On March 6, 2008 I was privileged to participate in a demonstration in Washington DC that remembered the victims of the violence in Colombia—the many thousands who have lost their lives, those who have been disappeared, as well as the millions who have been forcibly displaced from their lands and those who continue to face harassment, persecution, and assassination for their insistence in standing up for human rights. It was a beautiful moment, joining together in Washington while others were marching simultaneously in Colombia and around the world for an end to the violence. Sadly, I have learned that in the week following the march four unionists who were prominent organizers of the march have been killed in different parts of the country. In the Barranquilla area, two regional leaders of the National Association of Displaced Colombians were threatened by phone. Numerous grass roots and human rights organizations in Bogotá received threats via email on March 12, and the web sites of two human rights advocates were hacked into and emptied of all content. Iván Cepeda, lead organizer of the march, says that these attacks were encouraged because one of President Uribe’s advisors publicly stated that the march was organized by the FARC.
No one group bears the blame for Colombia’s violence. The guerrilla groups such as the FARC have certainly done their share of violence. But the Colombian military, and the paramilitary forces that have worked in concert with them, must also be denounced and held accountable for their crimes. The Colombian office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights has reported a rise in the reports of extrajudicial killings at the hands of the Colombian army, with nearly 1,000 reported from July 2002-June 2007. In many of these cases, the civilians killed are dressed up and passed off as insurgents, classified as military casualties. The vast majority of these crimes remain in impunity.
We, too, in the United States, have a hand in this and are in need of repentance. The School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) is infamous among those concerned with human rights abuse because of the troubling legacy lived out by its graduates and even some of its recent instructors. Just this year, ranking Colombian military officials who attended the school have been implicated in false attacks that were attributed to FARC guerrillas and caused the death of a civilian and injury to 19 soldiers in 2006. To date, at least five Latin American countries have made official decisions not to send any more soldiers to the school. It is time for us to take an honest look at what the SOA/WHINSEC has been responsible for, repent of our complicity in human rights abuses, and move forward toward healing by openly denouncing the abuses and illegal activites of certain SOA and WHINSEC students and closing down the school and its counterparts for good.
For our part in the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, we continue to take the steps that we can in answer to our calling. We participate in the vigil at the SOA/WHINSEC each fall, and call for an end to funding for this tragically counterproductive school. We raise our voices for peace and diplomacy instead of heightened militarization. We go to Colombia to walk beside our brothers and sisters there who will not let the rights of the displaced and the other victims of the violence be trampled in silence and impunity. Now is also a key time to contact members of Congress and urge them to continue to reduce military aid to Colombia and not to ratify the Free Trade Agreement that our president is so eager to push through Congress. Please do what you can to stand for truth and human rights, for justice, for peace.