by David J. Kramer and Arch Puddington*
As we mark the first anniversary of the events that led to the Arab Spring, it is worth highlighting the uprisings’ far-reaching repercussions for freedom, both in the region and beyond. Freedom in the World, the report on global freedom issued annually by Freedom House, found more declines than gains worldwide for 2011, but we believe that the overarching message for the year is one of hope and not reversal. At a minimum, we can say that developments in the Middle East touched off the most serious challenge to authoritarian rule since the collapse of Soviet communism. While the challenges today are far more complex than in 1989, the basic theme of captive peoples seeking freedom after decades of oppression is very much the same.
Posted at 05:38 PM in Civil Society, Elections, Freedom of Expression, Press Freedom, Religious Freedom, Africa, Americas, Arab Spring, Asia-Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe , China, Eurasia, Freedom of Association, Internet Freedom, Middle East and North Africa , Rule of Law, Russia, United States, Women's Rights | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
Technorati Tags: Civil Society, Democratic Governance, Elections, Freedom House, Freedom of Association, Freedom of Expression, Human Rights, Internet Freedom, Media Freedom, Religious Freedom, Rule of Law, Women's Rights
by Mary McGuire and Sarah Trister*
The year 2011 will be remembered as one of immense political and social change around the world, particularly the Middle East. On this International Human Rights Day, Freedom House looks back at a few of the best and worst developments of the year with respect to their long-term implications for the global state of human rights.
Posted at 02:32 PM in Civil Society, Elections, Freedom of Expression, Modern Authoritarianism, Press Freedom, Religious Freedom, Africa, Americas, Arab Spring, Asia-Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe , China, Corruption, Eurasia, Freedom of Association, Internet Freedom, Isolationism, Middle East and North Africa , Minority Rights, Rule of Law, Russia, United States, Western Europe , Women's Rights | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
by Melanie Dominski
Sr. Program Associate, Freedom of Expression Campaign
Two years ago today, in the southern Philippines province of Maguindanao, 100 armed guards overtook a civilian convoy and executed the passengers in what has become known as the Maguindanao massacre. Of the 57 victims, 32 were journalists, making the incident the deadliest single attack against journalists on record and earning the Philippines the second-place slot on the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) list of the most dangerous countries for members of the media. In the course of this brutal attack, at least four female journalists were allegedly raped prior to being executed; virtually all of the female victims reportedly suffered genital mutilation, and many of the victims were beheaded.
Posted at 10:21 AM in Civil Society, Freedom of Expression, Press Freedom, Africa, Americas, Asia-Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe , China, Eurasia, Middle East and North Africa , Rule of Law, United States, Western Europe | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
Technorati Tags: Andal Amaptuan Jr. Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, Anna Politkovskaya, Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House, freedom of expression, human rights, human rights abuses, IFEX, impunity, International Day to End Impunity, International Freedom of Expression Exchange, journalist, Maguindanao massacre, Melanie Dominski, Mexico, Pakistan, Philippines, press freedom, Russia, Saleem Shahzad, Valentin Valdes Espinosa
It is a core belief of Freedom House that American foreign policy should be grounded on support for democratic values and the global expansion of freedom. Practically every aspirant to the American presidency would agree that the United States should remain the world’s beacon of democracy. But especially in an era of rival claims for global leadership and calls for fiscal austerity, the development of a U.S. strategy to propel freedom forward poses a serious challenge. Thus far, the presidential candidates have failed to grapple with the complexities of this challenge, and the discussion has been far from illuminating, to put it mildly.
Posted at 09:38 AM in Civil Society, Elections, Africa, Americas, Arab Spring, Asia-Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe , China, Middle East and North Africa , Russia, United States | Permalink | TrackBack (0)
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by Daniel Calingaert
Vice President for Policy and External Relations
President Raúl Castro introduced market reforms in Cuba earlier this year to preserve, not dismantle, the communist system. He retains a tight grip on power and seems intent on pursuing a Chinese model of market economics combined with political repression. The reforms have, however, brought about a significant change in attitudes in Cuba, according to a recent Freedom House survey. Optimism is growing, expectations are rising, and Cubans want more freedom. Will the Chinese model work in Cuba?
The government shows no intention of opening up the political system. At the Communist Party congress in April, when Castro welcomed a “new generation” of leaders, they were led by revolution-era geriatrics like himself. Political repression meanwhile remains intense. The heavy-handed response last week to a gathering of the dissident Ladies in White was typical. Twenty members of the group, which advocates on behalf of political prisoners, were detained on their way to a meeting to discuss the organization’s future following the death of its leader, Laura Pollán.
Technorati Tags: Civil Society, Communist Party, Cuba, economic reform, employment, Fidel Castro, Freedom House, freedom of expression, Latin America, Modern Authoritarianism, political repression, Press Freedom, Raul Castro, self-employed, survey
Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Press survey was released this week in honor of World Press Freedom Day on May 3. The results reveal a continued and troubling decline in freedom of expression across the world. While inspiring in many ways, the events of the so-called “Arab Spring” have demonstrated both longstanding and emerging threats to freedom of expression and access to information in emerging democracies—the unprecedented and complete closure of the internet in Egypt, crackdowns on social media across the Arab world, and bizarre state media responses to popular protests. As a global survey, Freedom of the Press 2011: A Global Survey of Media Independence offers a broad look at the wide range of threats to freedom of expression across the world. As the summer release of Countries at the Crossroads 2011 grows nearer, Freedom of the Press findings illustrate some troubling trends in the countries featured in the 2011 publication. While Countries at the Crossroads 2011 will cover wide range of democratic governance issues in a set of countries that ranges in governance quality from Greece to Libya, the press results highlighted in Freedom of the Press are telling. Unfortunately, a regional overview shows striking uniformity in the direction of press freedom across the globe.
Given the benefit of hindsight, it is not surprising that freedom of expression came under fire in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010. With the extent of popular discontent becoming obvious, it is clear that governments sought to suppress dissent in all forms, in part by constricting the space within which media outlets could operate. Libya and Syria, both of which have a long history of media repression, experienced score declines, in part because of crackdowns on independent media and arrests of bloggers. Egypt’s now-vanished Mubarak regime, however, was the source of the most dramatic regional change. Mubarak and the National Democratic Party’s decisive crackdown on virtually all forms of media prior to the November 2010 parliamentary elections resulted in a downgrade of the country’s status from Partly Free to Not Free. As explored in this blog post, and elsewhere, the Mubarak regime shut down talk shows and newspaper columns, physically and legally harassed journalists and bloggers, and even suspended live television broadcasts prior to the elections to try to ensure that the widespread fraud and other violations that took place during the electoral season were not discussed publically. Of course, as subsequent events demonstrated, such increased pressure served only to tighten the lid on a pressure cooker that was primed to explode.
Freedom of the press was similarly restricted in Asia. Thailand’s government used the 2007 Computer Crimes Act to discourage critical discussion online, for example by demanding the removal of comments critical of the government, and continued to use its lèse-majesté laws to silence opposition voices by declaring any criticism an insult to the king. This resulted in a downgrade of the country’s press freedom status from Partly Free to Not Free. China, in addition to its regular practice of limiting coverage of a wide range of issues of public interest, clamped down yet further on its media after imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Both countries, along with a set of states such as Pakistan and the Philippines, where tension exists between a vibrant press and a sometimes lawless environment, will be featured in the upcoming edition of Crossroads.
The only region with modest improvements was Sub-Saharan Africa, where at least three Countries at the Crossroads countries improved their scores over the course of the year. Senegal’s score improved after a decrease in advertising boycotts designed to silence opposition sources, and Mauritania’s score got better following a law enabling private investment in broadcasting. These gains, however, are marred by deteriorating press freedoms elsewhere in the region. Madagascar’s ongoing political instability provided an environment for the government to constrict independent media by harassing and expelling journalists and pursuing spurious criminal defamation charges. Eritrea, a perennial opponent of freedom of expression continued to jail independent journalists imprisoned without reason after the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States.
The Latin American countries that experienced the most dramatic changes in press freedom – particularly Mexico and Honduras, which moved from Partly Free to Not Free – were featured in Countries at the Crossroads 2010. Of the countries in the upcoming edition, Bolivia and Ecuador continued a trend of decline in recent years. In Ecuador in particular, President Rafael Correa’s acute sensitivity and eagerness to vilify the press exacerbated an already polarized environment. On the other hand, Colombia and Peru, each of which had declined in 2009, managed to halt their slide (Peru) or experience a mild increase (Colombia). Venezuela, which will complete the set of Andean countries included in the 2011 edition of Crossroads, remained, after Cuba, the most restrictive country in the hemisphere with respect to press freedom.
This view of the state of freedom of expression in a set of countries that will be explored in greater breadth in Countries at the Crossroads 2011 suggests that press freedom continues to be under threat in emerging and consolidating democracies. Press freedom has occasionally been dubbed the “canary in the coal mine” as it relates to the democracy’s trajectory. Nonetheless, the broader context of threats against the media is critical, and it is precisely this context that will be explored in Countries at the Crossroads 2011. For example, the limitations in the rule of law and judicial systems that allow such attacks on journalists to go unanswered, as well as the political pathologies – personalized rule, corruption, etc – that create incentives to silence the press will be assessed. Conversely, for countries undergoing where the governance evolution has been positive, it will also demonstrate the centrality of a vibrant press to the democratic process. But as the results of Freedom of the Press 2011 make clear, far too many states remain subject to the unfortunate irony that those countries most unable or unwilling to ensure an open media environment are often the ones that most desperately need vibrant and diverse media coverage.
More than sixty years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the importance of human rights is well established in the international community. Despite this general acceptance, however, debate persists on the ways in which human rights should be protected and prioritized in different communities and cultures, particularly in the context of political and economic development. The division between civil and political rights, on the one side, and economic, social, and cultural rights, on the other, was first outlined in 1966 and continues to shape the way human rights activists, governments, and citizens approach these questions. This post is the second in a series about the interaction between these two categories of rights and the ways in which that delineation influences the global debate regarding political and economic development.
Continuing with the discussion from the previous post, while there is widespread agreement that ESC and CP rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated (see Article 5 of the Vienna Declaration from the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, disagreement continues over the interaction and prioritization of the two groups of rights. The debate over sequencing, responsibility for implementation, and urgency is both interesting and necessary, and given the diversity of cultures and polities, there is no definitive answer. However, there is one group of governments for whom the decision to vocally advocate for ESC prioritization is an easy one: authoritarian regimes.
The fundamental idea behind emphasizing ESC rights is that given the tradeoffs imposed by scarce resources, governments in underdeveloped countries must prioritize certain aspects of development; given the need to relieve poverty, ESC rights are defined as the most pressing. This claim essentially stems from the adage that “you can’t eat democracy,” i.e., that economic growth is urgent to combat deprivation of basic needs, and that CP rights are largely irrelevant in the context of dire poverty.
This perspective has been popular for decades and was prevalent in postcolonial governments struggling to build institutions and promote economic development. Tanzania’s first president, democratically-elected Julius Nyerere, eloquently captured the idea: “What freedom has our subsistence farmer? He scratches a bare living from the soil provided the rains do not fail; his children work at his side without schooling, medical care, or even good feeding. Certainly he has freedom to vote and to speak as he wishes. But these freedoms are much less real to him than his freedom to be exploited. Only as his poverty is reduced will his existing political freedom become properly meaningful and his right to human dignity become a fact of human dignity.” Ghana’s Ignatius Acheampong, a military leader who came to power in a coup d’état in 1972, was more direct: “‘One man, one vote’ is meaningless unless accompanied by the principle of ‘one man, one bread.’” (Both quoted in The Concept of Human Rights in Africa by Issa G. Shivji, p. 26.)
While Nyerere’s statement offers legitimate philosophical fodder, the potential for authoritarian and semi-authoritarian governments to exploit the idea is evident, and indeed this is what many have done. Undemocratic regimes regularly divert attention away from serious repression of CP rights by disingenuously appealing to the internationally accepted discourse of ESC rights. This is not to say that governments in underdeveloped countries and elsewhere do not face difficult decisions in the implementation of human rights – though, as a subsequent post will show, economic research strongly suggests that there is no need to sacrifice one group of rights for another in the pursuit of economic growth – but it is important in evaluating the ESC-first argument to note that many of its most prominent proponents are authoritarian or hybrid regimes that are happy to talk about economic gains but less keen on discussing the CP rights they curtail.
China, for example, has aggressively emphasized ESC rights even as the ruling party’s repressive apparatus remains as robust as ever. This is clear in the recently-released, government-produced report, “Progress in China’s Human Rights in 2009,” which highlights what it considers to be notable advances in domestic human rights conditions. The report emphasizes economic indicators: increasing numbers of phone users and car owners, gains in tourism, booming construction, etc. It does mention some fundamental ESC indicators, including improvements in access to clean water and healthcare and decreases in poverty, but the overall emphasis is heavy on consumption-related metrics and the ways in which the country has evaded the most negative effects of the global financial crisis. In fact, the study links shortcomings in China’s human rights record directly to the country’s still-low level of economic development, as opposed to any political policies: “China is a developing country with a population of 1.3 billion. Due to its inadequate and unbalanced development, there is still much room for improvement in its human rights conditions.”
What China’s report conspicuously lacks, among other things, is any discussion of the CP rights the government notoriously curtails. (For examples, see Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2010, and the government’s extensive censorship binge and police crackdown following the announcement of political dissident Liu Xiaobo as winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.
Similarly, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez eagerly touts economic development under his administration, but responds to allegations that his administration has circumscribed political freedoms dismissively or with vitriolic denunciations of preceding administrations. In a rare interview with the English-language press, Chavez pointed to a range of economic indicators related to ESC rights, including halved unemployment and decreases in extreme poverty. Chavez angrily refused, however, to discuss charges that Venezuela has regressed on political rights, and resorted to personal attacks on the journalist who brought up the charges. Similarly, when the Organization of American States (OAS) released a report citing Venezuela’s attacks on freedom of expression and its harassment of opposition parties, Chavez condemned the organization as a “mafia” and threatened to withdraw. Ironically, the report praised the Venezuelan government for its progress in reducing poverty and illiteracy and increasing healthcare access.
Rwanda offers another example. President Paul Kagame has very publicly highlighted Rwanda’s post-genocide economic performance, and he based his recent reelection campaign in large part on Rwanda’s economic growth since 1994. Indeed, the Rwandan economy has made huge gains, more than doubling per capita income, increasing life expectancy by seven years, and improving access to education. In contrast, the outlook for CP rights is dramatically less rosy: the recent election period included the killings of an opposition leader and the deputy editor of an opposition newspaper, the arrest of one of Kagame’s electoral opponents, and suppression of opposition parties, among many other issues. Though the government denies having any role in the violent incidents, most observers of Rwanda – and even many of Kagame’s defenders – agree that CP rights in Rwanda are only present insofar as the president perceives them as not threatening his administration’s stranglehold on power.
Like Kagame, other leaders often described as “donor darlings” frequently embrace these ideas. During the 1990s, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni resisted international pressure for a multiparty political system by arguing that Uganda and much of Africa was not ready for full democracy because, without a thriving economy and a stable middle class, political mobilization would inevitably occur around ethnicity and other divisive issues, as opposed to political ideals. More than a decade later, Uganda still shows few signs of greater pluralism, even as the Ugandan political class is viewed as insular and corrupt. Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen has been happy to discuss the country’s impressive economic progress, but is stubbornly unwilling to complement the gains with genuine democratic reform. Indeed, whether the subject is economic vulnerability or corruption, the government prefers aggressive denunciation and indignant dismissal to engagement or reflection.
Each of these leaders has their excuses. Rwanda’s Kagame, echoing Nyerere and others, resists discussion of political repression by arguing that Rwandans are not interested in political freedoms until they reach a sufficient level of economic prosperity. As he said in one interview, "Democracy and human rights are niceties and are all important, but tell me, if somebody is wondering if they have anything to eat, they are not listening. It's a fact that when somebody has food, when you bring another message, then they listen." Left undefined is precisely when basic political freedoms become a priority; it is hard to believe, given the repeated attempts to form an effective opposition in Rwanda despite the government’s abuses, that these are issues that Rwandan citizens do not care about.
China’s economic success and its increasing visibility through investment in Africa and elsewhere have inspired ideas of alternative paths to development, many of them based on the premise that single-party rule and a strong state can avoid the instability associated with democratization while accelerating economic growth. And it is true that China’s economic development has produced clear benefits for many of its citizens and has increased access to some core ESC rights, as has growth in Rwanda, Venezuela (where economic conditions look increasingly shaky), and elsewhere. However, the inordinate emphasis on economic progress and the refusal to discuss political repression invites skepticism. For a leader who wishes to prolong his (seemingly never “her”) rule and establish his indispensability, it is certainly convenient for a country to need to reach some eternally-vague level of development and stability before CP rights can expand. Even assuming that many such leaders sincerely care about development (as opposed to true kleptocrats and sociopaths), the self-serving nature of these arguments is clear. The unwillingness to debate CP rights is also telling: if these leaders are truly so rights-oriented, what do they have to hide? A subsequent post will look at the interrelationship between CP and ESC rights, including evidence that the two are actually mutually reinforcing rather than mutually exclusive.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Presidencia de la República del Ecuador
By: Natalie J. Kitroeff
In the aftermath of years of economic and political turmoil, some Latin American states find themselves entrenched in a new kind of battle: a no holds-barred media war. The recent surge in the number of left-populist governments in power in the region has deepened polarization, with economic elites strongly opposing the new leaders’ political and economic platforms. In some cases, the media has been the primary battleground on which these broader political disputes are fought. Ecuador and Argentina are two such countries; in each, the context of the rancorous press wars merits examination, including historical causes, the implications of increasing state influence in the media, and the fierce backlash that government action has engendered.
The circumstances surrounding the media in Ecuador and Argentina are microcosms of the power struggles that define their respective political realities. In Ecuador currently, and in Argentina before the passage of the 2009 Audiovisual Service Communication Law (SCA), antiquated laws established during periods of dictatorship governed the media landscape. In both countries, the dictatorship–era laws allowed for government censorship of the press, mandated broadcasts of official messages, and facilitated almost complete control over the media by a few economic elites. With the advent of democracy, enforcement of the laws became more lax, yet in each country the private media remains concentrated in the hands of a limited number of powerful companies.
Oligopolistic owners have generally been opposed to the leftist economic and social policies implemented by President Rafael Correa in Ecuador and the dual Argentine administrations of former president Nestor Kirchner and his wife, current president Cristina Fernandez. These policies, especially changes to the tax code and steps to expand the role of the state in the economy, tend to conflict with the business interests of the media conglomerates and their investors, which in part accounts for their harsh criticism of many government programs.
Like politicians everywhere, the Correa and Fernandez governments are acutely aware of the power of the media. Both governments are highly sensitive to criticism and disinclined to compromise with media outlets, who they view as the primary opposition force in political environments characterized by disorganized opposition parties. In response to the onslaught of criticism, particularly in the television and print sectors, Correa and the Kirchners have intervened in the media in distinct ways that international observers and human rights groups describe as occasionally repressive and in some cases undemocratic.
The most significant of the efforts to expand state influence in the press have been projects to enact new media laws. Both governments claim that the principal objective of their respective communications laws is to replace ineffective dictatorship–era legislation and break up monopolies held by media giants. While Ecuador’s proposed communications law approaches the issue by “explicitly prohibiting monopolies and oligopolies in media ownership,” Argentina’s SCA seeks to diversify ownership of the press through less direct means, mainly by reforming the process by which media licenses are distributed. In mandating more frequent renewal of licenses for all media outlets and allowing a broader range of groups access to such licenses, the law promises to democratize the highly concentrated private media. While many civil society actors consider these goals to be legitimate—even opposition groups recognize the importance of revising old media regulations—the legitimacy of various provisions in the laws are disputed.
Of most concern in Argentina is the implementation of new licensing requirements established in the SCA. The opposition contends that tasking the distribution of licenses to a broadcast regulatory body whose members are appointed by a process that “ensure[s] ruling party control”, promises to tighten the government’s grip on the media and limit press freedom. Opposition to the Ecuadorian communications law has been serious enough to stall debate and a final reading in the National Assembly for months. Opposition forces and international human rights groups’ critique has centered around the vague wording of stipulations that critics say pave the way for the regulation of information disseminated by news outlets by a communications council that, like the SCA’s regulatory committee, will have close links to the incumbent government. Press freedom advocates also call for the revision of articles that require high educational qualifications in order to work in journalism.
Less concretely, criticism of both laws essentially amounts to a fear that their implementation could result in too much state control over the press. Given the constant attacks on the private media by both the Correa government and both Kirchner administrations, these suspicions are not entirely unfounded. Since 2008, both Kirchner and Fernandez have been engaged in what has become a vicious personal battle with the media conglomerate Grupo Clarin, which owns 73% of all broadcast licenses in Argentina as well as the nation’s most prominent newspaper. The government has subjected the company to an onslaught of tax audits, accused its owner of adopting babies stolen during the dictatorship, and attempted to limit the circulation of its newspapers by intervening in the directorate of Prensa Papel, the newsprint paper company of which Clarín is the largest shareholder.
The Correa government’s response to critical coverage is similarly hostile, and arguably more aggressively interventionist. Since his election in 2006, Correa has brought under state ownership three national TV stations, two prominent newspapers, and one radio broadcaster. While the state-owned outlets affirm their independence, recent firings and resignations over journalists’ disagreement with a government program in the state-run paper El Telegrafo casts some doubt on the impartiality of the media under government control. A ferocious ad campaign designed by the regime to discredit the private media that ran during the World Cup this July only exacerbated tensions between the government and the private press.
The raging media wars in Argentina and Ecuador should be understood, therefore, as products of both structural and politically contingent elements of democracy in these countries. Rather than merely the power grab the opposition portrays them as, the contests are manifestations of longstanding political clashes between left-populist governments and the traditional economic elite. However, as citizens of almost any Latin American country can testify, governments in the region tend to use power aggressively for political ends. The heightened sensitivity of both Correa and Fernandez toward critical media coverage compounds tensions between progressive populists and the ever-powerful, right-leaning elite deeply rooted in the countries’ political and economic pasts. With the media playing such an active political role in so many countries, this combustible mix is likely to plague political systems across Latin America for years to come.
Photo Credit: Flickr User Distra
By: Natalie J. Kitroeff
Peruvian president Alan Garcia has again outraged human rights groups, members of the political opposition, and indigenous citizens, this time by refusing to sign legislation passed by Peru’s Congress that would have expanded the role of the country’s indigenous community in decisions regarding extractive industries-linked projects on their ancestral lands. By sending the law back to Congress late on Monday, June 21—just days before a two-month recess—Garcia effectively blocked any near-term resolution of the contentious matter.
By Natalie J. Kitroeff
Carlos Castresana, the Spanish judge at the helm of the UN International Commission Against Impunity and Corruption in Guatemala (CICIG), resigned from his post on June 7th, striking a major blow to efforts at combating corruption and the growing influence of organized crime in the fragile country. Explaining his sudden decision, Castresana cited unwillingness on the part of the administration of President Alvaro Colom to implement important recommendations made by the CICIG, most recently with regard to the appointment of Conrado Reyes to the position of Attorney General. Castresana has accused Reyes of maintaining close ties with Guatemala’s organized criminals, particularly those involved with narcotrafficking and illegal adoption, and in a press conference following his resignation called on Colom to remove Reyes from his post immediately.
Photo Credit: Flickr user kappazeta
Drug-related violence has dominated recent reporting on Mexico. However, in addition to the country’s struggle with organized crime networks, multiple governance issues continue to hamper political, social, and economic progress. Two areas of persistent deficits are minority issues, particularly indigenous rights, which are often violated despite Mexico’s formal recognition of its “multicultural” status; and a lack of democratic accountability at the state level.
A recent attack on humanitarian workers in Oaxaca state illustrates the severity of these problems. On April 27, gunmen attacked a convoy of 25 Mexican and European activists who were bringing food and supplies to the inhabitants of San Juan Copala, a self-defined autonomous indigenous community that has been under siege since January by a paramilitary group known as the Union for the Wellbeing of the Triqui Region (UBISORT). The militia has been tied to the state-level Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the party that led Mexico unchallenged between 1929 and 2000 and continues to reign in Oaxaca under the leadership of Governor Ulises Ruiz. Of the 25 workers, two were shot and killed: Jyri Jaakkola, a Finnish human rights observer, and Beatriz Alberta Carino, the director of a local NGO. At least two others were injured, and six were missing. Four of the missing persons, including two missing journalists, surfaced on Thursday. A survivor reported that the attackers revealed themselves as members of UBISORT and claimed to act with the governor’s support. The identity and motive of the group, however, have not been verified, and the state government has denied involvement.
The incident focuses attention on the complicated situation in San Juan Copala, where a struggle pits indigenous movements against pro-government paramilitaries, powerful local political caciques, and the Ruiz-led state government, as well as each other. Violence in the area erupted following the formation of San Juan Copala in 2007 as an autonomous indigenous territory comprised of 5 municipalities dominated by the Independent Movement for Triqui Unity and Struggle (MULTI), along with 15 other Triqui municipalities sympathetic to the MULTI. The remaining 16 Triqui municipalities are predominantly controlled by the Movement for Triqui Unity and Struggle (MULT), a rival Triqui movement from which the MULTI split in 2006, and remained outside the autonomous territory. The Triqui autonomy movement seeks to secure political, social, and cultural rights long denied to locals by the Oaxaca state government. Indeed, the Triqui region is one of the most marginalized in what is already one of Mexico’s poorest states. The MULTI has allied itself with the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO), a radical association comprised of 300 local organizations that oppose the government due to the failure of local institutions and officials to promote development and social welfare, along with the government’s rampant corruption problem, its suppression of opposition voices, and its generally undemocratic structure. In Oaxaca, politics continues to be dominated by rivalries between local caciques who fight for state resources and control within the PRI. Other states’ governance is similarly tarnished, and the more poor and remote the territory, the weaker state presence—let alone effective institutions—is likely to be. These areas, however, are where the highest concentrations of indigenous Mexicans are often found, setting the stage for abuses against a broad range of political, social, economic, and cultural rights.
Since its formation, San Juan Copala has been subject to sieges and violent attacks by the UBISORT, which contests the autonomy of the municipality and the authority of its elected officials. The municipality’s existence as a legal entity has also been rejected by the government. State authorities have failed to address the longstanding conflict, which has allowed the situation to escalate and fueled the popular belief that the UBISORT is acting with either the tacit approval or the direct support of the government. At the end of last year, pro-government media outlets began to spread word that San Juan Copala had ceased to exist, an assertion the community’s authorities repeatedly disputed. Meanwhile, violence and tension increased at the end of last year, and a siege has left San Juan Copala’s inhabitants without basic services in recent months. Nineteen people have been killed since November 2009.
In the aftermath of the recent attack, the government has not yet evidenced a greater willingness to respond to the violence. The Washington Office on Latin America has reported that government authorities did not enter the area of the attack until the day after it occurred. In addition, state authorities initially denied knowledge of any disappearances following the attack and refused to organize a rescue. Instead, state authorities have faulted the humanitarian workers for bringing about the attacks by putting themselves in a dangerous situation and even implicated Gabino Cue Monteagudo, the opposition candidate for state governor, in the attack. Following the incident, Evencio Martinez, the Oaxaca state secretary of the interior, stated that “whoever organized this caravan will have to answer for it, whoever invited these people ... without taking precautions, because I think these people did not know what the situation and problems in the area were….They [the caravan members] will have to answer, too, for having accepted the invitation." In turn, Governor Ruiz remarked that “they are people who work with the opposition candidate, the opposition candidate has shown that he supports the APPO, that he supports violence, that he supports these type of situations that, instead of making proposals to transform the state…”
This is not the first time human rights issues have engulfed Ruiz’s administration. As Amnesty International states, “Oaxaca authorities have for many years been unwilling to investigate grave human rights violations in that State.” For example, at least 20 people were killed by state police and an armed pro-government group during a series of anti-government demonstrations organized by the APPO in the second half of 2006 that sought to force Governor Ruiz to resign. Among those killed was American journalist Brad Will. The state’s negligence in the investigation of Will’s murder is illustrative. While evidence implicated a group of pro-government gunmen in the murder, the state failed to fully investigate the men, instead imprisoning Juan Manuel Martinez, an APPO activist who was eventually exonerated in February 2010. Human rights groups have alleged that the armed men were never charged due to ties between the group and Governor Ruiz.
Importantly, the federal government has also failed to fully investigate the 2006 violence and hold the Ruiz government accountable for human rights violations. In February 2008, the attorney general announced that it would shelve investigations into the cases of seven victims of the protest violence due to a lack of evidence. Later that year, the attorney general also rejected the National Human Rights Commission’s judgment that the Oaxaca state investigation into Brad Will’s murder was shoddy. In January 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that Governor Ruiz was responsible for violating individual human rights guarantees during the 2006 violence. However, the decision failed to set out any punishment and lacked coercive power due to a constitutional provision that limits the court’s power to investigating and identifying public officials who violate the rights of Mexican citizens rather than determining sanctions, a task that is reserved for executive and legislative authorities at the federal and state levels. Such authorities have failed to act on the ruling, empowering Ruiz to act with impunity. The Oaxaca case thus highlights the federal government’s failure to hold state authorities accountable for their abuses.The situation in Oaxaca points to several problems restraining Mexico’s democratic advancement. Although Mexico has made gains toward promoting party pluralism and electoral accountability at the federal level, similar progress has not been achieved in the states. In at least 13 of Mexico’s 31 states, the PRI has yet to suffer gubernatorial defeat. States such as Oaxaca essentially remain fiefdoms, with little democratic accountability, making attempts to promote good governance at the subnational level exceedingly difficult. The federal government ostensibly has power to rein in rogue governors, but has failed to challenge local power holders in a number of places, Oaxaca among them. In a positive recent development, the Mexican Senate recently passed a human rights law that would enshrine protections upheld by the American Convention on Human Rights into the Mexican constitution and limit the use of force by security forces in operations against organized crime. However, the Oaxaca government’s response to the human rights in San Juan Copala, which has been tainted by denial and indifference, underscores the fact that any attempt to advance comprehensive human rights reform in the country will be seriously hindered unless a culture of greater accountability is fostered at all government levels.
Photo Credit: Flickr user magnusvk
On February 18, Bolivian President Evo Morales appointed 18 interim justices to fill long-vacant posts in the Supreme Court of Justice, the Constitutional Tribunal, and the Judicial Council. These appointments were made possible by the recent passage of the “Ley Corta,” which empowered Morales to fill 20 of 27 total posts in the three judicial bodies until new justices are elected in December 2010. This controversial law has been the subject of a heated debate between its adherents, who argue that the new appointments will strengthen the country’s judicial system by bringing an end to the judicial paralysis created by the vacancies, and its critics, who counter that the law was a political move geared towards increasing government control over the judiciary. On the day the law was passed, opponents wore black to symbolize mourning, with some carrying signs lamenting the death of democracy. While this estimation of the situation may be extreme, Morales’ direct appointment of judicial officers, when viewed alongside the myriad issues already debilitating and complicating the Bolivian justice system, does raise serious questions about the government’s view of justice.
Addressing the severe case backlogs, which number some 13,000 in the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Tribunal combined, is undoubtedly crucial. But Morales’ attitude—and that of his Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party more broadly—has led opponents to argue that the government does not respect the very concept of judicial independence. Executive interference in the Bolivian judiciary certainly did not start under the MAS. However, the fights regarding the composition of the judiciary contributed to the creation of the judicial vacuum in the first place, as justices who resigned from their posts in the Constitutional Tribunal in 2007 cited executive harassment as their reason for leaving, and the Supreme Court has also been the forum for political squabbles. Thus the logic becomes somewhat circular: we must appoint judges to fix the backlog that our political disputes helped cause.
It is worth emphasizing that justice in Bolivia has never been blind. Nonetheless, since coming to power, the MAS has often seemed to be more vigorous about prosecuting opponents rather than supporters. Since Morales’ landslide victory in the December 2009 elections, in which the MAS attained a two-thirds supermajority in the congress, the situation has intensified. Shortly following Morales’ January 2010 inauguration, Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera announced that a priority of the Legislative Assembly would be to continue with the judicial proceedings against former government officials including ex-presidents Eduardo Rodriguez Veltze and Carlos Mesa, former Supreme Court Justice Eddy Fernandez, and ex-magistrate Rosario Canedo, along with a number of government ministers. While some of the cases brought against these officials are undoubtedly merited given Bolivia’s history of corruption, several of the charges are questionable, blurring the line between political disagreement, incompetence, and criminal negligence. What’s more, 59 opposition members currently face charges, including all six of the ex-governors of the departments in the opposition-dominated “Media Luna” region, mostly for corruption or abuse of office. The fact that only one MAS official has been charged along with these opposition members raises concerns over the role that politics has played in these accusations.This slew of cases against opposition members has been accompanied by legal initiatives with other unclear consequences for justice. In addition to the “Ley Corta,” other laws with troubling provisions include the controversial anticorruption law, which is currently being debated in the legislature. More effective anticorruption efforts in Bolivia would be welcome, but certain provisions – in particular, the issue of what provisions will be retroactive – are extremely controversial. If retroactivity merely signals that corruption crimes that previously would have been dismissed on the basis of statute of limitations are now prosecutable, it is a debatable proposition. If the term means that former officials or citizens can be punished for acts they did not know to be criminal at the time of commission, it is far more problematic. In general, the boldness with which MAS members call for investigations or judgments of people with whom they disagree politically is at times jarring. Finally, the decision to include the election of high judicial authorities in the constitution is controversial in its own right. Very few countries select judges through elections – the US being a massive exception – precisely due to the unavoidable clash between political responsiveness and nonpartisan justice.
Justice for regular citizens is fraught with unresolved questions as well. Although geared towards improving the security of citizens and strengthening law enforcement in the country, the recently proposed changes to the penal code set out in the Fast Law Enforcement Bill also stand to decrease the due process guarantees afforded to alleged criminals. Another issue complicating the country’s justice system includes the problematic process of reconciling community justice with civil law. The new constitution officially endorses the communal justice system, but the question of how the two legal regimes will mesh remains fluid. The recent case of Felix Patzi, a candidate for the governorship of La Paz, Bolivia’s biggest department, is illustrative. After being arrested for drunk driving on February 4, Patzi was sentenced to make 1,000 bricks under the community justice system. Although Patzi initially withdrew his candidacy at the request of Morales, he later changed his mind, and now argues that his drunk driving charge should not disqualify him from the La Paz race due to the fact that he has already served out his community justice sentence. However, his civil case remains open, leading to controversy over whether or not the communal punishment should suffice. Due to the MAS party’s commendable insistence on using Patzi to set an example regarding behavioral expectations for its candidates and continued unwillingness to allow Patzi to run, he abandoned the MAS.The MAS envisions its political project as a refoundation of Bolivian society, and citizens have repeatedly endorsed its vision in elections. But justice and politics reside in tension in every country, which is the reason that separation of powers is considered such an essential element of democracy. The MAS has not always abused its power – indeed, Morales’ interim selections were viewed as fairly credible by most observers – but the government’s actions have been controversial in many different spheres related to the rule of law. With such political hegemony as the MAS now possesses inevitably comes temptation to abuse it, especially in conditions of unconsolidated institutions. How these issues are addressed will say a great deal about the MAS’s attitude toward basic democratic tenets more generally.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Andrea Farias
A flurry of new reports has shed light upon potentially serious security sector abuses in several Latin American countries. Human rights organizations and media outlets have recently condemned severe human rights violations being committed by state police, police-linked vigilante groups, and the military in Brazil, Peru, and Mexico. While security force abuses are sadly nothing new in Latin America, these three states have in recent years escaped the notoriety of Colombia, Venezuela, and Guatemala, among others, as places rife with such abuses. However, in each case the facts are grim.
In Brazil, an alarming Human Rights Watch report chronicles police killings in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo states. According to the report, over 11,000 people have been killed by police in those two states since 2003. In 2008 alone, there were 1,137 “resistance killings,” or killings committed supposedly in self-defense, recorded in Rio de Janeiro state. Human Rights Watch details substantial evidence that a large portion of these “resistance killings” were in fact extrajudicial executions covered up by the police. Police officers also commit abuses through their off-duty involvement with the country’s many death squads and militias, which are known for their ruthlessness. Where police abuses are concerned, impunity remains the norm. The public security challenge faced by police forces in Brazil is inarguably a difficult one; in 2008, there were more than 10,000 victims of intentional homicide in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo combined, and violent crimes committed by drug traffickers and criminal gangs often include high-powered weapons. However, the use of lethal force against civilians is governed by rules that must be respected. Moreover, legal and moral problems aside, high levels of police killings only exacerbate and complicate Brazil’s security crisis. Thus far, the government response to the killings has been inadequate. For a country whose economic gains have received such acclaim, this type of publicity is unwelcome. Whether the government responds defensively or, instead, takes determined action to end such abuses will be revealing in terms of the country’s attitude toward the rule of law.
In the case of Peru, police violence has also surfaced as a polemical issue. The possible existence of a death squad operating in Trujillo, along with a possible police cover-up of the story, made headlines immediately after the story of the supposed human fat-harvesting gang operating in the Amazon surfaced and gained broad international exposure. However, once the public and the media realized that an article detailing a series of executions allegedly committed by a police death squad in Trujillo was published in Poder at the same time that the fat-harvesting story made headlines, the government, and especially the Interior Ministry, was bombarded with accusations that the outlandish story about the fat-thieves was meant to serve as a cover-up of the death squad report.
In the Poder article, Ricardo Uceda contends that police executed 46 criminals in Trujillo during 2007-2008, allegedly in a systematic attempt to rid the city of miscreants. Uceda notes that “during the investigation for this article, which included confidential conversations with active and retired police…versions of the story that a policy of social cleansing had begun to be conceived by the police of Trujillo were picked up by then , although no one provided evidence.” The police responsible for the deaths are reputed to belong to a death squad led by Colonel Elidio Espinoza, the Leader of the East Emergency Squadron. As is the case in Brazil, the police officially reported that all these killings were committed in self-defense. Uceda writes that “in a typical case of the official version, the members of a police patrol-by coincidence or through a third-party tip- surprise and assault two or more thieves. The thieves flee, shooting at the police, who then…. kill them. Subsequently, ballistic tests show that the delinquents were armed and that their arms were fired.” Such an account absolves the police from responsibility under Legislative Decree 982, which came into force in July 2007. The Public Ministry has investigated each of these recorded police killings, but archived the 21 cases it considered last year and decided to bring indictments against police in only 2 of the 16 files it is processing this year. This scandal serves as another reminder that the professionalization of Peru’s police force and justice system remains stagnant, a charge that rights groups have been leveling for years. The police and justice systems are simply not adequate to the task of handling crime and social conflict, as the Bagua incident also revealed. Unfortunately, the instinct of top officials seems to denial of the problems or postponement of comprehensive solutions.
Finally, a recent Amnesty International report brings attention to egregious human rights abuses being committed by the Mexican military. According to Amnesty, the military has carried out numerous acts of forced disappearance, torture, extrajudicial killings, and arbitrary detention against civilians since being deployed to stop violence by drug traffickers. The number of abuses has increased drastically since 2007, coinciding with a major surge in violent crime (15,000 drug murders have been reported since December 2006), and Calderon’s increasingly aggressive offensive against drug trafficking networks. In 2008, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) received 1,230 complaints against the Ministry of Defense—a huge increase from the 367 in 2007.
The situation is especially alarming in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. Since the beginning of 2009, at least 44 people have allegedly been arbitrarily detained and tortured by the military in Tijuana. The practice of arresting before investigating and charging, known as arraigo, has become the norm, along with the torture of detainees, which now “forms part of a generalized practice…a general rule as to how the authorities are operating….” In Ciudad Juarez, cases of military assassinations, forced disappearance, and torture abound. According to CNDH president Raul Plascencia, the number of criminal acts committed by the military at the U.S. border has tripled since last year, and the State Commission for Human Rights in Chihuahua and the Municipal Office for Complaints received a total of 725 denunciations from January-September 2009. In cases of military human rights abuses, impunity is endemic, and the government response to this situation has been almost nonexistent. No state officer has been punished for abuses committed in Juarez, and Mexico’s judicial shortfalls, which are especially dire within the military justice system, are further complicated by the climate of insecurity faced by the victims and their families, who are constantly threatened and intimidated by military officials. All levels of government have shown little willingness to devote the necessary time and resources to investigate this problem and to constrain the excessive power and jurisdiction of the military. Mexican officials have even gone so far as to blame the people of Juarez for fueling the problem by creating the opening for organized crime in the first place.There is no doubt that Brazil, Peru, and Mexico face daunting public security challenges, but these challenges can never negate the responsibility of the security forces to protect civilians from abuses. Two of these countries – Mexico and Brazil – see themselves as leaders of the region and the developing world, while Peru presents itself as a rapidly emerging nation. But with increased attention to positive developments will come higher expectations in all spheres, as well as attention to less flattering social issues. No one expects that progress will be easy, but demonstration that security force abuses will not be tolerated is as good a place as any to prove that these governments are acting in good faith and the interests of all their citizens.
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Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s immense popularity stems directly from his notable security achievements. Since winning the presidency in 2002, Uribe aimed to address the country’s endemic violence through a policy he has labeled “Democratic Security.” Uribe and the military’s hard-line stance (strongly backed by the US) against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a left-wing guerrilla group that has waged a brutal insurgency since the 1960s, has achieved measurable results. Since the launching of the offensive, the FARC have been pushed out of major cities and deep into the countryside, several top leaders have been killed, and the size of the group has been cut in half. The military efforts culminated in a number of high-profile successes in 2008 that caused Uribe’s approval ratings to soar to 84 percent. Top FARC commanders Raul Reyes, Ivan Rios, and paramount leader Manuel Marulanda died due to attacks or medical conditions, and in July, Colombian commandos tricked the FARC into handing over 15 hostages including Ingrid Betancourt, a well-known French-Colombian politician. As a result of these efforts, the security climate improved dramatically as the number of homicides plummeted and kidnappings declined. In 2008, Colombia’s homicide rate dropped to 33 per 100,000 inhabitants, its lowest rate in 30 years. The dramatic decrease in urban violence was especially important in terms of improving both the national self-image and international perceptions of Colombia.
In addition to the intensified campaign against the FARC, Uribe attempted to decrease violence by demobilizing, reintegrating, and prosecuting the country’s paramilitary forces, officially known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). This process began in July 2005 with the enactment of the Justice and Peace Law, which set out guidelines for the demobilization of the paramilitaries in exchange for concessions. The original law met with national and international opposition due to its overly conciliatory approach towards the paramilitaries who had committed grave human rights crimes against the Colombian population. Colombia’s Constitutional Court amended the law in May 2006, and the revised version improved the rights of the victims by allowing them to participate in legal proceedings, requires that paramilitary members fully confess their crimes, and requires that seized assets, including stolen land, be used to recompense victims. In its current form, the law provides rank-and-file AUC members the opportunity to reenter Colombian society and receive judicial amnesty in exchange for laying down their arms. In addition, it offers reduced prison sentences of up to eight years to paramilitary leaders in exchange for turning in their weapons, confessing their crimes, and offering reparations to the victims. Thus far the process has achieved the demobilization of 32,000 paramilitaries, and confessions have enabled authorities to recover 2,666 bodies from hidden graves.
While Democratic Security can point to real achievements, stagnation appears to have set in, and backsliding is a real risk in both the offensive against the FARC and the Justice and Peace process. Military gains against the FARC insurgency have been much slower in 2009. Since Marulanda’s death, the FARC has reinvigorated itself in rural areas, and the Colombian army has failed to capture or kill any additional top guerrilla leaders in 2009. In addition, although Uribe has dedicated the past four years of his presidency to the demobilization of the country’s paramilitary forces, the country has yet to be rid of this scourge. Instead, reintegrated paramilitary members have continued to commit numerous violent acts. In addition, new illegal armed groups have sprung up in the place of the demobilized AUC. Most of these groups have direct ties either to groups that were formerly under the control of leaders now extradited to the United States or the various drug trafficking organizations operating in the country. As a result, 2009 has seen a spike in violence and crime. Homicides in Medellin have doubled since 2008, with more than 1,500 murders reported since January. The surge of crime in the city is linked to new conflicts and turf wars between narcotraffickers, ex-paramilitaries, and criminal gangs. In addition to ordinary civilians, human rights defenders have become especially at risk for violent attacks, especially in the northern areas of the country where paramilitary influence began and reached its greatest depths. Most recently, on October 29, Colombian human rights activist Ramiro Montes was killed by paramilitaries in Cordoba while en route to a meeting with a humanitarian mission sent to investigate displacements in the area. Finally, in still highly-contested areas like the southwest, indigenous Colombians have been subjected to a series of attacks by various armed actors.
Unfortunately, this new violence has emerged before Colombia has made significant headway in its attempts to come to terms with past bloodshed. The Justice and Peace (LPJ) process not come close to achieving an authentic, comprehensive process of truth and reconciliation. As noted in a previous post, victims’ rights have been consistently subordinated to Colombian leaders’ desire to claim victory in the conflict. In April, Colombian Senator Armando Benedetti, an uribista, delivered a scathing critique of the Justice and Peace Process. Benedetti highlighted the alarming statistics pointing to the failure of the process to prosecute paramilitaries and address the plight of the victims. For example, only 127 of the 3,257 paramilitary leaders accused of serious crimes have begun the process of giving confessions, and only four have finished the “open testimony” stage. Only one high-profile paramilitary leader, Salazar Carrascal, commonly known as “the Parrot,” has been convicted, and his conviction was later overturned because it failed to include all of his crimes. At the rate things are going, Senator Benedetti estimates that it would take 2,157 years to complete the judicial process.
The reparations process is equally slow. The Attorney General’s office has reported that only 12 of the 3,257 paramilitary leaders have turned over ill-begotten assets to fund reparations to the victims. The goods include 70 pairs of used shoes and a television in poor condition. The assets amount to a value of $3.75 per registered victim. The restitution of stolen lands has been especially sluggish; paramilitaries have handed over just 6,600 hectares of land to the victim reparations fund and 60,000 hectares to displaced persons, meaning that only one percent of the lands have been returned to their rightful owners.The disappointing results of the LJP process can be attributed to a variety of factors. The country’s justice system, which is plagued by “serious operational and financial bottlenecks,” is ill-equipped for a judicial process of such magnitude. As Senator Benedetti explained, 125,368 victims had registered as of April, but the Ombudsman’s office, which is charged with assisting the victims, has only assigned 68 lawyers to handle their cases. In addition, the Justice and Peace unit of the Prosecutor General’s Office has only 23 prosecutors working on the extremely complicated cases of paramilitary leaders, while the equivalent unit of the Attorney General’s Office has only 12 lawyers. In addition to the judicial backlog and overload, the persistent climate of violence has stymied the process, as paramilitary groups and new illegal armed groups have oftentimes threatened and harassed victims and witnesses. According to Benedetti’s presentation, 15 victims registered in the process have been killed while 92 have been threatened. A failure to devote more resources to investigation and protection has raised questions about the political will among ruling elites to fully and systematically confront the past. This suspicion was further raised by the May 2008 extradition of 14 top paramilitary chiefs to the US. While some subsequently expressed a desire to continue cooperating with the LJP process, others who possess great knowledge of horrific crimes have gone silent. Recognizing the risk that extradition will breed impunity, Colombia’s Supreme Court Court in August 2009 banned further extraditions of those engaged in the LJP process.
These developments highlight the fact that Colombia’s momentum has tapered off, even as Uribe seeks to make the success of Democratic Security the basis for an unprecedented third term. Thus far, neither the security lags nor the slow pace of the LJP process have significantly tarnished Uribe’s reputation. The most recent Gallup poll pegs his approval rating at a still-high 64 percent, and he dominates all hypothetical election matchups. However, citizens of both Medellin and Bogota have expressed concern about the urban security situation (Cali, Colombia’s third city, also famously violent, never saw its homicide rates decline as far as the other two) and international observers have increasingly noted the post-demobilization problems. In some ways Uribe’s rhetoric has hemmed him in: he convinced Colombians that the FARC and, to a lesser degree, the AUC were at the root of Colombian ills. However, Colombia suffers from both deep-rooted social problems and the difficulties associated with being a top drug producer. Merely “defeating” the guerrillas and convincing the AUC to demobilize was never going to be sufficient absent a more integrated approach to security. In addition, one of the key post-conflict issues in any country is justice, and Colombia seems to remain a place where justice for victims remains a second order concern. As the reelection fight moves toward a climax, the attention of Colombia’s political class will remain distracted. But whether Uribe or one of his many rivals eventually emerges triumphant, Colombia will be faced with the reality that past performance is no guarantee of future success, and that ongoing security issues will require a rethinking of the Democratic Security strategy.
Photo Credit: Flickr user vocesbolivianas
The official campaign season began this week in Bolivia, where, barring unforeseen developments – which aren’t out of the question given the country’s tumultuous recent history – President Evo Morales, who was first elected president in 2005, will be reelected to an unprecedented second term on December 6. The reelection bid became possible following a January 2009 referendum in which Bolivians approved a new constitution that granted Morales the right to seek a second term in office. All polls show the president, the leftist Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) candidate, with a commanding lead over his fellow contenders. A September 2009 Ipsos Apoyo poll shows Morales receiving 54 percent of the vote, with Manfred Reyes Villa, the former governor of Cochabamba and the Progress Plan Bolivia party candidate, coming in a distant second, with 20 percent. Another recent poll conducted by Equipos Mori shows Morales receiving between 47 and 59 percent of the vote and Reyes Villa garnering between 16 and 19 percent. Other notable opposition candidates include businessman Samuel Doria Medina of the National Unity party and indigenous Potosi Mayor Rene Joaquino of the Social Alliance, but both are far behind. Former president Jorge Quiroga and former vice-president Victor Hugo Cardenas once numbered amongst the contenders, but both dropped out of the race due to their poor chances of victory and stated desire to diminish opposition fragmentation. Morales can avoid a run-off either by garnering 50 percent of the vote, or 40 percent with a 10 percent lead over the nearest contender. With Morales’ support among the population increasing, victory appears all but assured.
Considering the turmoil that rocked Bolivia last year, the country’s relatively tranquil pre-campaign election season has been a relief. Throughout 2008, Bolivia’s centuries-old socioeconomic tensions, which to a large extent pose the European-descended and mestizo lowlands dwellers against Bolivia’s highlands-based indigenous majority, erupted into violent confrontation. Throughout August and September, the country was rocked by anti-government protests in the eastern provinces, where demands for greater autonomy spiked following Morales’ plans to redistribute lands and hydrocarbons wealth away from the lowlands. Anti-Morales demonstrators occupied government buildings and even caused an explosion of a natural gas pipeline. The unrest culminated in the “Pando massacre,” a clash between pro-Morales supporters and Pando officials that left at least 13 campesinos dead. With the approval of the constitution, however, the opposition seemed traumatized and disarticulated, and has struggled to come up with a positive message.
Although the opposition’s strategy, tactics, and vision have often ranged from questionable to condemnable, the Morales administration is not above criticism. Morales’ first term was marred by several unsettling governance practices. As the 2009 Freedom in the World report notes, media freedom has declined as violent attacks against journalists – abetted to some degree by aggressive government rhetoric – have increased, corruption has remained pervasive, and judicial independence and efficiency have been treated as relics as a past era. Furthermore, Morales’ response to opposition criticism has often seemed thin-skinned in the face of criticism. As a previous blog post notes, Morales has consistently confronted and harassed the opposition instead of adopting a more magnanimous approach. Such tactics as ordering the social bases of the MAS to surround the Congress in order to forcefully bring about favorable decisions have at times in the last two years seemed to cost Morales some of the middle-class support he garnered in 2005.
The opposition has certainly attempted to parlay these and other issues into an anti-MAS message. However, it has been far less successful in presenting a positive reform agenda that demonstrates that it has learned any lessons over the last three years, a deficit that has been costly. Attempts to capitalize on anti-government sentiments have generally backfired, most notably in the August 2008 recall referendum, in which 67 percent of voters affirmed their support for the president even as Cochabamba voters threw Reyes Villa out of office. As the New York Times notes, despite the strong anti-Morales sentiment in the East, Morales has maintained power and support among the population and within government institutions that matter the most. As the Democracy Center explains, Morales’ success, along with his likely reelection, can largely be explained by the fact that he can still count on overwhelming support amongst the indigenous majority, who continue to consider Morales the embodiment of their movement. Most notably, among the urban Aymara residents of El Alto (Bolivia’s third-largest city), Morales’ approval rating is over 90 percent, and the president can count on an over 80 percent approval rating in La Paz and the altiplano.
In turn, the failure of the opposition to challenge the president is mainly the result of its own internal lack of cohesion and strategy. After the 2005 election entirely upended Bolivia’s traditional political scene, the opposition was left the task of picking up the pieces and reformulating themselves. As opposed to the past, the opposition movement is now centered on regional governors rather than the Congress, and more importantly, remains divided. These governors have worked to fuel anti-government protests within their provinces, but have been unable to come together to build a strong national political force with the ability to challenge Morales on Election Day. As academic Miguel Centellas argues, “The opposition is currently fractionalized. The strategy of a united front is there, but egos (who gets top billing on the ticket?) get in the way. Evo’s dominance is, in large part, a product of a complete realignment of Bolivia’s political axis.” For his part, presidential candidate Rene Joaquino has called the opposition movement a “bag of cats in which all candidates scratch each other to win presidential candidacy, without there being any ideological consensus.” While Reyes Villa, the current opposition frontrunner who has the greatest likelihood of bringing about opposition unity in the long run if not today, can count on the backing of the Cochabamba political machine, he is not supported countrywide, and is seen by many as all too representative of a pre-Evo mentality. His controversial choice of Pando ex- prefect Leopoldo Fernandez (who is currently in jail awaiting charges related to his involvement in the Pando massacre) as his running mate may serve him quite well, as it could secure the support of both the strategically important Pando and the virulently anti-Morales eastern elites who consider Fernandez to be a political prisoner. While this will probably not be enough to win the election, Reyes Villa may win the ability to galvanize and a national opposition in the post-election period.Despite the seeming lack of suspense in the presidential race, Bolivia’s medium-term political outlook remains murky. Whether Reyes Villa successfully holds together the opposition in the post-election period or not, the question of how to articulate a platform other than “no MAS” will likely continue to hamstring the opposition. Latin America’s new wave of populist leaders has a way of creating this situation: opposition movements in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia have all struggled to paper over significant ideological differences through the unifying theme of anti-incumbency. The MAS, for its part, has no natural successor to Morales, who has pledged not to run again in 2014. Moreover, many basic questions about institutions and social structures in the new Bolivia remain unanswered. So while 2009 has been blessedly calm compared to 2008, storms are likely not far from roiling Bolivia’s turbid waters.
Photo Credit: Flickr user danielkaempfe
On August 26, Pablo Pasillas Fong, an assistant to the lead federal investigator in the case of Mexican crime journalist Armando Rodriguez, who was murdered last November in Ciudad Juarez, was himself shot and killed. This occurred less than a month after the former lead investigator met the same fate. Mexico’s problems protecting reporters from the violence raging between organized criminal groups are increasingly well-known. Over the past few years violence against journalists has become rampant. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2008 Attacks on the Press report, at least 24 journalists have been killed since 2000. The country’s National Human Rights Commission puts the death toll even higher: 46 killings of journalists over the same period, with an additional 7 journalists disappeared in the country since 2005. As conflict has intensified, Mexican journalists who cover such polemical issues as organized crime, the drug trade, and police corruption have been targeted by both criminal organizations and law enforcement agencies, which has in turn fueled a growing trend of self-censorship. The legal system has failed the victims throughout, with very few of these crimes investigated and prosecuted. As Reporters without Borders has argued, this impunity has been fueled by the widespread corruption of public officials, who are sometimes either directly involved in organized crime and drug trafficking networks or are bribed to look the other way.
In addition to the threat of violence, journalists must also contend with other unfavorable aspects of the Mexican media environment. The legal sphere is one trouble zone. While Mexico has promoted several legal initiatives geared towards boosting press freedom in the past few years, most of these reforms have been marred by either inherent inadequacies or half-hearted implementation. For example, in 2007, President Felipe Calderon promulgated a law that decriminalized libel, defamation, and slander at the federal level, rendering it impossible for journalists to face prison sentences for such offenses. Nevertheless, due to the fact that Mexico’s legal system operates on separate federal and state levels, the law’s impact was significantly constrained due to the fact that states are not forced to comply. At the time, the World Press Freedom Committee has reported that several Mexican states “possess some of the most stringent and restrictive defamation laws in the entire region.” While state governments were required to decriminalize their own defamation laws, this has not come to pass in most cases. ARTICLE 19 recently reported that criminal defamation laws remain in place in 21 out of 32 states.
An effort to pass a constitutional amendment that would grant federal authorities the power to prosecute crimes against freedom of expression is more promising, but has dragged on for several years and is also likely to prove insufficient. On March 18, Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies passed the amendment to Article 73 of the Constitution, which would incorporate crimes “committed against freedom of expression exercised through the practice of journalism” into the federal penal code and impose prison sentences of up to 5 years in prison for such crimes, independent of existing penalties. The reform measure is currently awaiting approval by the Senate, which will review the law when Congress meets again this month. President Calderon has personally pledged his commitment to the project. While this represents a positive step toward a more dedicated response to the rising violence, several press freedom organizations have argued that the initiative falls short in various regards. ARTICLE 19 has suggested that federal investigators’ hands will remain tied as, among other problems, the amendment fails to provide federal officials with the authority to investigate cases covered by local jurisdiction.
Finally, despite featuring what is in many ways a vibrant media sector, the country’s economic and political environment restricts freedom in a different, though equally significant, way. Specifically, freedom of expression is limited by the dominance of two media giants, Televisa and TV Azteca, in the country’s television sector. The power that this duopoly wields over the Mexican television market has rarely been challenged. The 2006 Radio and Television Law, more commonly known as “Ley Televisa,” which ostensibly sought to modernize the country’s broadcasting infrastructure, effectively consolidated the duopoly’s control over the airwaves. In a positive 2007 development, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that many of the law’s provisions violated the constitution along with the principles of “equity, competition, and democratization of the broadcasting spectrum” and subsequently threw those provisions out. However, the congress has failed to follow through with this judicial decision, and the Televisa/Azteca powerhouse continues to enjoy substantial political clout. Most recently, ties between Televisa and Enrique Pena Nieto, the PRI governor of the State of Mexico who most consider to be the frontrunner for the 2012 presidential elections, have come to light through journalist Jenaro Villamil’s book If I Were President: Pena Nieta’s Reality Show, which reveals that the image-conscious presidential hopeful used state funds to pay Televisa to expand his publicity and boost his popularity and image.
In some ways, the Mexican media is a microcosm other Mexican institutions, which are still experiencing growing pains subsequent to the country’s 2000 democratic transition. As with limitations to its democracy, Mexico is not a country where press constraints are obvious to the casual eye. Crime still gets reported (though without bylines for papers based in the conflict zones), diversity of opinion (especially in Mexico City newspapers) is strong, and the government does not actively censor. However, this freedom remains both thin and fragile. That the levels of violence have increased self-censorship is nearly indisputable. The weaknesses of the legal regime, both in terms of libel/defamation and the level of criminal impunity, means that freedom of expression still relies far too much on journalistic courage rather than affirmative protections. The power of dominant broadcasters like Televisa inhibits the growth of a competitive broadcast sector with the capacity to provide balanced, comprehensive monitoring and reporting. Reforming the state as a whole will inevitably be a long and difficult process. However, a dose of political will from the president and congressional leaders that translates to improved legal protections and economic dynamism could go a long way toward helping Mexico’s vulnerable press sector improve its capacity to play a positive role in the critical years ahead.
On August 11, Bill Clinton, the UN Special Envoy for Haiti, named Dr. Paul Farmer as his deputy. These posts were recently created by the UN in an effort to more effectively promote economic development in the turmoil-racked country. In recent years, both Clinton and Farmer have demonstrated their dedication to aiding Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation. As president, Clinton sent the U.S. military into Haiti in 1994 in order to return democratically-elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to his post, subsequently turning the operation over to a UN force. While this effort was not successful in the long-run, Clinton remained committed to assisting the nation through other means, in large part through his foundation’s work to combat HIV/AIDS and support recovery efforts after 2008’s destructive hurricanes. Paul Farmer, the co-founder of Partners in Health, an international nonprofit that provides health care services to the Haitian poor and carries out research and advocacy work, has received international acclaim for the work he has done to provide free medical treatment and promote social justice in Haiti throughout the past 3 decades.
With these two heavyweights now serving at the forefront of Haiti’s international advisory team, it is possible that the country might have a greater chance at combating its monumental economic, political, and environmental troubles. Both Clinton and Farmer bring impressive skills and a strong sense of optimism to the table. In fact, Clinton has stated, “I think Haiti, notwithstanding the total destruction of four storms last year, has the best chance to escape its dark history in the 35 years I've been going there …What I want to do is help the Haitian people take control of their own destiny." Nevertheless, Clinton and Farmer have their work cut out for them. The most dire and pressing issue facing Haiti is the nation’s soaring poverty level, which is complicated by a severe food shortage and deteriorating health conditions, along with the destruction left in the wake of last year’s storms. Over 80% of Haitians live in poverty, with the unemployment rate hovering around a shocking 90%. As the island is highly dependent on imports, the 2008 global food crisis hit it especially hard and sparked intense protests. The health of Haiti’s poor is deplorable; the country’s child mortality rates are sky-high, and 6% of the population is infected with HIV/AIDS. These problems are exacerbated and complicated by the government’s poor governance record. Haiti suffers from an extreme lack of services, unsurprising given the country’s political instability, ailing rule of law, and rampant corruption. While the country has recently made some governance improvements that will facilitate Clinton’s and Farmer’s efforts to drive development, colossal challenges remain.
In a March 2009 report, the International Crisis Group stressed that a major focal point of the Haitian government must be electoral and institutional reform efforts. Since its independence, Haiti’s political history has been dominated by instability including foreign intervention, military coups, flawed elections, and multiple authoritarian interludes. Most recently, the 2004 re-ouster of President Aristide split Haiti and left it with no functioning political institutions. Nevertheless, the country has made some strides toward institutional rebuilding in the past few years. In 2006, Haiti elected Rene Preval, who has received international acclaim for his attempts to address unemployment and poverty during a previous term, to the presidency in a free and fair contest that was lauded as “a step toward political stability” and subsequently restored an elected parliament. However, yet another political crisis shook Haiti when Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis was ousted from his post by a Senate vote in the midst of last April’s deadly food protests; the post remained vacant until September, when Michele Pierre-Louis was approved. Furthermore, congressional elections originally scheduled for December 2007 were postponed until this year, which resulted in Senate inactivity as the body was frequently inquorate. The country’s persistent state of institutional instability has effectively stymied any progress on the development of anti-poverty and healthcare programs, along with the effective use of foreign assistance. In fact, it has led most international donors to filter money through NGOs rather than the government – the lack of accountability within the country’s civil society sector notwithstanding.
The absence of effective rule of law in the country is equally troubling. As an ICG report explains, “The state is able to guarantee neither the security of its citizens nor the rights of defendants.” More specifically, lawlessness and crime have reigned supreme since the collapse of the police force following the events of 2004. Gangs have gained control of large areas and committed kidnappings, murders, and other violent crimes against helpless citizens. Unfortunately, these crimes are largely met with impunity due to the dysfunctional state of the country’s judicial system. Nevertheless, according to the UN, the security situation has been moderately ameliorated. Crime rates are down following efforts by the Haitian police, with the assistance of UN forces, to dismantle the gangs and reinstate control over gang territories. In addition, the UN forces have succeeded in increasing the number of police from 5,000 in 2005 to 9,000 today. Nevertheless, as another ICG report argues, much remains to be done in order to consolidate effective security sector reform. The report claims that the police force requires further professionalization and that the vetting and training process must become more transparent in order to address concerns regarding personnel guilty of human rights violations and corruption. Human Rights Watch corroborated this, arguing that kidnappings and other crimes persist at an alarming rate while both police lawlessness and a lack of justice continue unchecked. As such, the internal security crisis continues to undermine domestic and international efforts to implement anti-poverty and hurricane recovery efforts and attract foreign direct investment.
Finally, endemic corruption continues to be an especially pernicious problem. In its 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International ranked Haiti 177 out of 180 countries, with only Iraq, Myanmar, and Somalia in worse condition. Preval has made some efforts to eradicate corruption by requiring the disclosure of top government officials’ assets and purging corrupt police officers from the force, but the entrenched, pervasive nature of the problem will require a more systematic approach.
There is no denying the fact that Haiti and its new UN envoys have a long road ahead of them. The country continues to face substantial challenges in all realms of governance and as a result, sustainable progress on economic development issues will be slow. That said, Haiti’s institutions have been rebuilt since the post-2004 nadir and political stability and internal security have improved mildly. In addition, as the new UN appointments, recent U.S. trade legislation offering Haiti duty-free, quota-free access to U.S. markets, and international pledges of additional aid demonstrate, the international community, especially the United States, may have finally become more committed to encouraging development in the country. While UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s statement that “Haiti stands a better chance than almost any emerging economy…to prosper” may be somewhat hyperbolic, that he said it all symbolizes an important change in expectations for the country.
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On July 15, Jordan’s Upper House of Parliament passed several amendments to the controversial civil society law signed by King Abdullah II in December 2008. While civil society groups had hoped that Jordan would take advantage of this opportunity to address the widespread international and national criticism of the restrictive 2008 laws and adopt some of the revisions recommended by civil society groups, this did not come to pass. The approved amendments fail to revoke the 2008 law’s provisions that grant the executive branch extensive control over the registration and activities of the country’s non-governmental organizations (NGOs). NGO registration will continue to depend on an opaque approval process rather than an administrative notification procedure. In addition, executive authorities will retain their ability to monitor NGO activities by directly appointing NGO delegates to General Assembly meetings, controlling some personnel appointments, and reviewing annual activity plans. Furthermore, the new version of the law strictly regulates financing by prohibiting NGOs from receiving foreign funds without approval by the Council of Ministers. Finally, as was the case in the 2008 law, NGOs will be prohibited from pursuing political objectives and carrying out activities that threaten social order. In response to the House’s decision, civil society groups lamented Jordan’s failure to eliminate excessive government interference in the NGO sector, which is considered by some to be one of the country’s major obstacles to democratic reform. Last July, we blogged on freedom of association in Jordan following the initial introduction of the two draft NGO laws to the Jordanian parliament. Both the passage of the law last year and the recent failure of the government to ease its clampdown on the sector are unfortunate, considering the country’s continued rhetorical commitment to deepening liberalization.
Tunisia has also witnessed discouraging recent developments. Specifically, the run-up to the October presidential and parliamentary elections has been fraught with violence. In the past few months, opposition members, journalists, and human rights defenders alike have been the victims of physical attacks. Criticism of the government of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who is seeking a fifth term in office, has been met with increased repression by state security officials. Furthermore, the campaign activities of the opposition have been severely restricted. Opposition papers including Al Mawkif, Mouatinoun, and Attarik El Jedid have been repeatedly harassed, which has caused their distribution to be disrupted. This aggressive assault against the opposition is being carried out despite the fact that President Ben Ali‘s victory in the election, along with the dominance of the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally Party (RCD) in the parliamentary elections, is basically predetermined. As the 2007 Countries at the Crossroads report notes, there is no real opportunity for rotation of power in the country. This is largely the result of the country’s winner-take-all system, which provides the RCD with strong advantages given the country’s past experience of single-party rule. Last November, we blogged on Tunisia’s poor prospects for reform, especially in the realm of electoral politics, calling attention to the gap between the government’s rhetoric, which supports democracy and human rights, and the reality of Tunisia’s political and social situation, which is characterized by oppressive laws and practices that restrict free expression and generally thwart democratic advancement. Although Ben Ali has continued to employ democratic rhetoric by making promises that the run-up to the election will be open and competitive and followed his words with deeds by working with the National Observatory of Presidential and Legislative Elections to ensure that “neutrality, transparency, and independence” is observed, the credibility of the process remains tenuous at best when observed alongside its offensive against the opposition.
In the nearby nation of Mauritania, the latest developments are more complicated. On July 18, General Muhammad Ould Abdel Aziz, head of the junta that gained power in Mauritania following a military coup in August 2008, won the country’s presidential election. General Abdel Aziz defeated his main opponent, Messaoud Ould Boulkheir, the former speaker of the parliament who had vehemently opposed the coup, with 53% of the vote. While the holding of elections would normally be considered a positive development, especially in light of Mauritania’s recent history of military rule and political uncertainty, the circumstances surrounding these elections cast doubt upon the degree of democratic advancement they represent. The fact that General Abdel Aziz, who ousted the country’s first-ever democratically elected president from power last year after already being involved in two prior coups, included his name on the election ballot, raised eyebrows. In addition, several of Abdel Aziz’s opponents have called the election a charade. They have specifically claimed that there were too few observers, although international actors such as the African Union, along with several diplomats, have disagreed. Following last year’s coup, we blogged on the country’s major democratic setback, along with its history of coups and excessive military involvement in the country’s political affairs. At that time, we noted that the Mauritanian military had yet again shown its unwillingness to relinquish its dominant role in the country’s politics, reflecting a longstanding tradition of weak civilian control over the military. General Abdel Aziz’s refusal to bar junta members from competing in the recent elections, and his successful attempt to fill the presidential shoes himself, are yet another example. Also troubling is Abdel Aziz’s governance record over the past year. As the 2009 Freedom in the World report on Mauritania notes, the Abdel Aziz-led junta imposed restrictions on press freedom along with other basic civil rights. Thus, if past record is a good indication of his future performance Mauritania’s prospects for democratic progress will remain questionable.
Finally, in several Latin American countries, press freedom has taken a major hit. The press environment in Honduras and Venezuela has become especially restrictive. In Honduras, television and radio stations were completely shut down immediately following the June 28 military coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya from the presidency. Since this time, a selective news blackout has been continuously imposed, with media regarded as critical of de-facto President Roberto Micheletti’s government being obstructed and censored. Reporters without Borders has reported that the broadcasts of eight radio and TV stations have been periodically interrupted during the past month, oftentimes following coverage of pro-Zelaya material. On the contrary, media outlets supportive of the de-facto government have escaped persecution. Furthermore, local broadcasting of international TV stations including Telesur and CNN has been stopped. In early April, we blogged on Honduran media freedom as part of a post on Central-American government-media relations. At the time, we noted that the Honduran media tended to be quite critical of President Zelaya, which was unusual considering the fact that the country’s political and media elite were historically one and the same. This reflected a more ominous situation than most observers realized at the time. The powerful anti-Zelaya media sector has undoubtedly facilitated the coup-leaders’ agenda, especially in the beginning, when several outlets immediately echoed their statements that a coup had not occurred. In the current political environment, these outlets have come to largely dominate the Honduran media landscape, while the few pro-Zelaya outlets have been forced into silence. This is yet another reason that the government installed by the coup, which has been widely denounced by international bodies including the UN and the OAS, deserves not a sliver of legitimacy when compared to the democratically elected Zelaya government.
In June, we blogged on President Hugo Chavez’s assault on the media, and especially his battle with the rabidly anti-government channel Globovision. Throughout July, the Venezuelan government continued its campaign against opposition media by shutting down 34 radio stations due to alleged violations, while also opening an additional procedure against Globovision, this time for airing an advertising campaign that used the image of an unclothed, pregnant woman in the name of defending private property. In addition, on August 3, 30 pro-government militants reinforced the offensive against Globovision by storming the organization’s headquarters. This act was apparently a bridge too far: the leader of the militants, well-known activist Lina Ron, was arrested and charged with a number of crimes. However condemnable Ms. Ron’s acts, it bears noting that she has a good reason to feel cognitive dissonance: the fever pitch of anti-Globovision rhetoric expressed by President Chavez and his top allies undoubtedly encouraged supporters like herself, who consider themselves the vanguard of the Bolivarian movement, to carry out such actions. This all comes in the context of the ill-fated draft “media crimes bill” that would have imposed jail sentences for a variety of ambiguous “media offenses.” Much like 2008’s notorious intelligence bill, however, the swift and fierce international outcry by everyone from the UN press rapporteur to pro-Chavez websites caused legislators to bury the legislation. Nonetheless, relations between Chavez and against critical media show no signs of achieving equilibrium anytime soon, and many outlets continue to wait for the next step in what seems to be a permanent offensive.
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On July 14, the Colombian government rejected the “Ley de Fosas,” a law that would have created the “Bank of Genetic Profiles of the Disappeared.” This database would have collected both genetic information obtained from the exhumed remains of Colombian victims buried in mass graves and the genetic data of family members of the disappeared, in an effort to facilitate the identification process. When justifying its decision, the government cited financial considerations, arguing that the law’s implementation would be unfeasible in light of Colombia’s current macroeconomic situation. Specifically, it noted that the cost of collecting and preserving the genetic data would reach over $91 billion pesos (roughly US$45 million), a significant expenditure given the nation’s current financial constraints. In response, Guillermo Rivera, one of the law’s coauthors, argued that the government was exaggerating the projected cost, noting that the law did not intend to initiate DNA testing in all cases. In addition, he reminded the government of its obligation to do everything possible to identify the victims of the 44-year internal conflict that continues to afflict Colombia today.
Unfortunately, this is one of several recent examples of the government acting intransigently in its attitude toward victims of the internal conflict. The “Ley de Victimas”(Victims’ Law), an initiative that establishes the reparations process for the conflict’s victims, is another. A version passed in the Senate in June 2008 with strong endorsements from both domestic and international human rights groups was extensively modified over the following year. It finally was passed by the Chamber of Representatives on June 16, but in a weakened state that was criticized by Guillermo Rivera, the original bill’s proposer, human rights organizations, and victims alike due to the fact that it discriminated between victims of guerrilla groups and victims of the state. In its modified form, the law allowed victims of guerrilla groups and paramilitaries to apply for compensation through administrative means, but required victims of state security forces to prove that a state official committed a crime acting beyond his authority before being eligible to receive compensation. Due to the slowness and inefficiency of Colombia’s judicial system, the discriminatory ramifications of this particular clause were considered especially pernicious. Although the Chamber and Senate reconciliation committee approved the Senate version, Uribe allies knocked the bill down at the executive branch’s behest in the Senate reconciliation vote on June 18. As with the Ley de Fosas, financial hardship arguments were utilized to justify its actions.
In response to those who criticized its decision, the government announced that it would be willing to draft a new law, along the lines of the Chamber of Representatives bill, that addresses the concerns of the victims while staying within budget guidelines. Nevertheless, the decision to sink the original Senate version was considered an insult by many victims’ rights groups. According to Senator Juan Fernando Cristo, the promoter of the Senate bill, “the Congress prefers to legislate in favor of the perpetrators instead of the victims.” The fact that state agents were implicated in a series of extrajudicial executions in 2008 made the government’s insistence on treating crimes by state agents differently all the more eyebrow-raising.
The government’s obstinacy is especially disheartening considering the fact that the conflict is by no means over. Although urban security has improved tremendously, with the number of homicides and kidnappings related to the armed conflict decreasing substantially as a result of paramilitary demobilization and gains by state security forces, the number of victims continues to mount as additional Colombians suffer arbitrary killings, displacement, and other abuses. According to Amnesty International’s 2009 report, more than 1,515 civilians were killed from June 2007-June 2008, whereas 1,348 were killed in the previous 12-month period. In addition, the organization recently reported that 380,000 people were displaced in Colombia in 2008, which represents a 24% increase from 2007 and makes the number of displaced people in Colombia among the highest in the world. As Marco Pollack, AI’s Americas director, notes, “The Colombian government is lying when it says that violence is part of the past. The reality is very different.” It is clear that the war continues to rage on; in fact, Human Rights Watch has reported that the demobilized paramilitary groups have been replaced with new armed groups.
This all comes in the context of the broader peace process, which, given continued fighting between guerrillas and the state, has centered on paramilitary demobilization. Although the government made an attempt to address this issue by passing the 2005 Justice and Peace Law, which sets out demobilization procedures and offers lighter punishments for full and truthful confessions, and the 2006 amendments to the law that followed a Constitutional Court decision insisting that the law’s treatment of the perpetrators be made more stringent, the justice process has lagged since this time. Paramilitaries have often failed to cooperate, while victims testifying against the defendants have been threatened and killed. Of particular concern is the fact that several of the rights workers who have been harmed are those working on the specific issue of land reform, which is one of the most sensitive elements of the concurrent truth and reparations processes. The level of displacement has resulted in an enormous transfer of land from the rural poor to powerful actors, many of whom are paramilitaries or are linked to them. Determining what land was stolen in this “counter-reform” and returning it to its rightful possessors is one of the most important tests for Colombian justice. Again, unfortunately, progress here has been extremely slow.
Even as the above controversies rage, President Alvaro Uribe has recently visited rural municipalities and personally overseen the distribution of reparations to some victims of non-state actors. The administration takes pride in the security gains it has brought the country and the boost to Colombia’s international reputation. However, it has also made erroneous assertions that Colombia’s internal conflict is a thing of the past, a position that may shine some light on the apparent reluctance to embrace victims’ rights. Instead of demanding a full accounting of the conflict’s atrocities, the administration seems to favor a superficial form of “reconciliation” over “truth,” possibly in order to be able to claim victory and cement both its legacy and the continuity of its policies (regardless of whether Uribe or someone else occupies the presidency next year, which is a different question). However, without full truth and complete reparations, real reconciliation is impossible. An inconsistent stance toward the conflict’s victims is the wrong way to proceed, and may thwart the nation’s progress rather than expedite it. In order for Colombia to have a chance at sustained justice and progress, persecution of illegal armed actors must be accompanied by a demonstration that the government respects the deep grievances underlying the conflict and is willing to address them in full—even if it seems expensive.