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HRW Should Stop Punishing Colombia

If I were being ungenerous, I could easily say that no one should pay attention to what Human Rights Watch has to say in light of that group’s history of employing an investigator with a strange fetish for Nazi memorabilia and its attempt to raise money in Saudi Arabia, of all places, by advertising its battles against “pro-Israel pressure groups.” But that would be wrong because, for all its faults, HRW does some valuable work in such countries as China and Sudan. Unfortunately, HRW does not extend similar tolerance and understanding to its targets.

Case in point is its new report on Colombia: “Paramilitaries’ Heirs: The New Face of Violence in Colombia.” In it, HRW focuses on violence and drug-trafficking perpetrated by paramilitary groups that have continued to exist even after the majority of such fighters were demobilized between 2003 and 2006. As far as I can tell, HRW has collected some useful information that shows the need for greater Colombian action against these groups. I am sure that Colombia officials would be the first to say that they need to do more to combat paramilitaries along with FARC and other leftist groups. (In fact, I heard those very views voiced during my visit to Colombia in the fall.) But there is no acknowledgment in the report of the tremendous strides that the government under President Alvaro Uribe has made in combating guerrillas and terrorists of whatever strip, in pacifying much of the country, and in making it possible for citizens to enjoy their democratic rights in peace. Instead the report has a nasty, hectoring tone, suggesting, without quite coming out and saying so, that senior echelons of the government are complicit in paramilitary violence. Among the report’s recommendations for action is this:

Delay consideration of free trade deals with Colombia until the Colombian government meets human rights pre-conditions, including dismantling paramilitary structures and effectively confronting the successor groups that now pose a serious threat to trade unionists.

Actually the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement is already stalled. It has been ratified by the Colombian parliament but not by the U.S. Congress, where Democrats are blocking it at the instigation of protectionist union leaders. This makes no sense as a matter of policy, because the agreement would not only provide a boost for American exporters, it would also provide much-needed economic help to America’s closest ally in Latin America. Colombia has made amazing, almost miraculous strides in beating back insurgents and narco-traffickers over the past decade, and it did so while reducing human-rights violations among its security forces and enhancing the rule of law (a story that my colleague Rick Bennet and I told in this Weekly Standard article). But the HRW report has nothing positive to say about Colombia’s achievement as far as I can tell. Instead it insists on punishing Colombia — and the U.S. economy — by stopping an important trade agreement until such time as Colombia achieves a state of perfection that will suit HRW. This is a perfect illustration of why it is hard to take seriously so much of the work that comes out of the professional “human rights” community, which too often seems colored by animus against democratic American allies such as Israel and Colombia.


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