Sometimes you have to give some to get some. For former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez, giving some meant weakening civil society in Colombia, pushing aside the rule of law, stomping on individual liberties, killing and displacing innocent civilians and ignoring international laws, norms and standards. What did he get? High public approval and a general international sense that the country is more secure than when he took office in 2002.
For many of the country’s innocent victims, however, this “improved security” came at too high a price. By welcoming Uribe as a new professor to teach “global leadership,” the university announced to the world that controversial leaders who face credible allegations of massive human rights violations are acceptable role models for students and future leaders in foreign policy.
Recently, demonstrations broke out on campus. Some Colombian students expressed support for their former president while others pointed to his human rights record. Indeed, the series of events brought into bold relief the question of whether Uribe acted appropriately. Was he simply a leader in “a time of war,” as some have asserted, or did he commit crimes that are prosecutable under international human rights conventions and humanitarian law?
It is true that kidnappings, homicides and massacres within Colombia declined significantly during Uribe’s two terms in office; many of Uribe’s strongest defenders constantly refer to these statistics, as does Uribe. These facts are not disputed. But they are not the only facts that ought to be considered.
For instance, according to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, more than seven people were assassinated or forcefully disappeared outside of combat every day for sociopolitical reasons from 2002 to 2006. In addition, Colombia now has the greatest number of internally displaced persons in the world according to the United Nations. Under Uribe, the numbers reached about four million persons, almost one in 10 Colombians.
Colombia remains the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists, according to the 2010 International Trade Union Confederation Annual Survey. The number of trade unionists killed under Uribe has not made a steady decline; in fact, the number rose from 39 to 49 from 2007 to 2008. In the first eight months of 2010, 36 labor leaders have been killed, according to the Colombian labor confederation CUT.
ost egregiously, the Armed Forces are accused of committing over 3,000 extrajudicial killings of civilians through a practice that consisted of murdering innocent civilians and subsequently reporting the bodies, dressed in guerrilla uniforms, as killed in action.
The Colombian state has the right and the obligation to defend itself. But there are limits. Today former President Reynaldo Bignone of Argentina and former President Alberto Fujimori of Peru are serving sentences in their countries for war crimes. Both of these leaders were first hailed as saviors for bringing order and security to their countries.
One could discuss the durability of the security that Uribe brought to Colombia. After all, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) is still very active and the paramilitaries have consolidated political power at all levels of government, and the displaced persons and human rights crises persist. But the issue is not whether Colombians feel more secure under Uribe. Instead, the issue is whether he is guilty of massive human rights violations as part of his attempt to maintain security.
We as members of the university community can and should debate the issues of conflict, democracy, leadership and accountability for human rights violations. We do not, however, believe that we should lend the moral and academic prestige of our great university to someone who faces charges of massive human rights violations. It runs counter to the Jesuit commitment to social justice that is at the heart of Georgetown’s Jesuit identity.