11 March 2004 Edition
Colombian human rights activist speaks out
Yolanda Amaya Herrera, General Secretary of the Foundation Committee of Solidarity with Political Prisoners in Colombia, was imprisoned for 30 months due to her work as human right defenders. She has travelled to Europe to highlight the civil rights situation in Colombia and to promote the work of her organisation, which monitors the human rights conditions of political prisoners detained in police stations or in the country's prisons. It and also tries to protect trade unionists, social workers, small farmers, indigenous peoples and human rights defenders whose lives are at risk.
An Phoblacht: Your organisation works for the protection of the rights of political prisoners, and that work landed you in jail. Would you tell us how is that you became a political prisoner?
Yolanda Amaya Herrera: In 1997, five human rights organisations and the Coca Cola trade union in Bucaramanga, in the Santander Department, joined to carry out a support project for the forcibly displaced people in this area. This project was funded by the European Union. Some of the individuals involved in this project were arrested and charged with rebellion — a charge similar to that of membership of an unlawful organisation — when members of the now disbanded 20th Brigade — which was later investigated for its bad human rights record — accused human rights organisations of diverting funds to the guerrilla. Four human rights defenders were arrested. I was one of them. We were imprisoned for 30 months, from October 1997 to May 2000, before we were released because there was no evidence against us and then the state was forced to recognise that we were innocent.
At the time of our judicial process, they used witnesses whose identity was unknown to the defence team. Some of these witnesses have participated in other cases, like the case of Hernando Hernández and the workers members of the trade union USO. These key witnesses were under the 'protection' of the state security forces and the Fiscalia — the Attorney General's office. Their testimony was all that it was needed to take many human rights activists to court. These witnesses have participated in 24 cases.
Could you summarise the current human rights situation in Colombia?
The election campaign of current Colombian president Alvaro Uribe Velez was based on his position on terrorism and drug-trafficking, and that is what the international community knows about him. However, with these pretexts, only a day after being inaugurated as president, he called the state of emergency in the country -this has been extended on various occasions. We in the human rights organisations cannot deny that the state has a right to use the security forces when they consider it necessary. However, we ask for the protection of the civil population and respect for human rights. And that is the problem, because with the state of emergency the massive detentions came — we know of at least 62 raids with about 4,200 people arrested. All the detainees are trade unionists, human rights defenders, social activists, indigenous leaders, etc. But what is worse, these people have been labelled as collaborators and members of the insurgency movements, even though there is no evidence to prove it. They brought 164 people to court, and only four remain imprisoned.
Anther of Uribe's decisions was to create the informers' network — people who are being paid in exchange for information on the insurgency. The implementation of this idea, far from bringing any success in the fight against the insurgency, has translated into the arrests of more people who are going to court on the word of these paid informers.
Another initiative is that of the campesino militia [Uribe has armed a number of rural militias in the countryside to supposedly combat the guerrillas]. But the government has not realised that the creation of these groups endangers the communities and families of these soldiers, as when they leave the militia at night, they go back to their family homes in the community, and so everyone — the soldier, the family and the community — becomes targets for the insurgency movements.
Our worry it is that these and other initiatives have been used to target innocent people, and many detentions have been caused by these unknown informers, who from the cover of anonymity point out who should be arrested. In some cases, some of the witnesses have admitted they were told what to say when they were called to give evidence against some of the detainees in their trials.
Although the number of population displacements has been reduced in the last year, this is because many communities have been forced to remain in areas controlled by right wing paramilitaries.
We feel that the situation of human rights defenders has worsened under the current Colombian government, as even President Uribe has put their jobs and lives in jeopardy by saying that NGOs have links with the insurgency —which de facto is to make us targets for the right-wing paramilitary organisations. This is a very sensitive situation, one that we have looked to address during several meetings with the deputy president's office. We have discussed this with the Colombian Government, but also with some other European countries, because we are convinced that the work of human rights defenders should be known and respected, but also protected.
How was the news received in the country that the visit of Alvaro Uribe to the European Parliament was boycotted by some MEPs, who left the room when he appeared?
Well, there was media coverage of Uribe's visit but also of the rejection by some European parliamentarians of his policies, like the Anti-Terrorist Legislation, just approved by the Colombian parliament and which will be implemented from April 2004, and also the Penal Alternative Bill, which is being debated by Colombian legislators at the moment. It looks into a possible amnesty for right-wing paramilitary groups and will entail that all crimes against humanity carried out by these groups will be pardoned.
The Colombian Government has reacted to the European Parliament protests, blaming the work of NGOs for the international reaction against Uribe. And truly, the opposition of some European governments to his policies results from the NGO work but also from these countries' own interest in the human rights situation in Colombia. These European states have called on the Colombian Government to comply with the 27 recommendations included in the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights' report on Colombia. Twenty four out of these 27 recommendations are directed to the protection of the community's human rights. We do not believe that the government wants to defend the work and life of human rights defenders and whatever they are doing in that direction is a way to protect themselves from criticism.
I also believe that the European countries should make sure that every single cent they give to Colombia is being used for social policies directed to improve the situation of the communities, and this money is not used to fund the war. This is the common position for NGOs, the European Union and the United Nations.
Negotiating with Alvaro Uribe's government seems difficult. Where do you think the solution to the situation in Colombia could be found?
We consider that the solution to this conflict is through political negotiation. While the government is working with right-wing paramilitary groups, it could be interesting to initiate contacts with the guerrilla groups, because as things are being planned by Uribe, we are afraid that the guerrillas will hit back as soon as right-wing paramilitaries are pardoned. This will worsen the humanitarian situation, as we can predict an escalation of the conflict.
We keep saying that negotiation is necessary, even the Church has worked towards this end. However, the Uribe government maintains its approach: no negotiation with insurgents.
How is Plan Colombia progressing, now that the US seems to be more focused on the Middle East after the invasion of Iraq?
The US administration has just approved some funding to go to the Colombian security forces to be dedicated to the war against drugs and terrorism — because the Colombian Government considers that the guerrillas are terrorist organisations. The US are still keeping an eye on us. We only wish they would not.