Ex-Colombian President's Past Haunts UN Probe of Israel

Ex-Colombian President's Past Haunts UN Probe of Israel

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UNITED NATIONS, NY—The release Sunday of  an Israeli report defending its own actions in last year's deadly raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla underscores the need for an objective international inquiry into the incident.

So why is former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe—who would not be called a defender of human rights even by his staunchest supporters —in the front lines of a UN investigation into the raid?

Uribe spent his eight years as president working to improve Colombia’s national security, primarily in efforts to battle the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas, an armed, leftist resistance group that opposes the current Colombian government and its alliance with the United States. In the name of national security, Uribe’s army is said to have carried out thousands of extrajudicial killings. His intelligence agency spied on journalists and political dissidents.

Given this record, it came as a shock to many when the United Nations chose Uribe to help investigate alleged human rights abuses carried out by Israel during a raid on a flotilla of ships in the Mediterranean last May. Now, as the long-delayed report nears completion, the continuing controversy threatens to undermine the panel’s findings.

The flotilla of six ships, organized by the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, was en route to the Gaza strip carrying humanitarian aid, construction materials, gas masks, night-vision goggles and other supplies aimed at breaking the Israeli blockade.

The Israeli military apprehended five of the ships without loss of life. But in a raid on the sixth ship, nine civilians—eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American—were killed. After a huge international outcry, UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, appointed a three-person panel to look into the incident. Ban named Uribe, a staunch ally of the United States and by extension of Israel, as the panel’s vice chair.

The Secretary-General’s panel is separate from a UN Human Rights Council investigation into the same incident. That inquiry concluded in September with a resounding condemnation of Israel’s behavior.

But Israel immediately rejected the report as biased and its own report, issued Sunday, exonerated the government, the military and individual soldiers and concluded that the raid did not violate international law.

The Ban Ki-moon panel, which has the backing of Israel and Turkey, was expected to be more even-handed. But in the meantime, Uribe has come under increasing international scrutiny for his acts while Columbia’s president.

Human rights organizations immediately slammed Uribe’s appointment, citing his record within Colombia as well as his troubled relations with Ecuador and Venezuela. The International Federation for Human Rights said that Uribe’s participation could “seriously damage the credibility of the panel." The left-leaning Spanish politician, Willy Meyer, warned that putting Uribe on the panel was “like asking a fox to guard the hens." These objections fell on deaf ears. Ban Ki-moon said simply that Uribe’s past had no bearing on his work as a panelist and that Uribe would “make a good contribution” to the investigation. 

Indeed, human rights organizations have been denouncing for years the “culture of impunity” that prevailed during Uribe's tenure in Colombia. According to a 2009 Human Rights Watch report, the army was under so much pressure to get results against the FARC that it resorted to kidnapping civilians, murdering them, and then passing off the dead bodies as guerrillas.

HRW’s report directly implicated Uribe
 
“The Defense Ministry has issued directives indicating that such killings are impermissible. But such directives have been regularly undermined by statements from high government officials, including President Uribe, who for years publicly denied the problem existed, and accused human rights defenders reporting these killings of colluding with the guerrillas in an orchestrated campaign to discredit the military.”

During Uribe’s presidency, Colombia's intelligence agency, the Department of Administrative Security (DAS), regularly spied on journalists and members of the political opposition. DAS is also accused of breaking into homes, threatening children, and using sexual threats against women. The agency reports directly to the president.

Some of these accusations come from Uribe's political opponents, who are now trying to bring cases against him in Colombia, Spain, and Belgium. So far, however, none of these cases has gotten off the ground because of the difficulty in tracing any of the abuses directly back to Uribe.

Maria del Pilar Hurtado, the DAS’s former director, may be the only person who could prove that Uribe ordered the wiretaps and break-ins. But in November— at a time when she was wanted for questioning—she fled the country and was granted political asylum in Panama, which means she will never have to testify about DAS.

In New York, the Secretary-General’s spokesperson dismissed the suggestion that the charges stemming against Uribe would affect his ability to do his new job. “This is an entirely separate matter,” Martin Nesirky told me. He insisted that Uribe’s work for the UN has nothing to do with his past in Colombia.

But in fact, the UN has had a long and troubled relationship with Uribe. In a 2009 report, the UN’s Office of the High Commission on Human Rights (UNHCHR) in Bogota slammed Uribe’s government for systematically undermining the country’s judiciary in order to increase executive power. The report accused the DAS of regularly targeting UN offices by tapping their phone and Internet lines and spying on their staff. The agency also accused the DAS of stealing a file on children’s rights.

As Wikileaks has revealed, Colombia is far from the only country to spy on the UN. Yet while the UN has been willing to smooth over, and even cover up, U.S. spying, it has taken a far tougher line against the Colombian government.

UNHCHR’s Bogota director, Christian Salazar, has said publicly that his office is “closely following” the legal proceedings against DAS. But Salazar refuses to comment on Uribe’s new UN job. This itself raises questions.

Uribe’s past as a by-any-means-necessary strongman seems ill-suited to a human rights panel. Of course, the general view is that the UN chose him precisely of his background. As a US ally, and a law-and-order man, he’s expected to be a staunch advocate for Israel. But was there no other Israel supporter available? Do all law-and-order leaders spy on the UN?

In other words: was Uribe chosen because his American allies pushed hard enough to steamroll over all possible objections? Or, has the UN simply become so woolly that nobody remembered Uribe’s past when it came time to give him a job?