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Silencing Social Criticism – Human Rights Abuse and the Academic Community

Colombia is a country plagued by political violence. From 1st of Jan to 30th June 2003 there were 2500 violent deaths in Colombia. 1473 of these deaths were for political reasons. Between 1996 and 1999 more than 3 million people were been forcibly displaced from the countryside to the cities due to violence. Colombia has the 2nd highest internal refugee population in the world (UNCHR 2004). In the last 25 years 103 000 people have been killed as a result of political violence, 6200 have been disappeared. (CUT, 2002).

<p align="left">Colombia is a country plagued by political violence. From 1st of Jan to 30th June 2003 there were 2500 violent deaths in Colombia. 1473 of these deaths were for political reasons. Between 1996 and 1999 more than 3 million people were been forcibly displaced from the countryside to the cities due to violence. Colombia has the 2nd highest internal refugee population in the world (UNCHR 2004). In the last 25 years 103 000 people have been killed as a result of political violence, 6200 have been disappeared. (CUT, 2002).</p>

Colombia is a country plagued by political violence. From 1st of Jan to 30th June 2003 there were 2500 violent deaths in Colombia. 1473 of these deaths were for political reasons. Between 1996 and 1999 more than 3 million people were been forcibly displaced from the countryside to the cities due to violence. Colombia has the 2nd highest internal refugee population in the world (UNCHR 2004). In the last 25 years 103 000 people have been killed as a result of political violence, 6200 have been disappeared. (CUT, 2002).

A War For Peace?

2002 saw the election of president Alvaro Uribe Velez in Colombia with a clear 53% majority (25% of the eligible voting population). The central tenet of Uribe's election campaign was zero tolerance for the armed insurgencies (FARC and ELN) who have fought the Government and national elites for the past 40 years. The embattled populace, weary after years of violence and poverty had high hopes for the strong leader who, with the help of the US and UK through military aid, promised to lead the country to peace. While military spending has skyrocketed over the period, peace has remained a distant dream for the majority of Colombians. Meanwhile the president has continued with the austerity measures agreed to by the previous administration in 1999 in return for a US$2.7bn IMF loan. Public utilities have continued to be privatised and crucial social spending cutback. The academic community, trade unions and civil society social organisations have argued that a sustainable peace must be accompanied by social justice. They have been met with a combination of violent repression and a systematic government policy offensive aimed at silencing dissent.

The Armed and Social Conflict

Colombia's conflict is conceptualised as dual in the sense that there is both an armed conflict and a social conflict. The armed conflict refers to the ongoing war between State military forces in collaboration with paramilitary groups and armed insurgents. The social conflict refers to the conflict of interests between minority national elites at the service of multinational companies and those of the majority of the population. Colombia is a country rich in natural resources and of geo-strategic importance particularly to the US for this reason. It is the third highest recipient of US military aid in the World receiving US$2million daily (CIP, 2000). Military aid is linked with commitments to economic reforms to liberalise the economy through deregulation of labour rights and environmental protections and privatisation. Colombia provides the US and Europe with oil, gold, emeralds, coffee, sugar and cheap labour among many other goods and services. The profits from this lucrative natural resource extraction remain in the hands of national elites and multinational companies based largely in the US, UK and Spain. Thus, despite its national wealth, like in so many less developed countries, poverty is severe and inequalities acute. According to the UN, in 1995 60% of the population were living below the poverty line, by in 2001 this had risen to 67%. During the same period inequality also increased with Colombia falling two points on the worldwide Gini coefficient standard (UN 2004). In 2001 the richest 10 per cent of the population earned 60 times more than the poorest 10 per cent (Atherton 2002).

Dissident voices

Presenting alternatives to increased military spending, which they see as simply escalating violence, and opposing an economic model which perpetuates social injustice, are a multitude of non-violent social movements. Their recognition that the conflict cannot be solved by a purely military offensive is even echoed by the World Bank; its country profile on Colombia asserts that "While economic development is not tantamount to peace, continued deterioration of the economy could worsen the conflict in turn making the lives of Colombians even more difficult" (World Bank 2004). By calling for such changes, social movements present a challenge to the current political and economic system. The Government views those that oppose it as sympathisers with armed insurgents and brand them as such. Uribe, in a speech to the Colombian armed forces in September 2003 went as far as to call NGO's "spokesmen [and] politikers for terrorism" and challenged them to "take of their masks and drop their cowardice of hiding their ideas behind human rights" (CIP 2004). Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and even US Republican Senator Jim McGovern among others went on to condemn the remarks commenting that in the past such statements have led to the deaths of members of social organisations (CIP, 2004). Indeed, this is no exaggeration, in the last 18 years 4000 Colombian community activists, trade unionists and social leaders have been assassinated by State and quasi-State paramilitary forces (CUT 2004). From indigenous leaders to human rights defenders, all those calling for peace with social justice have been subject to the ongoing violation of human rights and government policies designed to debilitate resistance. According to Central Union Confederation of Colombia (CUT 2002) it is the education sector that has the suffered the largest proportion of these violations.

Why Universities?

The university community has historically come under attack from extremist or ultra authoritarian leaders. The public university is and has always been a place where freedom of thought, expression, debate and social criticism can flourish, a public space where the very people oppressed by an unjust, elitist political and economic system can gain access to the knowledge and skills to present viable alternatives to it. This exercise in basic democratic rights strikes fear in leaders cognizant of their crimes against the majority.

Silencing Academia – A Four-Part Offensive

In Colombia this fear is manifested in a well orchestrated offensive against the University Community. This is comprised of four distinct elements. Three of these are official keystone Government policies: Education Revolution, Democratic Security and the Project of Penal Alternative, the fourth is paramilitarism.

"Education Revolution"

The global imposition of neoliberal economic policy has created a situation by which public services are rapidly becoming viewed as tradable products to be provided by the private sector rather than rights or public goods, the responsibility for the provision of which lies with the State. The education sector has not been excluded from this process and is currently valued at an estimated US$2 trillion internationally (UNESCO, 2001). The impetus for privatisation in order to capitalise on this market has been globally pervasive. In Colombia, as in many other less developed countries, external pressure to open up its education markets is undoubtedly a factor in Government policy design. The Government’s cynically entitled policy of "Education Revolution" is detailed in the Government's national development plan 2002 – 2006. As noted by UN Special Rapporteur Katerina Tomasevski in her report on Colombian education for the UN (2003), the plan "makes no mention of the right to education". Indeed, "Education Revolution" is in keeping with global trends towards the comodification of education with the focus on a shift in funding from government to users. Between 1996 and 2002 the number of students per professor doubled; between 1999 and 2002 State spending on higher education was cut by a third (ACEU 2002). In a nation where 67% of the population live below the poverty line and close to 25% live in levels of extreme poverty this means quite simply excluding from education those already marginalised by the neoliberal project. It is a means of stripping potential dissenters of the knowledge and skills to present viable alternatives to injustice. Moreover, privatisation engenders curtailment of academic freedom and social criticism by forcing academics to seek research funding in the private sector where lines of enquiry are determined by potential profitability and criticism of powerful commercial sponsors is impossible.

"Democratic Security"In response to these changes the university community is organising, demonstrating and challenging the Government education policy designed to debilitate opposition through the curtailment of free expression. While this phenomenon can be observed globally, in Colombia protests are met with force, with riot shields, tear gas and increasing numbers of young officers often recruited from marginalized sectors of society for whom the possibility of higher education has never been available. This is the effect of "Democratic Security Policy"; the arm of force on the part of the State to quell the resistance to unpopular policies combined with the use of the Anti-terrorist Statue (Acto 02/2003) to judicially penalise social activism and restrict civil liberties. It is the militarization of the neoliberal project (Styan, 2001). The antiterrorism statue enables the interception and censorship of academic publications and communication, house searches without prior jurisprudence and detentions of activists and thinkers for social criticism. In 2003, 6038 people were detained of which 3750 were liberated due to lack of evidence (ACEU 2004). According to the Colombian Embassy in Washington (2004), in order to deal with the "ever imposing terrorist threat" (like that posed by social movements including the university community and we must assume) "there are now 60% more combat soldiers ready to fight than four years ago" and thanks to new tax increases there is "an additional US$800million to pay for 6000 new elite soldiers, 10,000 new police officers and up to 100,000 paid civilian informants". On top of this the Government has committed to increasing defence expenditures from the current level of 3.6% of GDP to 6% of GDP by 2006 (State spending on education is 3.2% of GDP). These increases will help to fund the enlargement of security forces by 250,000 troops (150,000 military and 100,000 police) over the next four years (Colombian Embassy in Washington 2004).


Paramilitaries are groups of civilians organised in a military fashion to assist state military forces. They first emerged in Latin America following former US President Kennedy’s 1961 Foreign Assistance Act as means of counter insurgency with the stated aim of "improving the ability of friendly countries and international organizations to deter or, if necessary, defeat Communist or Communist-supported aggression." (Stokes 2003). They are comprised of peasants and retired or off duty police officers and soldiers and have often received training at the School of the Americas, the US's pre-eminent Latin American military training academy. A 1962 military training manual on counter insurgency produced for the Academy states that "it may become necessary to take more aggressive action in the form of harsh treatment or even abductions. The abduction and harsh treatment of key enemy civilians can weaken the collaborators belief in the strength and power of their military forces" and details tactics for "guerrilla warfare, propaganda, subversion, intelligence and counter-intelligence, terrorist activities, civic action, and conventional combat operations". Used most famously in Nicaragua, paramilitaries have a huge presence in Colombia. While officially illegal paramilitaries have traditionally been used to carry out the illegitimate state action to debilitate resistance. This extends beyond the field of battle against armed insurgents to a sustained campaign against anyone they feel may sympathise with, or sympathise with the aims or ideas of the opposition.

Paramilitarism represents the third and unofficial arm of the offensive against social movements, universities and the civil and political rights they are trying to defend. It has increased alarmingly in recent years and in universities is present at many levels from the thousands civil informants working to undermine social movements to connections reaching right to the top of the university establishment. In the University Cordoba, which has one of the worst human rights records of any public university this connection was made explicit in 2002. Student, professor and trade union leaders from the University were ordered to attend a meeting at a paramilitary camp in the presence of Claudio Sanchez, the Vice Chancellor and Felix Manssur President of the Supreme Council, at which paramilitary Commandant Mancuso proceeded to dictate what the university's policies should be. Paramilitaries are responsible for the vast majority of human rights abuses in the university community in Colombia and indeed, over the entire country. 99% of their crimes are committed with full impunity (CUT 2002).

The Project of Penal Alternative

President Uribe Velez was integral to the formation "Convivr" a government sponsored "civilian surveillance and intelligence force" (Cryan 2004) while governor of Antioquia from 1995-1997. "Convivir" was created to protect landowners from the threat of insurgents and to group civilians alongside the military (Felling, 2004) in effect acting as legal paramilitary organisation. Under Uribes governorship "Convivir" were able to carry out an assault on civil society including kidnappings, torture and murder with full impunity but due to later international outcry against the Samper Government was forced to restrict their activities. In 1998, 200 members of the Convivir group joined the illegal paramilitary organisation the AUC (Self defence forces of Colombia) which is now the largest paramilitary group in Colombia and widely recognised to be responsible for the vast majority of human rights abuses in the country (Amensty International, Human Rights Watch, CUT). Today the Government's "Project of Penal Alternative" (Proyecto de Alternatividad Penal) is the fourth element in the offensive against civil dissidence and social movements. The project is set to seal the mantle of impunity covering the crimes of paramilitaries by offering "penal alternatives" supposedly in return for demobilisation of certain groups. While the possibility of demobilisation is unlikely at best the bargaining collateral is the justice system itself; to write off their crimes by offering penal alternatives effectively eliminates the possibility truth, justice and reconciliation. It is an official legitimisation of groups employed to carry out the dirty work of the state to silence dissent and debilitate resistance through any means necessary.

Breaking the CycleIn the last 15 years 29 students and 34 members of staff have been assassinated for political reasons largely by paramilitary groups but also by official state forces. While this article has focused on the case of the university community as an illustrative example of the oppression of free expression it is by no means an isolated case. Social movements across Colombia are subject to ongoing and violent repression on the part of State and paramilitary forces in combination with government policies designed to silence dissent. Colombia's strategic importance vis-à-vis US and UK and multinational interests makes ignorance bliss regarding human rights abuse and military support readily available. However, as the Government trades economic liberalisation for military aid to maintain its position of power unchallenged, disparities only increase and with greater inequality come more dissenting voices. The military offensive is unsustainable, only social justice can break the cycle of violence and bring peace.

Nathan Eisenstadt



More information on the Campaign "So that the University can live in Colombia" at


Data Sources and Bibliography:ACEU Associacion de Estudiantes Universitarios [de Colombia] (Colombian Association of University Students)

Deann Alford UNCHR Report: Colombian Church Endures in War-torn ChocÛ 12th April 2004 Liz Atherton, US Imperialism in Colombia Colombia Peace Association November 2002

Phillip Cryan, Uribes Boys 2004

CIP Center For International Policy

Colombian Embassy in Washington

Colombia Solidarity Campaign

CUT – Central Unitaria de trabajadores de Colombia (Central Confederation of Trades Unions)

Tom Feiling President Uribes Hidden Past May 24, 2004 Colombia Journal Online

Katerina Tomasevski UN Special Rapporteur, Education in Colombia 2003

PAHO – Pan American Health Organization

Doug Stokes US military doctrine and Colombias war of terror 25 September, 2002.

Ally Styan, Interview at the 1st North American People's Global Action (PGA) convention 2001

UNICEF United Nations Childrens Fund Humanitarian Action: Colombia Programme Donor Update 29 May 2002.


The World Bank (Colombia Country Profile),,menuPK:324969~pagePK:141132~piPK:141107~theSitePK:324946,00.html

WRI – World Resources Institute



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