Colombian Human Rights Defender wins 10th edition of most prestigious award of human rights movement

December 5, 2002

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The Martin Ennals Foundation announced today that Alirio Uribe Muñoz, of the Collective Jose Alvear Restrepo (Colombia), has been selected as the winner of the 2003 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders (MEA).

Alirio Uribe, who works since more than 10 years for the victims of human rights violations, said that this great honor “belongs foremost to all the human rights defenders (HRDs) in Colombia who struggle in the hope that their country will one day come out of the crisis in which it now finds itself”. The award is a clear message of recognition and hope for all the human rights defenders, who – like Alirio – risk their lives every day in denouncing grave violations of human rights and humanitarian law and by fighting against impunity that is rampant in their country.

In Colombia, 10 members of non-governmental organisations and 150 trade unionists have been murdered in 2001; 90% of these crimes have been committed by para-military groups, whose collusion with the armed forces has on many occasions been demonstrated by intergovernmental and international human rights organisations, and the other 10% by the rebels, the army or other armed groups. The work of HRDs is indispensable in the light of massive violations of human rights: in 2001 alone, there were 3366 political killings, 775 cases of disappearances and over 300.000 forced displacements, while the situation during 2002 continued to deteriorate.

The award ceremony will be on 31 March 2003 in Geneva, broadcast live by Swiss Television. Barbara Hendricks will participate and sing, while the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Sergio Vieira de Mello, has agreed to hand over the award.

The Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders (MEA) is a unique collaboration among ten of the world’s leading non-governmental human rights organizations. The Jury is composed of the following: Amnesty International, Defence for Children, German Diakonia, Human Rights Watch, HURIDOCS, International Alert, International Commission of Jurists, International Federation for Human Rights, International Service for Human Rights and World Organisation Against Torture.

The MEA, created in 1993, is granted annually to an individual or an organization who has displayed exceptional courage in combating human rights violations. The award of 20,000 CHF is given to further human rights work. The previous 9 recipients of the MEA are: Jacqueline Moudeina, Chad (2002); Peace Brigades International, Immaculée Birhaheka, DRC; Natasa Kandic, Yugoslavia; Eyad El Sarraj, Palestine; Samuel Ruiz Garcia, Mexico; Clement Nwankwo, Nigeria; Asma Jahangir, Pakistan; Harry Wu, China (1994).

Martin Ennals (1927-1991) was instrumental to the modern human rights movement. A fiercely devoted activist, he creatively pursued ideas ahead of his time as the first Secretary-General of Amnesty International and the driving force behind many other organisations. His deep desire was to see more cooperation and solidarity among NGOs: the MEA is evidence that this is possible.

Speech of Alirio Uribe Muñoz

Today, a few hundreds kilometers from here, a crime of aggression against the Iraqi people is taking place, in a unjust and illegal war in the Middle East where all kind of crimes are being perpetrated, in the fight against terrorism. In Colombia with the same alleged reason, the last remains of the rule of law are being destroyed, cutting down civil liberties, the war worsens with the increasing intervention of the U.S.

In Colombia the last 4 years of the previous government, in spite of the dialogue with guerrillas FARC and ELN, has witnessed the most dramatic crimes against humanity, human rights violations and war crimes committed over 40 years. In average there was a massacre (collective killings) per day, 20 political murders per day (5 of the 20 in combat), there were more than 1500 forced disappearances of Colombian citizens, more than 10 thousand people kidnapped, more than million of displaced, more poverty, social exclusion, and unemployment. The disenchantment related to the peace talks, not taking into account the structural causes resulting from violence made possible the access to power of Alvaro Uribe Vélez.

The new government has called for a total war and has gone back to the old and ineffective formula of resolving problems using authoritarianism, state terrorism in the framework of the state of exception, stigmatizing and persecuting any kind of social and political opposition. With his phrase “a firm hand and a big heart”, the new president received the vote of the quarter of the population being allowed to vote. The firm hand is imposed to the people and the big heart is going the national and foreign capital.

During the 8 months since the new government has been in place, the conflict has intensified. There has been a multiplication of terrorist acts and the civil population has been increasingly involved in the war (with the creation of informer networks and armed peasants). The number of internally displaced has increased 100% since last year, more than 50 trade-unionists have been killed. There has been an increase in extrajudicial killings, and fumigation of vast areas of the national territory destroying coca and puppy plantations as well as biodiversity. The working conditions and pension reforms have hindered the economic and social rights of workers and the poorest of the Colombian population.

For all these reasons, I perceive the Martin Ennals Award I am receiving today, more than a personal recognition as a tribute to the hundreds of human rights defenders killed in Colombia:
Blanca Cecilia Valero, Yolanda Ceron and Maritza Palacios Quiroz, Jesús Ramiro Zapata, of fellow colleagues such as Alirio de Jesús Pedraza Becerra, Eduardo Umaña Mendoza, Jesús María Valle Jaramillo, Javier Barriga Vergel, Josué Giraldo Cardona, Oscar Elías López, Rodolfo Alvarez Ruiz, Fernando Cruz, Rafael Vargas Filizola, Efrain Varela and hundreds of others whose lives have been taken, thus allowing for impunity, silence and continuous killings. They remain alive in our fight against impunity, for truth, justice and reparation for the victims of grave violations of human rights. In the name of all these human rights activists we receive this award, reaffirming that terror has not taken the best of us and will not prevent us from defending the most crucial values of humanity.

I receive this award with hope, and as an important contribution for us to continue forging civil and democratic resistance in Colombia, as well as an appeal to Colombian authorities to cease harassing us, persecuting us and stigmatizing us. I cannot help thinking of my colleague Soraya Gutiérrez Arguello, who is living very anguishing days since recently she was the victim of a terrorist attack and whose 4 year old daughter has been threatened. I think about my colleagues of the Colectivo “José Alvear Restrepo”, who during the last 25 years have been fighting fear and have overcome it in spite of death, exile, helplessness feelings. In Colombia, every time we learn, as our colleagues from the Organización Femenina Popular say in their daily resistance, that fear can be within us but it will not make us have our heads down before adversity. I receive this award as a recognition to all silent fights carried out by the Colombian social movement, men and women, trade-unionists, peasant leaders, indigenous people, afro-Colombians, who will not accept living in exclusion, who will not forget their utopias and who keep fighting for their rights.

We fight so that our country wins over death, that the political solution wins over social and armed conflict allowing the reconstruction of the country, to build peace daily and overcome impunity with the social transformations claimed by our communities to get rid of fear and poverty, as requires the Universal Declaration of Human rights. Today, I wish that the millions of displaced people would be able to return with the necessary conditions of safety and dignity, that people in exile could return to their home-country as the intelligence is needed, that cruelty, political killings, poverty and hunger cease. I wish that our people recover their dignity, truth is revealed and justice exists. I wish all national and international beneficiaries from violence in Colombia to be known. I wish we could recover the social thread and trust. I dream of that day on which I do not wish to be in exile.

This award helps us to overcome skepticism before more catastrophic scenarios happen in the future not only in Colombia but for the entire humankind. We could die in this effort but we will never lose hope. You, with this award, are helping us to win the battle of life. Thank you very much.