Colombian President Finds Friends and Fists.

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has won backing from senior EU officials but civil society groups attacked his government strongly Tuesday (February 10) over its human rights record.

The civil society groups are asking European Union (EU) leaders to take a firm line with Uribe on human rights.

The demand came as Uribe defended his tough policies against insurgents in a speech before the European Parliament in Strasbourg Tuesday.

President Uribe, a close U.S. ally, is on a five-day visit to Belgium, Germany and Italy this week to look for financial aid in fighting left-wing guerrillas.

Uribe met European Commission president Romano Prodi at the start of his tour in Brussels Monday. He launched a new programme Tuesday with commissioner for foreign affairs Chris Patten and trade commissioner Pascal Lamy to support internally displaced people. The 11.7 million dollar programme will run through this year and next.

The European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, "reaffirmed its commitment to support the government looking for a solution to the internal conflict," Prodi said after his meeting with Uribe. "We showed solidarity."

Uribe also signed an agreement with the European Police Office (Europol) and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. The agreement will make it easier for Colombia and the EU to exchange information in areas such as drug trafficking and money laundering.

Solana said the EU "supported the efforts made by the Colombian government to bring security to the whole country." He added: "A comprehensive peace strategy is essential to reach a negotiated solution to the internal armed conflict, in line with international law and human rights protection."

But amid growing concerns over Uribe's handling of the 40-year-old conflict, his visit also raised questions.

These have arisen particularly after new legislation introduced in December gave the Colombian army powers to arrest suspects without warrants, tap phones and collect evidence in war zones. Human rights groups say the powers could encourage government forces to commit abuses. The United Nations says they are incompatible with international law.

About 3,500 people, mostly civilians, were killed in fighting in Colombia last year. The violence comes from all sides.

The two largest guerrilla groups -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) -- have failed to end kidnapping and other violations of international humanitarian law.

On the other hand the United Nations Human Rights Commission reported "massive and systematic violations of rights" in Colombia in 2002.

Officials from Uribe's government promised at a conference in London last July to implement a list of 24 recommendations made by the UN human rights commission. But the situation has deteriorated since then, human rights monitors and diplomatic observers say.

Uribe told the European Parliament Tuesday that his anti-terrorism policy was necessary to wipe out left-wing rebels involved in drug trafficking and kidnapping. He said he had reduced crime since coming to power in 2002.

Colombia's arrest and detention laws are no tougher than similar legislation in Europe and the United States, he said. "Terrorists are astly wealthy in Colombia from drugs and kidnapping," he told members of the European parliament. "My people want iron determination to stamp out terrorism. People can say what they like, but I will stand up for my people."

Comparing the FARC with the Nazis, he said "if you still had Hitler with his concentration camps here now and he had people locked up, then the outside world would not be pushing for humanitarian agreements with him." Uribe said "human rights should not be used to cover up terrorist actions."

But his statements seemed to carry little conviction with human rights groups. Human Rights Watch (HRW) is calling on the EU to postpone a donors conference planned for later this year until Colombia fulfills key commitments.

The EU has pledged about 410 million dollars in aid to Colombia in a package that ends in 2006. Europe is the largest donor to Colombia's humanitarian, human rights and peace programmes.

"Colombia is at a turning point, and the European Union's position will be decisive," José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of HRW said in a statement Tuesday. "President Uribe needs to hear that he will be held to his promises."

Amnesty International is urging the EU to insist that any peace process should guarantee the right to truth, justice and reparation of victims.

"The EU should look more closely at what is actually happening and refrain from supporting policies that risk exacerbating the human rights crisis in the country," said director of Amnesty's EU office Dick Oosting.

European Liberal Democrat leader Graham Watson supported the NGOs fears.

Watson, who declined to attend a lunch reception to honour Uribe, said the EU must include protection for human rights in negotiating a trade deal with the Colombian government.

"The continuing evidence of collusion between elements of the Colombian military and paramilitary forces has been highlighted by both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch," he said. "Paramilitary forces in Colombia have been persistently implicated in disappearances, political murder, kidnapping, population displacements and terrible sexual violence."

The Green Party said Uribe's visit was a sign of "a lack of sensitivity on the EU's part to the situation in Colombia." There are "too many open questions about human rights violations and Uribe's strategy for conflict resolution," said Green leader Monica Frassoni. The EU must not prop up government policies through financial aid, she said.

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) appealed to the Colombian government to bring to justice the perpetrators of violence directed at trade unionists.

"It is about time that President Alvaro Uribe showed in deeds as well as in words that he is truly committed to stamping out intimidation and violence against trade unionists in his country," ICFTU general secretary Guy Ryder said Tuesday. "Instead we see the continuation of a situation where the Colombian government is prepared to let the most serious and disturbing abuses of trade union and human rights continue unabated."

More than 3,000 trade unionists have been killed in Colombia since 1990. Many of the killers remain unpunished.

[Source: Stefania Bianchi, IPS, Brussels, 11Feb04]

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