An NGO report into Juan Manuel Santos’ first year as president of Colombia has praised the government for its change in rhetoric and policy but criticized it for failing to improve the situation on the ground.
The report, published on Thursday by U.S. NGOs the Washington Office on Latin America and the U.S. Office on Colombia, examined the Santos government’s record on issues such as human rights, protection of vulnerable groups, disappearances and displacement, judicial impunity and tackling the new wave of paramilitarism.
Diana Arango, the program director at U.S. Office on Colombia, told Colombia Reports there had been a “marked change” between the previous administration of Alvaro Uribe and the Santos government, calling it a “positive step.”
Arango said, “for eight years we had a very hostile environment against human right defenders and now we see that the Santos administration is more open to dialogue and recognizing human rights defenders and human rights … as an important issue.”
The report offers qualified praise to the administration for passing the Victims Law to compensate victims of the armed conflict, for agreeing the Labor Action Plan to tackle worker abuse and threats to unionists and for the creation of the National Unit for Crimes of Displacement and Forced Disappearances.
However, despite these changes it highlights how there has been an increase in violence against human rights defenders, indigenous groups and Afro-Colombian communities and continued high levels of internal displacement, violence against unionists and worker abuse.
Arango said, “there is a huge gap between what the government says and what is actually happening on the ground, we don’t see the discourse translating into effective policy.”
According to Arango, one of the problems is that the government is struggling to impose its authority outside of Bogota.
She said, “there are disconnects between what the government is saying on a national level and what is actually happening in the regions”
The report also heavily criticizes the Santos government for its failure to tackle the development and expansion of neo-paramilitary groups.
Arango said, “[the government] don’t want to recognize the problem, they don’t want to admit that these are armies, that they have a presence throughout the country and they are a security threat throughout the nation.”
She added the Santos administration needed to recognize that the problem could not be resolved by a military solution alone.
Arango added, “we need to see effective investigation into the links of these illegal armed groups and sectors of Colombian society like politicians, landholders, business people … that have favored illegal armed actors and allowed them to be created and to expand.”
The government also comes in for heavy criticism is its continued unwillingness to tackle judicial impunity for the armed forces. The report is particularly critical of Santos for commenting on sentences handed down to military personnel.
Arango said, “we hope the president recognizes that whenever he questions judicial decisions he puts in danger the lives of the victims, the human rights organizations that work with the victims and even the judges and prosecutors”
The report concludes by saying, “the Santos government provides an important opportunity to advance the human rights agenda in the country,” while calling on the government to close the gap between rhetoric and results.
Arango said, “we hope it is a real commitment [from the government] but we have to see those words matched by actions.”