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Last Updated:2/22/01
Speech by Assistant Secretary of State Harold Hongju Koh, April 10, 1999
"Colombia: Bringing Human Rights Home"

Presented by Harold Hongju Koh
Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
At the Conference on Human Rights in Colombia
Medellin, Colombia, April 10, 1999

Thank you Christian, for that kind introduction. I am grateful to Vice President Bell, to Ambassador
Kamman, and to the sponsors of this conference for welcoming me here. This is my first visit to
Colombia. I have greatly appreciated your kind hospitality and the intellectal stimulation of this
conference. Since starting this job 5 months ago, I have visited 19 countries, but there is no country
that I looked forward to visiting as much as Colombia. I have
a confession to make: I love coffee,
and particularly, Colombian coffee. In fact, without Colombian coffee, I would not be awake right
now. With all of the human rights crises in the world, I anticipate traveling quite a bit over the next 12
months. To stay awake on those travels, I have brought an extra suitcase with me just to stock up on
Colombian coffee.

Our informal discussions here about human rights have reminded me of that I had as a boy around
the dinner table of my parents' home, where my parents taught me respect for the freedom of others,
democratic decision making, and the rule of law. Eleanor Roosevelt, who played such a key role in
the writing and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, understood the
importance of such conversations. "Human rights," she said, "begin ... [in] small places, close to
home -- so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world ... the
neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he
works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal
opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have
little meaning anywhere." That, ultimately, is what our discussion here this weekend is about: how to
bring human rights home.

Although much has changed in the 50 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
proclaimed that all human beings are "free and equal in dignity and rights," the fact is that the world
today is more free than at any time in history. Ten years after the Cold War, we have seen the
beginning of a whole new set of challenges for human rights. In this hemisphere, we have witnessed a
remarkable transformation, as countries have replaced military governments with civilian ones and as
the rule of fear has given way to the rule of law. The entire region, with the notable exception of
Cuba, has undergone a democratic transition. To be sure, there remain problems posed by impunity,
police brutality, poor prison conditions, and corrupt, inefficient judiciaries, but, in general, respect for
human rights throughout the region has dramatically increased.

Throughout the Americas over the past decade, highly destructive civil wars have ended and
reconciliation has begun. The United States strongly supports peace processes in places like
Guatemala and El Salvador. For the same reason, we seek to work with you to promote peace in
Colombia. Only with the eradication of narcotrafficking, the end of guerrilla-paramilitary warfare,
and the return of the rule of law can Colombia prosper.

When conflicts are resolved, the prospects for a society that respects human rights increase
significantly. The reason is simple: People can return to their homes; and neighbors no longer have to
live in fear of one another. Gradually -- but steadily -- citizens can come together to bring human
rights home. Such goals may seem out of reach at times, but where people work together, those
goals can be achieved rapidly. Take Guatemala, for example; no country in the hemisphere has
traveled a greater distance in a shorter period of time. The recent report of that country's Historical
Clarification Commission describes the tremendous damage caused by 36 years of internal conflict.
That conflict claimed the lives of 200,000 people, destroyed democratic institutions, and left
hundreds of thousands internally displaced. But today, the people of Guatemala are working together
to establish the rule of law, promote civil society, and secure respect for human rights.

Other countries are witnessing similar trends. When the government of Peru was at the height of its
conflict with Sendero Luminoso, extrajudicial killings were frequent. Now, they rarely occur. In
Argentina and Chile, military governments introduced a particularly heinous new word to our
vocabularies -- los desaparecidos -- "the disappeared." Now, there are no cases of politically
motivated disappearances in those countries, and new pressure is being brought to bear to hold
accountable those who are responsible.

Today, the Americas are no longer an ideological battleground. In a speech a few months ago,
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright acknowledged that the United States had supported abusive
regimes in the Americas during the Cold War. Just last month, President Clinton acknowledged
during his visit to Guatemala that "For the United States ... support for military forces or intelligence
units which engaged in violent and widespread repression ... was wrong, and [that] the United States
must not repeat that mistake." Let me tell you that our commitment today is to work with our friends
and partners in the region to build democratic institutions, to encourage respect for human rights, and
to foster the rule of law.

In this context, let me briefly address the question of Cuba, the hemisphere's sole remaining
dictatorship. As you know, despite the Pope's visit early in 1998, the Castro government continues
to suppress ruthlessly all forms of political dissent. Authorities routinely engage in arbitrary detention
of human rights advocates and independent journalists, subjecting them to interrogation, threats, and
degrading treatment. In the past few months, the Castro regime has passed newly repressive laws.
The four founders of the Internal Dissidents' Working Group -- Marta Beatriz Roque Cabello, Felix
Bonne Carcasses, Rene Gomez Manzano, and Vladimiro Roca Antunes -- have been sentenced to
outrageous prison terms for the supposed crime of nonviolently exercising their rights to freedom of
expression and association. Let me be clear: The United States opposes the government of Fidel
Castro because it refuses to allow the citizens of Cuba to exercise their universally recognized human
rights, including the right to democracy. That is why we will support the Czech and Polish-sponsored
resolution at the UN Commission on Human Rights this year. We hope that all other democratic
states -- including those governments represented here -- will join us in supporting this resolution.
We must work together to reaffirm the principle that any government's violations of democracy and
human rights can and should be examined by the UN Human Rights Commission.

We also are working to promote a growing international consensus that leaders who are implicated
in human rights abuses should not benefit from impunity. The United States stands firmly committed
to accountability for those who commit human rights abuses. In three different cases on 3 different
continents, the United States has played a leading role in the international community's efforts to
bring to justice those who order human rights violations on a massive scale. We have supported the
International Criminal Tribunal in Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda. We
support the UN decision to create an international tribunal to try senior Khmer Rouge leaders from

That also is why we are fighting for the people of Kosovo. We had hoped to resolve the crisis in
Kosovo by the use of diplomacy backed by the threat of force. Unfortunately, Yugoslav President
Slobodan Milosevic has refused to cooperate. We have therefore switched to a policy of force
backed by diplomacy, justified by international law and by humanitarian necessity. Next week, I will
travel to Macedonia and Albania to witness the grim product of this latest round of ethnic cleansing.
With full premeditation, Serb forces have engendered a massive humanitarian tragedy. For this to
have happened so quickly -- and so savagely -- demonstrates that Serb forces implemented a
systematic plan well before NATO bombing began.

When human rights abuses of this scale occur, what should nations that value human rights do? In 50
years we have advanced beyond Nuremberg. It cannot be that our only choice is to sit back, watch
ethnic cleansing occur, and only then seek accountability. As UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said
last week, "[stopping] the violent repression of minorities ... must take precedence over concerns of

Such human rights abuses demand an immediate and massive human rights response. Together,
NATO members are acting within a framework of international law to protect human rights. Ours is
a foreign policy not just of interests, but of values, and we are acting to promote those values in

The events in Kosovo over the past several weeks also show how impunity allows human rights
violations to flourish. Civilian leaders who do not hold accountable police and military officers who
commit torture, murder, and other grave human rights violations bear responsibility for a permissive
atmosphere for human rights abuse. It requires courage, conviction, and political will of civilian
leaders to put an end to impunity. In the Americas, we are beginning to see signs of just such a trend.
In Argentina, seven high ranking military officials, including several former junta members, have
recently been charged in connection with the illegal adoption of babies born to women in detention
who later disappeared. In Paraguay, the people and the legislature refused to allow General Oviedo
to act with impunity. And regardless of the final outcome, the case against General Pinochet in the
United Kingdom and Spain is forcing Chileans to come to terms with how to address human rights
abuses committed during his 17 year rule.

With this background, let me now to turn to Colombia, the country whose human rights problem
brings us here. It is no secret to any of you that the United States has had profound disagreements
with past governments of Colombia. We disagreed on how best to combat the scourge of drug
trafficking, how to curb corruption, and how to end impunity. The election of President Pastrana has
offered Colombians their best opportunity in years to address these and other key problems. We
look forward to working with President Pastrana, Vice President Bell, and the people of Colombia
in your efforts to strengthen democracy, promote the rule of law, and secure respect for the human
rights of all Colombians.

The people of Colombia deserve credit for what they have achieved. Despite its tremendous travails,
Colombia remains a democracy. The right to democratic governance, which is recognized both in the
Universal Declaration and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is an important
foundation that enables the people of Colombia to address fundamental problems. But democracy is
much more than elections. As Secretary Albright noted recently, "Free and responsive institutions
must be established. A culture of law and tolerance must be created. Habits of cronyism and
privilege must be challenged. And public expectations about improvements in the quality of life must
be addressed." That is why the United States is in the business of supporting democracy for the long
haul. We foster the growth of democratic culture wherever in the world it has a chance of taking
hold. We focus particularly on providing support for countries in transition, defending democracies
under attack, and strengthening the network of established democracies. Each year, we invest over
$1 billion in these efforts. We do so not just because it is right, but because it is necessary. Without
democracy, repression, corruption, and instability would almost inevitably engulf countries and even

In Colombia, much remains to be done to secure the right to democracy. Colombia is the only
country I know of where there are specialists in "violentology." It is the only country I know of that
has suffered so many kidnappings that it must have a "Kidnapping Czar." It is the only country in the
world that, for each of the past 50 years, has had an International Committee of the Red Cross
presence due to conflict or civil war. Colombia has one of the highest per capita murder rates in the
world. Colombia has more internally displaced people than any country in the region.

The challenges facing Colombia are reflected in the State Department's most recent human rights
report, which my bureau released 6 weeks ago. You have a copy of that report in your conference
readings. In Colombia, our report concluded, "the Government continued to face a serious challenge
to its control over the national territory, as long-standing and widespread internal armed conflict and
rampant violence -- both criminal and political -- persisted. The principal participants were
Government security forces, paramilitary groups, guerrillas, and narcotics traffickers .... [T]he
number of outstanding arrest warrants stood at 150,000 in August, while the civilian judiciary
suffered from a backlog of 3.5 million cases as of October. The suborning or intimidation of judges,
witnesses, and prosecutors by those indicted or involved was common."

Yet I have no doubt that Colombia can follow in the footsteps of other countries in the region.
Overwhelmingly, the people of Colombia want peace. What can we do together to bring this about?
Let me suggest five steps.

First, the country's long standing civil war must come to an end. The new government of President
Pastrana has made clear that peace is its number one priority. The United States fully supports his
efforts. Now it is up to guerrillas to negotiate in good faith with the government. But if they really
want peace, they must abandon their bloody ways. We must all be outraged by the barbarous
kidnapping and murder by the FARC last month of three Americans who had come to Colombia to
work with the indigenous U'wa people. Our government will not rest until the FARC turns over for
prosecution not only those who committed the killings, but also those who ordered them. The
incident also serves as a sad reminder that we still do not know what happened to the three
American New Tribes missionaries who were kidnapped by the FARC 6 years ago. We continue to
demand that the FARC account for the welfare and whereabouts of Rick Tenenoff, Dave Mankins,
and Mark Rich.

I focus on these cases because the State Department considers its primary responsibility to be the
protection of American citizens when they travel abroad. But tragically, these are far from the only
victims. An estimated 2,400 people were kidnapped in Colombia last year, half by guerrillas. The
FARC must end such practices if it hopes to be regarded as a serious participant in the peace
process. At the same time, we cannot wait for the peace process to succeed before the human rights
process can begin in earnest. We must promote a human rights process as a means to promote the
peace process. The two processes must work together, if we are to bring real improvement to the
lives of the Colombian people.

Second, the Government of Colombia must take steps to cut ties between the paramilitaries and the
military. Like the guerrillas, the paramilitaries have exhibited a shocking disregard for the lives of
innocent, non-combatant civilians. Paramilitaries have committed the great majority of massacres in
recent years, so many that it is hard to keep track. Caught in the middle of warring factions,
Colombian peasants are the most frequent victims. If Colombia is to emerge from its present crisis,
the homes of peasants must come to mean as much as those of the wealthy. When peasants are
killed, the response in Bogota should be outrage. Similarly, the Government of Colombia must come
to terms with the plight of its internally displaced persons. As we have heard today, the scope of the
problem is enormous. As many as 300,000 persons, mostly women and children, were driven from
their homes by guerrillas and paramilitaries in 1998. According to one estimate, Colombia has the
fourth largest population of displaced persons in the world.

We welcome pledges by the government to remove military officers linked to paramilitaries and to
bring abusers to justice. In this regard, I understand that important steps were taken in Bogota
yesterday. We welcome greatly those steps and other steps that we hope will soon follow.
Furthermore, we welcome the recent arrest of Lt. Col. Lino Sanchez Prado for his sponsorship and
participation in a paramilitary group, and we commend government and military leaders for their
support of Sanchez's arrest. But more needs to be done. We have urged the Colombian
Government to take the strongest possible action to dismantle paramilitary groups, and to find and
arrest paramilitary warlord Carlos Castano. The Colombian Government must cut any and all
remaining ties between the military and paramilitaries by prosecuting to the fullest extent possible, in
the context of international due process standards, those in the armed forces who adopt extralegal
measures to solve Colombia's problems. We urge all those -- civilian or military, public or private, --
who finance, encourage, or support paramilitaries to end this dangerous and destructive practice.

Third, the government needs to address the impunity with which government security forces have
committed extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and massive internal displacement in the name of
combating paramilitaries and guerrillas. As our latest human rights report indicates, the government
has made some welcome progress in reducing the number of extrajudicial killings and torture
committed by security force members. The government has also pledged to secure passage of two
important pieces of legislation, one that would outlaw forced disappearances and another that would
specifically identify which crimes committed by security force officials would be punished by the
civilian judiciary. Nonetheless, numerous, serious problems persist.

Fourth, the government must work with the legislature and the judiciary to fix its broken judicial
system. The civilian judiciary remains inefficient, severely overburdened by a large case backlog, and
undermined by the prevailing climate of intimidation and impunity. This situation remains at the core
of the country's human rights problems. We have heard that only 3%-7% of all crimes committed
nationwide are prosecuted successfully. The suborning or intimidation of judges, witnesses, and
prosecutors is common. Judges have long been subject to threats and intimidation, particularly when
dealing with cases involving members of the armed forces or paramilitary, narcotics or guerrilla
organizations. Although the number of instances of violent attacks against prosecutors and judges
declined in recent years, prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys continue to face threats and acts
of violence.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have been a lawyer for much of my life and for the 13 years before I
assumed this post, I was a law professor. Over the years, I have learned that democracy cannot
thrive without genuine, abiding respect for the rule of law and vibrant legal institutions. A strong rule
of law helps to assure sustainable economic development, to combat corruption, to support social
stability and peace, and to carve out necessary space for individual political and economic activity.
The rule of law also provides the average citizen confidence that he or she has access to a
mechanism to hold accountable leaders and institutions -- in both the public and private sector.
Without an independent judiciary and the rule of law, democracies simply lack mechanisms to ensure
that laws and procedures protect universal human rights. To focus on this issue, Secretary Albright
has recently announced a Rule of Law Initiative and named a brilliant lawyer, Joseph Onek, as her
Global Rule of Law Coordinator. It is our hope that Mr. Onek can visit Colombia before too long,
to work with all of you in your efforts to build legal institutions and to promote the rule of law.

Fifth, the government must do more to protect human rights defenders from attack, whether by
military, paramilitary, or guerrilla forces. The right to democracy, necessarily, includes a right to
democratic dissent, namely the right to participate in political life and advocate the change of
government by peaceful means. Nongovernmental human rights organizations must have the right to
speak freely about conditions in a country without fear of reprisal. In Colombia, too many
courageous human rights activists, including some of you in this room, must instead operate in a
climate where Carlos Castano can send an open letter describing you as disguised guerrillas and
legitimate targets of attack. We unequivocally deplore this outrageous and reckless action. It
encourages a climate of violence that has already cost too many lives. Yet human rights activists
continue work tirelessly to protect the freedoms which we all sometimes take for granted. In fact, the
U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, Human Rights Watch, recently noted that of the 10
human rights activists killed worldwide through the first 10 months of 1998, 6 were Colombian.

Why do defenders pledge themselves to promote human rights? The Reverend Martin Luther King
perhaps said it best. In 1963, he wrote, "I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about
what happens in Birmingham.... I am [here] because injustice is here ... Injustice anywhere is a threat
to justice everywhere." As Dr. King spoke truth to power in our country, courageous Colombian
defenders speak out for those here in Colombia who cannot speak for themselves. I am especially
proud to mention Jaime Prieto Mendez, Mario Humberto Calizto, Gloria Ines Florez Schneider, and
Berenice Celeyta Alayon -- who together were recently honored with the Robert F. Kennedy
Human Rights Award for their courageous work. We call on all parties to the conflict to cease
harassing and attacking human rights defenders. We strongly support the Government of Colombia's
announced intentions, which Vice President Bell confirmed last night, to augment security for these
courageous individuals. We urge the government to move quickly before more human rights
defenders must make the ultimate sacrifice. But we also strongly urge the Government of Colombia
to meet with human rights defenders and listen to what they have to say, not merely on a single
occasion, but as frequently as possible. In the United States, we meet and consult with
non-governmental organizations on a weekly basis. We learn a great deal from these meetings. The
Government of Colombia should do the same.

To summarize, I have outlined five steps toward peace: supporting the peace process, cutting ties to
the paramilitaries, addressing impunity, promoting the rule of law, and protecting human rights
defenders. These are five steps toward a day when Colombians once again can live without fear.
None of these steps are easy. But all of them are essential if there is to be an end to the violence that
is consuming Colombia and movement toward national reconciliation. Only if all parties to the
conflict demonstrate a renewed commitment to peace can Colombia's long national nightmare come
to an end. Only then will human rights flourish. Only then will we have succeeded, here in Colombia,
in bringing human rights home.

Thank you very much.

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