Bush's baffling choice of heroes

George W. Bush presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe (AFP Photo / Saul Loeb)
Despite extra-judicial killings, paramilitaries and murdered unionists; Colombia's President Uribe has won the USA highest honor for human rights.

On Tuesday January 13, in one of George Bush's last acts in power, he bestowed the USA's highest civilian honor on Colombian President Álvaro Uribe. The Medal of Freedom recognizes the promotion of democracy, freedom and human rights. The decision to bestow it on President Uribe has been met with scorn by human rights bodies.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) accuse the Colombian government of preferring to attack them with “false and dangerous accusations” rather than to address the South American country's human rights problems.

President Uribe even called José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at HRW, an “accomplice” of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

Colombia's human rights record has been attacked for extra-judicial killings, the rise of paramilitaries and anti-union violence.

The world’s most dangerous country for unionists

Colombia is the most dangerous country on earth for trade unionists. In 2006, half of all union member killings around the world took place there. Since Uribe came into power in 2002, nearly 500 have been murdered. In reply to concern about the assassinations, Uribe dismissed the victims as “a bunch of criminals dressed up as unionists”.

An anti-union culture runs throughout the military, business and the government. Many senior members of the government consider union members to be guerillas operating under cover.

In Colombia, where the military and sympathetic militias are waging war against guerillas, unionists are potential assassination targets.

In 2003, in Arauca, northeast Columbia, three trade unionists were killed by the military. This led to the conviction of junior soldiers, while no one senior has been held responsible.

Extra-judicial killings rife

More than 1,000 cases of illegal killings by the military are being investigated. There are dozens of cases of soldiers taking innocent men, murdering them and dressing them up as enemy combatants. Hundreds of members of the security forces are thought to have taken part in such activities.

While the murders are officially viewed as impermissible, President Uribe had accused those reporting these killings of wanting to discredit the army.

Since October, however, the Uribe administration has started to acknowledge the problem. In November, 27 officers were dismissed for extra-judicial killings. General Mario Montoya Uribe (no relation of the president), the author of the policy to use body counts to measure success against guerillas, also resigned.

Anti-paramilitary steps thwarted by government

While considerable success has been made by Colombia's institutions of justice against the paramilitaries, HRW reports their progress has been repeatedly undermined by the Uribe administration.

Uribe even made unfounded accusations against the Supreme Court justices who are investigating more than 70 Colombian Congress members for paramilitary links.

While the government's aggressive stance against the Farc has shown some success, new paramilitary groups have sprung up. HRW reports that the government has taken a much less strident line against these new organizations, which are often allied to the military.

Established paramilitary organizations have continued under new names because of the Uribe's deeply flawed demobilization process.

Abuses exploited by Farc and Klein

The government's human rights deficiencies have been used by Farc as justification for their continued abuses. Israeli mercenary, Yair Klein, has also used the Colombians' human rights record as grounds to avoid extradition to Colombia. He said extradition would mean “torture” and a “death sentence”.

In 2001, Klein was convicted in Colombia for training right-wing paramilitaries and death squads for drug traffickers, such as Pablo Escobar.

Before the extradition from Russia can go through, Colombia has to formally provide human rights guarantees to the European Human Rights Commission. In December, the Colombian ambassador to Russia, Diego Tobón, told press agency ANSA that Russia would be obliged to extradite Klein in March.

Jonathan Stibbs for RT