By Richard Startari
As Ernesto Samper takes over the Colombian presidency, Amnesty International has called on him to live up to his election promises and respect international law and human rights.
Successive Colombian governments have made token efforts to protect human rights. As a result, Colombia has one of the highest murder rates in the world; a steadily growing proportion of violence is politically motivated. Since 1986, over 20,000 people have been killed for political reasons — the majority by the armed forces.
Those who take an active interest in defending human rights become an automatic target; trade-unionists and activists have been singled out and killed. Successive Colombian governments have escaped international criticism because of a skilful mix of public relations campaigns and the support of powerful allies in the international arena. Colombia's backers, most notably the United States, have stayed silent when aid destined to combat drug trafficking was diverted to finance counter-insurgency operations.
On August 10, Manuel Cepeda, one of the founding members of the Permanent Committee for Human Rights in Colombia, was assassinated in Bogota as he was driving to work. He was a leading member of the Patriotic Union (UP) and had been elected in March to the Colombian Senate. He was also a leading member of the Communist Party of Colombia (PCC).
In January, a plot was uncovered to assassinate the heads of the UP and PCC. According to the US-based Colombia Support Network, the plot's authors were thought to be in the Colombian military and/or its paramilitary auxiliaries. The assassination plot, named "Plan Golpe de Gracia", had targeted Manuel Cepeda, Aida Abella (President of the UP) and Hernan Motta (a leading member of UP and PCC).
Armed assassins were detained by Colombian security officers but released after they produced passes giving them authority to carry guns.
Only a day before Cepeda's assassination, Samper was sworn in as Colombia's new president. Samper, in his inauguration speech, said he would "work to enforce respect for human rights by the country's security forces". Colombian human rights leaders believe that Cepeda's assassination is a calculated challenge to Samper by Colombia's right-wing military and paramilitary forces.
In another celebrated case, on July 4, 1990, Aliro de Jesus Pedraza Becerra, a lawyer and human rights worker, "disappeared" in Bogota. Several eye-witnesses said that about eight heavily armed men in plain clothes, seized him in a shopping centre in the city's Suba district. At the time of his "disappearance" he was representing relatives of peasants killed when troops opened fire on a protest march in Llano Calienta in May 1988. He was also representing trade unionists detained and tortured by the army in Calle in March 1990. The armed forces and police authorities have denied his detention and his whereabouts remain unknown.
While previous Colombian governments blame drug trafficking as the principle cause of political violence, statistics compiled by independent bodies show that the greatest number of political killings are the work of the Colombian armed forces and the paramilitary groups they have created. But members of the armed forces and paramilitary groups implicated in political killings and "disappearances" have been placed beyond the reach of the law. When there is any possibility that members of the armed forces might face charges in the civilian courts, the military courts automatically claim and usually win jurisdiction over the case. This impunity has created the conditions in which violence flourishes.
Amnesty International is campaigning to pressure Samper to dismantle the army's paramilitary forces, to try all accused army personnel in civil courts and to create an independent commission of inquiry to ensure that the perpetrators of political killings are brought to justice.
[Richard Startari is a member of Amnesty International and the Victorian Trade Union Network.]