Call Colombia's human rights bluff.

Colombian president Álvaro Uribe arrives in Europe this week. It is his first visit since signing a UK-brokered deal last year under which he pledged to improve his country's track record on human rights in exchange for more European Union aid.

Beginning in Brussels on Monday, Uribe will press Europe's leaders to schedule a donors' conference to come up with the cash. But Europe should delay. President Uribe has failed to keep his promise to improve human rights. Until he honours it, further financial aid should be withheld.

No one doubts that Colombia needs help. Left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries killed over 2,500 civilians last year. Each day, 650 people on average fled their homes, making Colombia a humanitarian disaster zone. These illegal armies have an inexhaustible source of cash, since Americans and, increasingly, Europeans buy the cocaine and heroin they control.

But help cannot come at the expense of human rights. President Uribe has backed legislation that allows soldiers to carry out arrests and searches without a warrant, inspired by the global trend to suspend rights in the "war on terror." In London last July, Colombia pledged to refrain from precisely such measures.

This was just one of 24 recommendations made by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights that Colombia agreed to implement, but which the government has so far failed to act on. In addition, units of Colombia's military have yet to sever their ties with deadly paramilitaries. Recently, soldiers raided one paramilitary base - only to discover a sergeant and police officer on site, reportedly helping coordinate operations.

The Colombian authorities, meanwhile, have proposed allowing these killers to elude any real punishment by paying a fee, their crimes essentially erased - cash in return for a "get out of jail free" card. This deal would be yet another blow to victims of their terror. It would also send a message to guerrillas to continue killing, since eventually the government may grant similar terms.

Human rights groups have recorded more than 600 killings attributed to paramilitaries since they announced an alleged ceasefire in December 2002. Only last month, church leaders warned that up to 400 paramilitaries had seized villages along the Opogadó river in northern Colombia. In one, gunmen cut the phone lines and showed teenagers the fistfuls of cash they would get for fighting. As one columnist put it, "people know that the paramilitaries are everywhere, and that they are winning."

President Uribe is, however, betting that Europe will look the other way. Certainly, Bush and Blair have done so. Last month, the Bush Administration "certified" Colombia's performance on human rights, despite evidence that it had failed to meet the conditions established by the US Congress. In other words, Colombia's record on human rights was not deemed an impediment to the allocation of half a billion dollars of US military aid this year.

Whilst the UK claims to support human rights, its resolve fades when real action is called for. Britain, and the rest of the European Union, should be wiser. Real security cannot be won by allowing the paramilitaries to run roughshod over the law, terrorizing millions of Colombians.

Before the donors' conference is scheduled, President Uribe should withdraw the perilous legislation which allows the military to carry out arrests without warrant - an invitation to increases in torture and forced disappearances. He must also move to break the paramilitary stranglehold on the Middle Magdalena valley, where human rights and aid groups are under attack. The EU spends more than 330 million euro on these civil society initiatives, and they are working. But the Colombians who do this work are terrified. They need political support just as much as they need cash.

Only last week, the Bishop of Barrancabermeja, Jaime Prieto, issued a heartwrenching plea: "We are under permanent threat and attack... As long as there is no government authority, we are in the hands of illegal groups. Before it was the guerrillas and now it is the paramilitaries, not only in Barrancabermeja, but across the entire region." No programme, no matter how well-designed or funded, can prosper in a climate of terror. If Uribe's officers fail to take effective action, he should fire them and find soldiers who can.

Agreement will not be easy, as a recent visit to Colombia by EU Commissioner Chris Patten made clear. After Patten suggested that Colombia should live up to its human rights commitments, Uribe's vice-president blasted him for, in his words, treating the country as a "banana republic." One Medellín daily wrote that Patten's brains needed a scrubbing. After Patten left, paramilitaries took pot shots at Norwegian refugee specialists, as their Colombian colleagues escorted them up the Magdalena River.

But, whatever the difficulties, real change is needed. Europe - together with Latin American donors like Argentina, Brazil and Chile - must ensure that its aid comes with strings attached. Failure to take a tough stance would be a disservice to courageous figures like Bishop Prieto and to Colombians who seek to live in a secure country, and who instinctively understand that human rights cannot be a pick-and-choose issue. Human rights abuses are a crime, whoever they are committed by.

Only if this point is understood does Colombia have any hope of a stable future.

[Source: By Robin Kirk, The Guardian, London, UK, 07Feb04]

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