President Barack Obama met at the White House with his Colombian counterpart Alvaro Uribe June 29. In comments after this initial meeting between the two heads of state, Obama emphasized his commitment to move ahead with a Free Trade Agreement with the Andean nation which is the hemisphere’s worst human rights abuser.
“I have instructed Ambassador [Ron] Kirk, our US trade representative, to begin working closely with President Uribe’s team on how we can proceed on a free trade agreement,” Obama said. “There are obvious difficulties involved in the process and there remains work to do, but I’m confident that ultimately we can strike a deal that is good for the people of Colombia and good for the people of the United States.”
Obama commended Uribe on what he called progress toward human rights in Colombia, including his handling of the assassination of labor leaders. He said there have been “improvements when it comes to prosecution of those who are carrying out these blatant human rights offenses.”
“Along those same lines, we obviously think that the steps that have already been made on issues like extrajudicial killings and illegal surveillance, that it is important that Colombia pursue a path of rule of law and transparency, and I know that that is something that President Uribe is committed to doing,” Obama said. (UPI, June 29)
In his own comments to the press, Uribe said: “We are open, we are very receptive to receive any advise, any suggestion that help us see how we can get to our goal of zero violations of human rights in Colombia.” He acknowledged that his armed forces must recognize “we need credibility for the Democratic Security Policy.” (Colombia Presidency press release, June 29)
In an open letter to Obama issued June 26, Human Rights Watch urged him to take Uribe to task for the re-armament of right-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia:
We urge you to make clear to President Uribe that the United States views these new groups as a serious threat to security, human rights, and democracy in Colombia, which must be confronted just as vigorously as the FARC.
Questioned by a reporter about the human rights issue just before the meeting, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said:
Look, I think today’s meeting will mark the continued strong relationship between the United States and Colombia. We hope that the meeting represents a deeper cooperation with an important ally. But I think part of that cooperation, part of that friendship, and part of that relationship is bringing up when you disagree, particularly on human rights. And I know that will be a topic of today’s meeting.