Colombia's new battle: its image

This week, the government distributed e-mails detailing its progress on human rights.

Heroes and villains are often hard to distinguish in Colombia. But the new government here is working overtime to make sure that its citizens and the international community know the difference.

For years, human rights groups have attacked the state and the armed forces for alleged violations of international human rights norms. Rights advocates say that the government has had ties to rightist paramilitary groups that engaged in brutal massacres over the course of the country's 38-year-old civil war. Some of these ties have been proven true.

Yet despite what it views as a dramatically improved human rights record, the government continues to be lumped together by many rights groups with paramilitaries and leftist guerrillas, who regularly kidnap and kill civilians.

Now President Alvaro Uribe Vélez is out to change this perception. Mr. Uribe has mounted a public-relations campaign to tell the government's side of the story. The success of this campaign could have a profound effect on public support of the war against rebel groups and the country's ability to secure international funding for its armed forces.

"We're designing an offensive, a strategy," to answer to the criticism leveled by human rights groups, Vice President Francisco Santos said recently.

E-mail offensive

This week, that offensive moved into full swing as the vice president's office began distributing, via e-mail, a list of its human rights accomplishments, along with violations by the rebel militias. A presidential spokesman said such data would be sent to reporters weekly.

The e-mail attempts to reassure rights groups that the state is cognizant of possible violations in the "Zones of Rehabilitation" - two areas in the militia-infested states of Arauca and Bolivar-Sucre created by Uribe in September. The Army and police were given broad judicial powers to combat rebels inside these zones.

Rights groups have been critical of government activity there, questioning whether a distinction can be made between civilians and combatants, and whether there was a proper mechanism for complaints. The government said that with the support of the Swiss Embassy, the UN Commission for Human Rights will intensify its presence in the two zones.

The e-mail also notes the sentencing two weeks ago of a former Army intelligence director to 40 years in jail for the kidnapping and killing of a businessman. And it contains details regarding alleged "massacres" by two armed groups, and their use of explosives directed at the civilian population.

The Army has joined the PR front as well. It is running weekly advertisements in two newsmagazines, Semana and Cambio, that detail its human rights training efforts. In the ads, the outlawed militias are invariably referred to as "narcoterrorists."

"It seems to me that public relations are fundamental," said Maj. Paulina Leguizamon, the head of human rights' efforts for the Armed Forces.

The cost of sending the wrong message on human rights has a high price tag for Colombia. The nearly $2 billion in American aid sent to the Colombian military since 2000 is conditional upon on its meeting certain human rights standards. In September, the US released $46 million in aid only after it certified that the units receiving it were free of rights violations. Three Army units have been denied funding, and the US is threatening to withhold money from a large Air Force unit accused of being involved in a 1998 civilian bombing.

Carlos Franco Echavarria, vice-presidential adviser and head of the president's human rights office, is leading the PR campaign. For Mr. Franco, the stakes are high. "We are defending democracy in Colombia," Franco insisted in an interview.

First, says Franco, the government must be certain that its institutions are complying with international human rights regulations. He points to the fact that in 1997, the government received 3,000 complaints of human rights violations against the military. That number was down to 500 in 2001.

Franco also says that the state must reply in an "opportune manner" to criticisms, and that Colombia's ambassadors must be ready to answer complaints by rights groups abroad.

The relationship between rights groups and the Uribe administration has been strained since Uribe's declaration of a state of near emergency in early August. That announcement was followed by the controversial creation of a network of paid informants to snoop on guerrilla and paramilitary movements, along with the establishment of the two rehabilitation zones. And rights groups were upset after a 5 a.m. raid of a pro-peace group's offices by the Army and secret police at the end of October.

"In general, we have been very skeptical, even very frustrated with some of the policies that the government has chosen to take up," says Eric Olson, the advocacy director for the Americas program for Amnesty International.

Denouncing the government in even sharper terms is José Miguel Vivanco, the executive director of Human Rights Watch's Americas Division.

In a Nov. 8 press conference in Bogotá, Mr. Vivanco presented a report slamming Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio for firing nine prosecutors who were working on human rights cases, since taking office in July 2001. The report claims that 15 more quit under pressure, and calls on the US State Department not to certify aid to Colombia because Mr. Osorio is "obstructing" important probes into military officials.

Osorio released a statement saying he is "committed to fighting against those who violate human rights," but that his office won't "investigate anyone without basis, despite the criticisms that may be generated." (Uribe cannot fire Osorio.)

Popular president

The administration is aiming to better its relations with rights groups, both here and abroad. It intends to meet with domestic groups every two months and with international groups every six months. Mr. Uribe personally received a delegation from Human Rights Watch earlier this month.

Despite lingering international skepticism, Uribe's policies are popular at home. A recent Gallup poll showed him with an approval rating of 74 percent after his first 100 days in office, higher than any president in the past decade. Eighty percent say that the president is "respectful" of human rights, and 79 percent have a favorable opinion of the armed forces, compared to 5 percent for the paramilitaries and 2 percent for the guerrillas.

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