Published on Tuesday, June 18, 2002 by Inter Press Service
Colombian U.N. Visit Inspires Skepticism
by Rachel Rivera
UNITED NATIONS - Colombian President-elect Alvaro Uribe Velez met U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan Monday to discuss a possible role for the world body in reviving peace talks with rebel groups. His critics dismissed the visit as a tactical ploy to fix his hawkish image.
Uribe won 53 percent of the vote in last month's presidential elections, in a victory widely attributed to his promises to defeat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia's major guerilla group, by doubling the military and police forces. His opponents have accused him of having supporters among hard-line elements of the military and of having links with the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
"It's public relations. He's trying to soften his image. At the same time he's preparing a request for more military aid from Washington," said Adam Isacson, head of the Colombia program at the Center for International Policy (CIP), a Washington-based human rights advocacy and research group.
Uribe is expected to visit Washington later this week to meet senior U.S. administration officials including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice.
Isacson said CIP was especially concerned about Uribe's proposal to give the military judicial and police powers and to have one million civilians cooperating with security forces in gathering intelligence on guerilla activities.
"There's no reason to believe that these militias and arbitrary arrest powers won't be used to go after, not only guerillas, but also human rights workers, labor union leaders, and opposition figures," said Isacson.
Following his meeting with Annan, Uribe declined to answer questions from reporters, saying only that he and the Secretary-General discussed possible solutions to "the problem of violence affecting Colombia to which the United Nations may lend positive contributions."
Annan said he had congratulated Uribe on his recent electoral victory and that they had agreed to continue exploring in the coming months "the most effective ways for the United Nations to assist the Colombian people."
Uribe has said there can be no U.N. involvement until a ceasefire is reached, and since the breakdown of peace talks launched by current President Andres Pastrana, a ceasefire is nowhere in sight.
Since Uribe's victory, FARC has stepped up its attacks, driving out local officials in the southern states of Caqueta, Putumayo, and Huila, former enclaves that FARC controlled for three years until the peace talks collapsed in February.
Some Colombian community groups, while shrugging off Uribe's U.N. visit as a public-relations tactic, welcome the idea of U.N. involvement in resolving the 40-year conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced more than one million people.
"It should be tried. Why not? An international intermediary force may be attractive to guerillas," said Ramon Mejia, founder and coordinator of the New York-based Movement for Peace in Colombia. "We're tired of war. The firm military hand that Uribe is promising will only bring more civilian killings."
Mejia emphasized the need for the government to address the social and economic injustices suffered by the majority of the Colombian people, who live in poverty.
"Uribe must begin to address our country's need for real social reforms. Until then, this conflict won't end," said Mejia.
"Resuming the peace process will take building up every institution of the government, not just the military," said Isacson. "People need to trust that their government can build roads and schools and that it can provide justice."
Copyright 2002 IPS