Last Updated:4/6/01
Remarks by Ambassador Luis Alberto Moreno, University of Notre Dame, March 26, 2001
Remarks by Ambassador Luis Alberto Moreno
University of Notre Dame
March 26, 2001

It is indeed an honor to be asked here today to speak at this conference, organized by the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies and the Colombian Commission of Jurists. In bringing together Colombian and U.S. academics, activists and government officials to discuss the problems of our democracy, you are making a huge contribution to my country. We need a lot more self-reflection, we need to understand ourselves better, to know where we want to go and how to get there. So I must thank you, not just for the opportunity to speak here today, but on behalf of all Colombians, for the chance to debate and think about ourselves.

As far as I understand, this conference is organized on the assumption that the problems of democracy, human rights protection and accountability, as well as conflict resolution are closely interrelated in Colombia, although they are usually treated separately. And to tell you the truth, I couldn't agree more. The fact is I spend 90% of my time as Ambassador of Colombia trying to convince people of that very fact, that Colombia's problems are very complex, and interrelated. And that they cannot be treated separately.

But I also believe that if we hope to make a serious attempt at rebuilding democracy, restoring the rule of law and protecting human rights in Colombia, the end result boils down to one single objective: strengthening the government institutions of Colombia.

Why? Simply because we are mainly two nations in one. We have 95% of our population living in the Andean Mountain Range and the Northern Coast, an area the size of California. We have 70% of our population living in only 10 cities, all of them located in this area. And beyond the bad press coverage, this Colombia is quite sophisticated and modern. Actually, Bogota today has a lower crime rate than Washington DC.

But at the same time, we have another Colombia, about the size of Texas, the Amazon basin and part of the northeastern plains, which are living in the 19th century. A place where government presence is weak and violence reigns, where paramilitaries and guerrillas flourish while financed by the illegal drug trade. Where there is no access to justice, where there are no schools, no roads, and there is practically no legal economy. Where the drug trade accounts for an incredible devastation of the rainforests, which hold 10% of the worlds biodiversity. And of course, the human rights situation is very serious.

So as I said before, the only possible treatment we can apply to this problem is to strengthen government presence. I would suppose everyone here agrees with that in principle. The problem is that government presence includes not just social services and infrastructure as well as a stronger justice system, but also stronger and better law enforcement. And that has to be done through the Police, the Military and all State Security Forces.

And that finally leads us to the discussion about the Colombian Armed Forces' human rights record. And the prevailing argument is that - because the Armed Forces in the past had a difficult human rights record - then any form of institutional strengthening in favor of the Armed Forces is a bad idea.

Before I tackle that argument, I must say that no other Colombian administration in the country's history has been so open to debating our human rights problems. No other administration has accepted the difficulties, and publicly assumed its responsibility in helping to solve them the way President Pastrana's government has. And most importantly, no other administration has done so much in favor of changing the situation.

I want to remind you of just a few examples:
Our Armed Forces are more thoroughly trained in terms of Human Rights than any other country in Latin America. In the last 5 years, 97.000 members of the Armed Forces have received such training. We have established 181 human rights offices in the Armed Forces, that is actually more than the whole U.S Army. President Pastrana signed 11 executive decrees, which reformed and professionalized the armed forces, including provisions for disciplinary removal of Armed Forces members involved in human rights abuses or support for illegal actors including paramilitaries. And for the first time, he signed - and used - discretionary authority to remove personnel at any stage in their career.

He also prohibited minors from serving in the Armed Forces, and reformed the Military Justice System and the Military Penal Code so that only civilian courts can handle cases of forced disappearance, torture, genocide, and forced displacement. President Pastrana also issued a directive to the heads of the Armed Forces and Police that requires them to relinquish to the civilian judiciary the investigation, prosecution and trial of human rights violations and other crimes not directly related to acts of service. And reformed the Penal Code, so that the International Humanitarian Law, as well as crimes such as forced displacement, genocide and torture are included in our Penal System and tried as criminal offenses for the first time in our history.

In the last 2 years, this government destined $5 million dollars to protect human rights defenders, with basic measures such as armed guards, bulletproof vehicles, bulletproof vests and armed protection for more that 113 different sites where these organizations operate throughout the country. The program includes labor leaders, journalists, the heads of indigenous groups as well as witnesses in human rights cases. All these groups have been targeted by violence in Colombia, and their plight is extremely serious, and unacceptable. We understand that the Colombian State must do everything it can to put an end to this.

The government is also creating a human rights early warning system, which will mobilize - when there is credible evidence - government forces and members of civil society in order to prevent forced disappearances, massacres, forced displacement and other human rights violations.

Of course, this doesn't mean that we don't recognize the very complex human rights situation in Colombia. We know we have serious problems, and we accept the fact that we still have a lot to do. But the argument that claims that because of these problems - the institutional strengthening of the Armed Forces is a bad idea - is fundamentally flawed. Quite the contrary, we need better, more professional and accountable Armed Forces. And to do it, we need help from the international community, because many of Colombia's problems are caused and funded by drug consumption in the developed world.

And this is precisely where international human rights observers are grossly misinterpreting Colombia's human rights situation. Because they tend to compare it to present-day situations in countries like China, Cuba, Iran, or North Korea. Or past experiences in Latin America such as Chile, Argentina or Guatemala. But they miss one very important point: all those human rights violations were the product of dictatorships, governments that forcefully suppressed civil liberties in order to hold-on to power. And Colombia is clearly not such a case.

There lies the fundamental difference. Colombia's case is unique because unlike all other cases, it is a democracy which is being cornered and threatened by illegal armed groups, guerrillas and paramilitaries, the real gross human rights violators. And their primary source of funding does not originate in Colombia, it originates in drug consumer nations like the United States, in its streets and schools, wherever there is demand for cocaine and heroin. In other words, a dictatorship does not cause Colombia's human rights problems. Colombia's problems stem from sheer lawlessness that is being funded by drug consumers around the globe.

One would think only civilians hold these ideas, but in fact such views are strongly supported by the military. The Colombia's Military Commander, General Fernando Tapias, has publicly stated that the biggest menace against the country's stability is the growth of these armed groups - particularly the paramilitaries - who are financed by the drug traffickers. And he is not alone in this opinion. The Armed Forces have embraced this process of change by realizing that the only way to effectively wage war against lawlessness is through technological advances and troop training. And in turn, these goals will remain unobtainable unless they become a modern and professional fighting force that respects and upholds human rights and severs all ties with paramilitary groups.

In fact, over the last year and a half, the Colombian Armed Forces have made notable, indeed dramatic improvements. Complaints against state security forces have decreased by about 80 percent from 1996 to the year 2000. Today, only 3 percent of all reported human rights violations in the country are attributed to the armed forces. And in the fight against paramilitary organizations, the Colombian military has also obtained significant results. Since August 1998, when President Pastrana came to power, 153 paramilitaries have been killed in action by the Colombian Armed Forces. Between 1998 and 1999, 32 members of the Armed Forces were separated from service for presumed human rights violations, while during that same period, the military justice system ordered the discharge of 65 police officers for presumed human rights violations. And just a few weeks ago and for the first time in Colombian history, the Military Justice System condemned and imprisoned an army general, Jaime Humberto Uscategui, in connection with the 1997 paramilitary massacre at Mapiripan, Meta.

Of course this doesn't mean that there's not a lot more yet to be done, or that we don't welcome international debate on Colombia's human rights situation. Actually we have embraced the human rights debate, because we understand that it has brought world attention to our many problems, and that in itself is a crucial contribution. And we hope it will continue to raise awareness around the human rights situation in the country, both in Colombia and abroad.

But I would like to make a bold proposition here today. Because if what we really want is to solve our human rights problem, complaining alone will not get the job done. In truth, the task in front of us is how to change the whole country's attitude toward democracy, the rule of law and human rights. And as I just said, criticism alone will not make it happen. What I am proposing is for us to find new and creative ways to work together - NGOs and government - to get real results on the ground. To help us raise private funds for projects that will attack the core of the problem by increasing productivity, building infrastructure, protecting the environment, strengthening the justice system and promoting Colombia's peace process.

A final negotiated peace agreement is President Pastrana's priority, and we all know it is crucial for the country's future. A lot of the changes that Colombia needs depend upon its success. And there are many ways in which you can help us in this effort. We need your help, in convincing all armed groups that there is no future to this conflict, that human rights violations will not be tolerated, and that compliance with International Humanitarian Law is urgent.

President Pastrana is also very concerned with Colombian public opinion, and how it has become polarized between those who support a peaceful agreement, and those who favor a military solution. You can also contribute, by always reminding Colombians that human rights violations are equally unacceptable, regardless of the political inclinations of those who commit them.

But above all, I am asking you to stop comparing Colombia's human rights situation with those of present and past dictatorships. Because as I have already explained, this erroneous interpretation of things in the end is simply targeting those who are defending democracy. And by doing so it is strengthening the illegal armed groups, who in turn are responsible for the country's very serious human situation. And who represent the closest thing to a dictatorship in Colombia, to a point where some have denounced that paramilitary groups in some areas are actually deciding who can and cannot run for public office. And not just for local government posts, but even candidates running for Congress.

In this regard, the international NGOs cannot expect one government alone to solve all the problems that have accumulated in 20 years of history. Even the United States, with all it's prosperity and sophistication still has problems in many areas, including human rights. But we are willing to work together with all of you in favor of building a new and better Colombia. What we need from you, is the same thing we are asking both the Colombian people, and our military: a change of attitude.

But we also need your support in promoting our legal industries, in strengthening our legal economy. And the best way to do that is to support free-trade initiatives. Because in the long run, alternative development for 100,000 coca farmers in Putumayo and Caqueta can only be sustained if they can sell exotic Amazon fruits abroad, instead of coca. And without markets for our legal products, long term alternative development will remain just a promise. Nothing can do more to improve the situation in Colombia than promoting economic growth and job creation.

Here, the United States can make a substantial contribution. Trade and investment offer long-term benefits to everyone. And we are extremely happy with President Bush's support for an expanded Andean Trade Preferences Act (ATPA), as well as the presentation of an Andean Trade Preference Extension - Expansion Act by senators Graham, Dodd, Biden, DeWine and Hagel two weeks ago. By extending and enlarging ATPA we can increase the 140.000 direct jobs it has created in Colombia over the past 10 years. Trade between our countries has reached $10 billion this last year. And it has benefited both our economies. Trade with Colombia is responsible for thousands of jobs here in the United States.

But we don't want to stop there. We want to work toward a broader hemispheric free trade agreement by the year 2003. It is no secret that economic prosperity has a positive impact on political stability. With one hand we must deal with the problems that confront us -with violence, drug trafficking and the armed conflict. But with the other hand we must offer hope and opportunity to our citizens.

I hope I have given you enough reasons to support us in this struggle. Finally, I wish you all good luck in your discussions. Thank you very much for the opportunity to be here today.


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