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The elected Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe, recently visited the United States and Europe and declared that his “get tough” campaign for a sustainable peace would be waged with “absolute respect for human rights.” Meantime in Colombia, Fernando Londoño — his future interior and justice minister — repeated that the new administration would push for a constitutional amendment to allow it to declare a state of siege.

Asked about which constitutional rights the prospective emergency law would limit, Londoño said: “All of them. There are no absolute rights.” Aren’t the rights to life and of not being tortured absolute rights? Does this early announcement — Uribe will assume power on Aug. 7 — mean that the new government is planning a return to Colombia’s old days of authoritarianism?

Against the Constitution

Uribe has said that he wants to assume more power by cutting functions of the judicial and legislative branches. And Juan Carlos Esguerra — a former minister of defense and former ambassador to the United States — has said that Uribe is planning to establish a presidential regime that goes against the current Colombian Constitution.

Londoño recently announced that he is ready to revive the controversial Security Statute, which was included in the old Colombian Constitution (1886) and allowed the military to detain civilians without a court order. That statute was used before, by former President Julio César Turbay (1978-1982). Among the consequences at that time were proliferation of cases of torture and disappearances; guerrilla groups expanded in response.

The first fundamental rights restricted then were freedom of the press and of personal movement.

Colombia is confronting now one of the most critical historical challenges to its weakened democratic system. Recently, about 1,000 mayors received ultimatums from the guerrillas, and the threats have been shockingly effective in shutting down municipal governments. Federal government offers of flak jackets and offices in military bases aren’t enough for these local elected leaders.

The Colombian situation is quite challenging. But, precisely because of the magnitude of the crisis, the country cannot afford to deal with more of the simplistic, improvised and already-failed strategies.

There is uncertainty about what Uribe’s government will mean to Colombia.

Uribe’s father was killed by guerrillas, and they almost killed him during his presidential campaign. How will that drive the government? Uribe was the main speaker at a controversial event in honor of two generals removed from the armed forces because of their alleged links with the illegal and cruel counter-guerrillas. Is this a clue about what Colombia will see in the next term? Will Uribe’s statements about protecting human rights go beyond rhetoric?

This is what Colombian leaders should do for Colombia:

  • Create a constructive vision far beyond the traumatic experiences suffered by the people.
  • Work with a calm, analytic mind- set that characterizes real statesmen. Uribe’s proposal to create a network of one million civilians to assist the over-stretched military — by providing information — generates concern. Professor Ivan Le Bot, at the French Institute of Latin American High Level Studies, warned Uribe that similar initiatives promoted in Guatemala became machines of violence.
  • Secure support from the international community toward enhancing structural reforms, providing security and promoting development for everyone.

The leaders of Colombia must base their decisions upon the respect of human rights and the enhancing of negotiation strategies.

A poll contracted by Georgetown University and d’Ecole de la Paix shows that 64.6 percent of those who live in Colombia’s five main cities prefer that Uribe look toward a negotiated settlement to solve the conflict rather than a military approach.

Revise plan Colombia

The United States, too, would benefit from a negotiated settlement. U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., recently said that after two years of funding the $1.5 billion Plan Colombia — focused mainly on military aid — in many respects, the situation is even worse. The current policies must be urgently evaluated and re-oriented.

A key issue is that the illegal warring factions continue financing their activities with drug money. Because most of those drugs are sold in the United States, the U.S. responsibility for what is going on in Colombia is quite broad.

In the meantime, in the middle of one of its deepest crises, Colombia needs to enhance its current laws, not become an authoritarian regime. Colombia must learn from its dramatic mistakes instead of adopting the self-destructive strategy of repeating them again and again.

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