On Thursday, August 6, the Spanish newspaper El País announced that the Colombian military is exploring the possibility of sending a contingent of troops to NATO’s international forces stationed in Afghanistan.
NATO officials should consider the implications of this move with great care. Human rights abuses persist in Colombia, making it one of the worst performing countries in the hemisphere. Many of these abuses are perpetrated by members of the country’s security forces and the paramilitary groups with which they collude.
For decades, the Colombian armed forces have been the prime human rights transgressors in the region. Year after year, the State Department’s human rights office has detailed these violations, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. It is no secret that the Uribe administration has achieved significant successes in the country’s civil conflict, resulting in an 80 percent approval rating of the armed forces on the part of the Colombian population. However, there is another, less attractive Colombia. According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, there were 1,035 cases of extrajudicial killings committed by the armed forces between 2001 and 2006, up over 50 percent from the previous five-year period. The incidence of military-sponsored murders of trade unionists is so high that, in February of this year, British Foreign Minister Kim Howells suffered from significant political backlash in his country after posing for a picture with a notorious Colombian military unit. Tom Woodley, the leader of one of the UK’s largest unions, commented, “Colombia is the world’s leading slaughterhouse for trade unionists and it defies belief that the British ministers should be cuddling up – literally, judging by photographs – with the perpetrators.”
When Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos declared, “[W]e have to start thinking about the post-conflict, and what role the Colombian troops can play in world peace missions,” it seems that he is forgetting the reality of the situation in his country. While it is true that the FARC is more militarily debilitated than ever before, there are other problems that continue to pose a threat to the historically weak and institutionally flawed nation. Fully one-fifth of its legislators are under investigation for charges of cooperating with paramilitaries. Additionally, President Uribe seems intent on menacing his country’s democratic institutions by consistently challenging the Supreme Court. It is still possible that he will mount another bid to change the Constitution to make a third run for president possible.
Finally, Santos’ remark grossly underestimates the task that lies ahead for a post-conflict Colombia. Narcotrafficking, which fuels the conflict to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars every year, is still insidious. The UN reports that coca cultivation rose 27 percent in 2007. The success of paramilitary demobilizations is also questionable. The International Federation for Human Rights reports that 92 percent of those demobilized under the controversial Peace and Justice Law were granted immunity in exchange for testifying in “free version” hearings. Human Rights Reports have charged that the hearings, “have, indeed, become a forum for justifying crimes and paramilitarism,” and reports that at least 16 victims who testified during the trials have been murdered due to inadequate protection.
Striking While the Iron Is Hot
The suggestion that a Colombian contingent should be added to NATO’s international forces stationed in Afghanistan seems to be nothing more than an attempt to upgrade the Colombian military’s longstanding reputation for brutality in the wake of its stunning military successes against the FARC. Such a plan might confer additional legitimacy upon the military and could result in the abandonment of investigations into the human rights abuses that continue to plague the group. Bogota’s offer to send troops to peace missions worldwide is also a thinly veiled attempt to divert attention from the domestic turmoil that persists in the country. It may serve to improve prospects that Democrats in the U.S. will remove their opposition to the Bush administration’s call for a bi-lateral free trade agreement with Colombia, which is being fiercely opposed on the grounds that Colombia has not done enough to combat human rights violations. Sending Colombian troops to join NATO in Afghanistan, in the wake of Betancourt’s successful rescue, might also curry favor with EU nations for a Colombia whose human rights record is still viewed skeptically. Colombia should focus on exorcising its own demons before speeding to the rescue of others in order to add distinction to the military’s feeble bona fides.