A president who wants a licence to kill.

Europe must today stand up to the leader of Colombia's bloody regime.

When Alvaro Uribe Velez, the president of Colombia, stands up to address the European parliament today, there is much at stake on both sides.

Uribe will try to convince European sceptics that his harsh regime is both democratic and popular, that he is improving his country's appalling human rights record and that he is an ally in the war on terror. His audience must decide whether these claims are credible and whether to endorse him or call him to account.

The British government has already made its choice. The ambassador in Bogota insisted last week that there had been a "vast improvement" in human rights in Colombia, and the Blair government is one of Uribe's staunch supporters. But this optimistic assessment is fiercely contested in Colombia by international NGOs, and by members of Colombia's battered civil society.

That Colombia is in a multi-layered crisis is not in doubt. A prolonged civil war between the country's two ruling parties gave way to a long-running armed rebellion by the world's oldest and toughest guerrilla movements, the Farc and the ELN. The war is sustained on both sides by the cocaine trade and has descended into a savage conflict in which most of the victims are civilian.

In the past 15 years, far-right paramilitary groups have appeared, inflicting terror on behalf of an unsavoury coalition of cocaine barons and landowners. With the collusion of the armed forces, these groups have steadily gained ground, driving peasants off their land and taking control of some of the richest parts of the country.

Uribe came to power in 2002 on a wave of popular frustration that followed the failure of President Andres Pastrana's peace plan. No more talking, Uribe promised. His government would fight. He has the backing of the US, which pours hundreds of millions of first confined to countering narcotics, but President Bush extended it to "counter subversion". Uribe has pursued an aggressive military strategy, which he calls his "democratic security" policy, aligning himself with the fight against terror.

Domestically, he presents himself as tough. Internationally, he tries to convince his backers that his fight is only against the guerrillas. His ministers argue that human rights violations have declined and that those who contest this ignore the crimes of the Farc and the ELN.

The situation on the ground, though, does not sustain his case. The paramilitary groups no longer massacre wholesale, but this appears to be little more than a change of tactic: now they kill one by one. If kidnappings by guerrillas have declined, forced disappearances at the hands of paramilitaries have increased. Now Uribe is trying to legitimise the paramilitary groups with a peace deal that would forgive them their past crimes. Human rights monitors who protest have been labelled pro-guerrilla by the government. In Colombia this is a licence to kill.

Under Uribe's "democratic security" there have been waves of mass detentions of trade union activists and leaders of civil organisations, men and women pointed out by hooded paid informers as "guerrilla sympathisers". Others - peasant leaders, teachers and health workers - have simply been killed or driven into internal exile. While Uribe claims that his fight is with the Farc, the majority of the victims have been civilians.

Uribe is in Europe to seek support. In 2001 some 250m in EU aid was pledged to Colombia. Uribe wants the moral endorsement of a donors' conference this year as he seeks constitutional changes that would allow him a further term in office. But a litmus test of the Colombian government is its willingness to implement a list of 24 recommendations made by the United Nations Human Rights Commission in an attempt to address the "massive and systematic violations of (human) rights" that the commission found in Colombia in 2002.

Last July, at a conference in London, Uribe's government promised to comply. Since then, according to human rights monitors and diplomatic observers, the situation has deteriorated. Richard Howitt, a Labour MEP and the European Labour party spokesman on foreign affairs, defence and human rights, believes the EU is at a crossroads on Colombia. "The Uribe government has moved backwards on the UN recommendations - the true test of its commitment to human rights is its willingness to move forward," he said.

The endorsement of the EU would strengthen Uribe's hand in shaping the Colombian state as a military instrument and ignoring the country's desperate need for social justice. Europe must tell him that this is just not good enough.

[Source Isabel Hilton, The Guardian, London, UK, 10Feb04]

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