the Colombian state must be suspect when it comes to investigating human rights violations as official and “unofficial” state-sanctioned human rights abusers act with impunity; 98 percent of such cases remain unprosecuted (“Baseless Prosecutions of Human Rights Defenders in Colombia,” February 2009).

It also strains credibility to believe that Colombia, the biggest recipient of US military “aid” after Israel and Egypt, a country that has agreed to host seven new US military bases on its territory last year, can be impartial in relation to Israel. Both the Israeli and Colombian governments share an ideological approach to their opponents, based on a belief that respecting human rights is a non-issue when it comes to pursuing their military goals against rebel groups. Unsurprisingly, there is also large-scale military cooperation between the two rogue states.

In recent years, according to news reports, Israel has become Colombia’s number one weapon supplier, with arms worth tens of millions of dollars, “including Kfir aircraft, drones, weapons and intelligence systems” being used against opponents of the Colombian regime (“Report: Israelis fighting guerillas in Colombia,” Ynet, 10 August 2007). According to a senior Israeli defense official, “Israel’s methods of fighting terror have been duplicated in Colombia” (“Colombia’s FM: We share your resilience,” 30 April 2010).

There is a reason that Latin Americans often refer to Colombia as the “Israel of Latin America,” and indeed why Colombian President-elect Juan Manuel Santos, ex-Minister of Defence and right hand of Uribe, expressed his pride at such a comparison (“Santos, orgulloso de que a Colombia lo comparen con Israel,” El Espectador, 6 June 2010).

The Colombian government’s bias in Israel’s favor was made clear during an April 2010 visit of Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez to Israel. The Jerusalem Post reported Bermudez’s “desire to strengthen Colombia’s military relationship with Israel” and of the “need to do more in terms of the fight against terrorism.” He confidently predicted that “whoever wins [Colombia’s] presidential election next month will be supportive of [Israel]. I admire your people. I admire your country and I admire you. You have many friends in Colombia” (“Colombia’s FM: We share your resilience”).

The admiration is mutual, and Uribe undertakes his role of impartial investigator weighed down with awards from various Zionist organizations. These include the American Jewish Committee’s “Light unto the Nations Award” and descending further into Orwellian doublespeak, the “Presidential Gold Medallion for Humanitarianism” from B’nai Brith.

While the Colombian government and Uribe are entitled to their choice of friends, this — to say the least — indicates that there will be no objectivity whatsoever with regard to Uribe’s role in the commission.

It appears that Israel only agreed to cooperate with this particular UN inquiry as there is very little chance this commission will take an independent stance and deliver an unbiased verdict on the brutal Israeli attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. Indeed, Israel has declined to cooperate with the other UN commission into the attack appointed by the UN Human Rights Council. It can be reasonably argued that Colombian and Israeli cooperation in this matter is a further step towards jointly “doing more in terms of the fight against terrorism” (to paraphrase Bermudez’ remarks in Israel).

In reality this means attacking human rights defenders and aid workers and further undermining international law and respect for human rights. Participating in a whitewash of the illegal and brutal murder of human rights activists and painting them as “terrorists in disguise” will serve the military objectives of both countries as they struggle to undermine human rights defenders and “enemy communities” in their respective countries.

This is a maverick commission lacking credibility, which will serve only to show the influence of the United States and Israel on Ban Ki-moon’s office. Such a commission will disappoint anyone expecting a neutral, impartial investigation that reveals the truth about the massacre of 31 May. This commission further undermines the credibility of the UN and serves to turn international and human rights law into a game played between the violators of these laws.

José Antonio Gutiérrez and David Landy are activists based in Ireland, involved respectively with the Latin American Solidarity Centre and the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign. José Antonio Gutiérrez writes frequently on Colombia for www.anarkismo.net