On Tuesday morning, Álvaro Uribe, former President of Colombia and Distinguished Scholar in the Practice of Global Leadership at the School of Foreign Service, sat down with the Voice’s Cole Stangler for his first interview since leaving the presidency in August.
First off, what made you choose Georgetown? Why are you at the School of Foreign Service at this point in your career?
I received a kind invitation directly from President DeGioia who I met in the past. I have the highest opinion about him. Second, Georgetown is an excellent university. Third, I have had the opportunity to meet throughout my career many people who graduated from the university. During my two terms as president, many people with whom I had the opportunity to interact and work have graduated from Georgetown. Fourth there are many Colombian students here in the University. And fifth I came to this University as a presidential candidate and as president-elect for debates and profound discussions. I recall that my Vice Minister of Justice Miguel Ceballos used to work here with Arturo Valenzuela, running the Colombia Program. Therefore, there have been many reasons for me to accept this very important invitation.
What classes are you teaching this semester?
So far, I have been invited to different classes in the fields of comparative political systems and economics. I have shared with the students my views on matters such as political and economic risks in Latin American, government systems in the region and trade trends in the Americas. For the next semester I’m preparing classes that can cover specific items, such as politics, economics, governance, international relations, and leadership.
Have you been surprised so far about your reception at the University? Did you expect this kind of controversy?
I was surprised by the weakness of the protests. In the contrary I am motivated and impressed by the great number of students that have approached me to express their support. I have confronted numerous protests against my policies during my career, but over the years I have seen a decline in their number due to my consistent devotion to work with absolute transparency and my open commitment for constructive and respectful debate. Therefore, [it] didn’t surprise [me]. What has surprised me was the kind reception by the vast majority of the students.
Agencia EFE reported that during the first lecture, you asked your students not to disclose parts of the class in a “pact of honor”. What was the idea behind that?
There was no “pact of honor”. I am accustomed to saying in private what should be said in public. Therefore I want to take advantage of this question to deliver this message to the students—in accordance with my own experience, it is very important to say in private only what you are able to say in public. This has been a rule [throughout] my political career.
Many of the protestors have cited your human rights record as an important issue. How would you defend your record against people like Mark Lance, the director of Peace Studies who said, “This is a man who shows contempt for the very idea of human rights work?” How would you respond to those who criticize your human rights record?
He is totally wrong. I have fought for my country to overcome two long centuries of violence. During two centuries of independent life, Colombia has only lived 47 years of relative peace. My generation and previous ones have not lived one single day of complete peace. My permanent fight is to provide younger and future generations the right to live in a peaceful country, in a country of prosperity, solidarity, and equal opportunities.
You can look at many facts that reflect my administration commitment towards human rights. First the decrease in homicides. Second, the decline in kidnappings. Third, the decline in massacres. Fourth, the increase in confidence. Fifth, how for the first time, the members of the radical opposition have been surrounded by effective governance and effective guarantees. Sixth, the armed forces have defended themselves against the penetration of narcotrafficking, which has been the main source of human rights violations in my country. Seventh, we have left the country with the right conditions to have an excellent performance in human rights. Eight, all Human Rights violations must be investigated and prosecuted in order to eliminate impunity. Ninth, yesterday, the General Assembly for Human Rights in Geneva reported very well about the improvements made by Colombia. Tenth, three months ago, the [United Nations] International Labor Organization, for the first time in many years, excluded Colombia from the list [of nations to be examined for failure to comply with U.N. workers conditions]. In the list, there are many important countries and Colombia is now out of this list because of the improvement made during the last eight years.
Therefore, as commander in chief, I always pushed the armed forces for carving out a policy with credibility. And credibility in any security policy is based on two pillars—effectiveness and transparency. As I supported the armed forces, I was also very strict to sanction any individual violation of human rights.
But it is the right moment for me to show up in defense of our armed forces. Our armed forces are very professional and totally respectful of the constitution. They are making the greatest effort in the world for the fulfillment [of] human rights. Our armed forces have been able to combat and capture terrorist and criminals while improving their human rights record.
Rather than questioning our armed forces, what the world should do is to compliment, to praise our armed forces for their efforts in the advancement in human rights. You cannot forget that the main sources of human rights violations in our country are terrorist guerillas, and paramilitaries. During my administration the guerrillas were seriously reduced and received their biggest blows in history. Regarding Paramilitary structures my government dismantled their organizations and effectively prosecuted their leaders. We also advanced a lot in fighting narcotrafficking, achieving results [that] the world has acknowledged.
Long answer, but it’s a tough question.
Speaking about the military, some of the more serious allegations during your eight-year term in office are the so-called “false positives” that occurred as part of the armed forces conflict with FARC guerillas. According to a January 2009 Human Rights Watch report, “army members apparently take civilians from their homes or workplaces, kill them, and then dress them up to claim they were combatants killed in action.” Did this practice of “false positives” ever occur under your watch as President and how do you respond to those who hold you directly responsible for the practice?
We cannot speak about a conflict or civil war in Colombia. In the past we spoke about civil wars or conflicts in Latin America when we saw insurgent movements fighting dictatorships or autocratic regimes. In Colombia, we have had narco-terrorist groups trying to destroy our democracy. Therefore, this is a huge difference. Colombia is an open, pluralistic democracy with all freedoms. Nothing justifies these kinds of criminal activities against a true democratic system.
There have been cases of false positives—mainly because of the penetration of narcotrafficking in some sectors of our institutions. Those practices were fought with determination by my administration, which corrected the vast majority of these cases.
But there have been also false accusations. You find many individuals against me or my administration, and the excuse they have to strike my achievements, is not by opposing my policy, [but rather] by accusing me of human rights violations. They hide behind the curtain of human rights because they do not feel capable of fighting my policy with the sincerity of their beliefs. They need to cloud their beliefs behind human rights.
In the case of false positives, my administration made strong decisions. We fired many, many high-ranking officials. There are more than 153 members of the armed forces who are in jail because of judiciary investigations. I can give you a list of all the decisions made by my administration or my country to advance in human rights.
In the case where the armed forces kill in combat a member of the terrorist groups, this body cannot be touched or examined by any member of the armed forces. They have to wait until a member of the Justice Administration undertakes the forensic examination. And the Justice Administration is totally independent from the armed forces and from the executive branch.
Every battalion in Colombia today has at least one high-ranking official specialized in human rights. Colombia is the country with [the] most training hours and teachers of human rights within the armed forces. We have also put forward many initiatives to strengthen and support the military and ordinary justice. Therefore, I am here and can go to any part of the world because my policies are totally defensible.
Colombia is not a paradise, but Colombia is doing better. Colombia has made a significant improvement.
Are you concerned about the high population of internally displaced people in Colombia—that number has been estimated at 4.9 million, which is second to Sudan?
That number is not accurate.
In any case, if you dispute the number that’s fine, but the number of those people—is that simply a byproduct of the ongoing civil war or is it something that can be prevented in the future?
As I said before, Colombia does not have a conflict or civil war. We have criminal attempts from terrorist groups against our democracy. Of course, we are totally aware of the internally displaced people. When my administration began the official budget to attend [to the] displaced population, [it] was around $40 million. In our last budget, we appropriated $800 million. While the number of displaced people declines year by year, the budget has increased to address their needs.
We introduced excellent laws to [respond] to the displaced population. I want to refer to one specific law enacted by my administration—one specific topic. My administration enacted a law that we called the law for Peace and Reparations. In accordance with this law, 53,000 members of terrorist groups demobilized—53,000 out of more than 60,000. And they have been treated with all generosity to reinsert to society, but for them to have the benefits of a shorter sentence, they need to confess their crimes in the name of truth.
An other important element of that law is the requirement for demobilized criminals to transfer their wealth for the government to repair the victims. For this, we call this law the Law of Justice, Peace and Reparations. In the case of atrocities, in crimes against humanity, this law, in accordance with our constitution, does not give amnesty or pardon to those involved in crimes against humanity—only, shorter sentences if they comply with all the [truth and reparation] requirements.
Another important law that my administration passed allows the Justice Administration and the judicial police to forfeit illegal wealth with speedy judicial procedures. Today my country has a sound legal framework to confiscate illegal wealth and to repair the victims.
During my administration, we spent no less than $600 million repairing victims. And that is a great achievement. We also, for the first time in 40 years, stopped narcotraffickers from buying rural property.
In my country, for the last three to four years, all the people in the regions [that I visited] told me, Mr. President, ‘Good news. Drug lords no longer buy land around here because they are afraid of our policies’. This has been a great achievement of my administration.
Colombia is not in a paradise. Maybe my administration made mistakes, but I am, I am…full of achievements to come in defense, to stand in defense of what we did in government.
Moving towards the future, there was an election this year in Colombia. Recent relations between Colombia and Venezuela have been strained, to say the least. How do you think your successor Juan Manuel Santos can help repair important diplomatic and economic ties with Venezuela?
When President Santos was Minister of Defense, he played a key role in denouncing the presence of Colombian terrorists in other countries. Therefore, I am confident that President Santos will continue fighting to eliminate the presence of Colombian terrorists in other countries.
But I left the presidency only five weeks ago. Therefore I have to be very prudent. My attitude has to be constructive regarding President Santos. The best way for being constructive is to be prudent. Therefore, I have to look with prudence [at] the steps Santos has moved on in [our] international relationships.