Colombian President’s commitment to rights being questioned |

Colombian President’s commitment to rights being questioned

JARED KOTLER Associated Press Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) – When President Andres Pastrana took office in 1998, he pledged to champion U.N.-backed legislation to crack down on human rights abuses here – making political ”disappearances” crimes and trying accused soldiers in civilian courts, among other changes.

But in a dramatic reversal, Pastrana is now siding with his generals. He stunned rights groups and families of the disappeared by vetoing the law he had touted as a cornerstone of his human rights policy.

The December veto has locked Pastrana in a bitter fight with rights activists just as his defense minister heads to Washington to talk up Colombia’s progress on respecting human rights. It also has raised doubts among many Colombians about the president’s ability and commitment to break a tradition of impunity for officers accused of war crimes during a nearly 36-year-long guerrilla war.

”Here in Colombia the president is nothing but a facade; it’s the military that is really in control,” said Gladys Lopez, daughter of a Communist Party politician who hasn’t been seen since being taken away in 1984 by suspected government agents when he was 78 years old.

The dispute comes as Colombia’s human rights record is being closely scrutinized in Washington. Congress is reviewing a Clinton administration proposal for a $1.6 billion anti-narcotics aid package to Colombia that would mainly benefit the military.

American lawmakers are urging Pastrana to crack down on violent right-wing paramilitary groups and military officers widely accused of collaborating with the rightists. Defense Minister Luis Ramirez, who has been on a multi-city lobbying in the United States, is scheduled to appear in Washington on Monday to defend the military’s record.

The legislation Pastrana rejected would establish genocide as a crime and create a commission to search for missing leftists, in addition to its other provisions. Pastrana has said he vetoed it because its wording might expose soldiers to genocide charges for simply shooting guerrillas in combat. The military claimed its hands would be tied in the war with powerful rebels.

U.N. and independent legal experts dismiss those arguments as absurd, and are urging Pastrana to reconsider.

Pastrana has fired several generals suspected of abuses, but rights monitors call those actions insufficient and see his veto of the genocide law as a sign of the president’s weakness. In a report last month, the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights called the veto ”perhaps the final nail in the coffin” of attempts to punish rights violators.

Parmenio Cuellar, who resigned last year as justice minister, said Colombia’s perennial objections to the legislation, which is based on U.N. conventions, have become an embarrassing spectacle internationally.

He said he had no doubts the military pressured Pastrana to veto the law.

High-ranking government officials all declined to be interviewed about the legislation, which the United Nations has been urging Colombia to approve since 1988.

A senior U.N. rights official, who agreed to discuss the situation only if not quoted by name, said Pastrana made a personal promise to enact the law when he met with Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, during her October 1998 visit to Colombia.

Nobody was more upset by the veto than the families of the estimated 3,000 Colombians who have gone missing since the late 1970s, most of them leftists thought to have been abducted, tortured and killed by state security forces.

The practice, designed to eliminate opponents without leaving a trace, was widespread in Latin America at the time. Some 90,000 people are believed to have been ”disappeared” by rightist regimes in the region.

Lopez, the daughter of the missing communist politician, said Pastrana missed an opportunity to reject the intolerance underlying a half century of violence in Colombia.

She said her father, Faustino Lopez, was a good man who wanted only to change a corrupt and poverty-ridden country for the better.

”He thought differently,” Lopez said. ”That was his crime.”

On the Net:

Human Rights Watch/Americas report:

U.S. State Department report:

Colombian government site: