By Natalia Herrera Durán, EL ESPECTADOR, April 8, 2023
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Before he was an Ambassador in the heart of international human rights diplomacy, Gustavo Gallón Giraldo was a battle-hardened human rights defender for more than 35 years. He directed the Colombian Jurists Commission from its foundation in 1998 until he was appointed Colombia’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva, in December 2022, and he helped the international community open its eyes to the most serious human rights violations committed in this country in the ‘80’s, ‘90’s, and 2000, when Colombia didn’t appear on the radar because it didn’t have military dictatorships as did other places in the southern cone. Now, from the other side, Gallón is convinced that the Colombian government has to get over its denial of those serious crimes.
What are your thoughts about the concept by several United Nations rapporteurs in Geneva who recently said that Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office had violated human rights by accusing some citizens of crimes of protest during the protests of 2021?
The administration has expressed its concern about the arrest of many people in those protests without reason or justification. So the statement by the United Nations is in agreement with what the administration has been saying about those events that were handled improperly by the administration in power at the time.
In that regard, have you called on the Attorney General’s Office to consider the position of the UN rapporteurs?
Yes, I think the Attorney General’s Office should pay a great deal of attention to their communication, because it expresses concern about judicial activities, many of which were carried out by the Attorney General’s Office. It’s true that the Attorney General’s Office is required to investigate criminal activities when those take place, but here the United Nations rapporteurs in the work group on arbitrary arrest are calling attention to evidence of irregularities in the handling of protest activity.
President Petro has expressed a need to build a new paradigm in the war on drugs. How has the international organization received that proposal, and do you think the system is willing to transform the paradigm?
In general terms, the Human Rights Council has seen and has observed with interest and attention the proposals by the administration in this area that, moreover, are in agreement with a Commission that exists here, the Global Commission on Drug Policy that has its headquarters in Geneva. That Commission, furthermore, has a specific report on Colombia.
What is the Commission’s perspective?
It consists principally in not criminalizing the drug user or the campesinos that produce the crops, but rather on developing economic, social, and health policies with them and reserving the coercive measures for the big merchants in drugs; they are the ones that always escape prosecution. However, the Human Rights Council is not focused directly on drug policy, but rather collaterally, because Vienna deals most directly with this area, in relation to the United Nations, but the reactions I have seen in the countries that have expressed views, are interested in the change in perspective that Colombia is trying to study more deeply.
On other occasions there has been reference to a foreign policy of memory and reclamation of Colombian exiles. How is that going?
It’s coming along. On March 10 we started with the first action of tribute. Beatriz Gómez Pereáñez, was a deputy from the Patriotic Union Party (UP), who was forced to leave Colombia in 1996, after a number of members of her party were murdered. Beatriz settled in Switzerland, where she also did excellent work as a professor, writer, and poet. We designed an action recognizing the responsibility of the Colombian government for her leaving, and we plan to continue doing this with other people who were exiled. As far as possible and as long as time and our means permit, we plan to perform one of these recognitions every month. There are many exiled compatriots in Switzerland; we won’t have time to recognize them all. But we believe that, above all, it’s a message to Colombian society and to the international community about protection of human rights and the support of those who have suffered denial of rights for such a long time.
You commented earlier that the principal problems in Colombia’s history have been political exclusion, violence, and impunity. Now, as part of the administration, what are your perspectives about those matters? Given that the Embassy that you run in Geneva is the heart of international diplomacy in those matters . . .
The administration is putting together policies oriented in that direction. In relation to the sociopolitical violence, the goal of “total peace” goes in that direction; we know the policy has difficulties, it’s not easy, but it’s clear that the administration has worked on the priority of reducing the high index of sociopolitical violence that exists in this country. Also working to discover and return the bodies of people who disappeared in the armed conflict, and in general, on the issue of impunity, supporting the Justice Ministry, and particularly the mechanisms of transitional justice in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, and also the recommendations provided by the Truth Commission.
What other things in that area are being recaptured?
The administration has introduced in the Congress or developed some activities oriented toward recognizing the jurisdiction of the United Nations Committee on forced disappearances that didn’t have jurisdiction to work on individual cases. We were able to remove some exceptions that had been established in the past in relation to the Commission for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The administration also presented to Congress for approval the Additional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture. This is an agreement that complements the Convention Against Torture by creating a committee to visit a government’s prisons without prior notice for the purpose of verifying the conditions of detention, and especially to prevent and to warn, if that is the situation, against the use of torture or practices that contravene international conventions.
The ”total peace” proposal by the administration also includes organizations dedicated to drug trafficking and the paramilitaries’ successor organizations. How is the atmosphere of support in Geneva with respect to the proposal for “total peace”?
I think the most explicit and clear manifestation on that has been the report on the Colombia situation by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressing support and satisfaction for the fact that we are seeking peace with the different armed groups in Colombia, of course respecting the rights of the victims and guaranteeing justice, but being aware that if it’s not possible to overcome the existence of organized, armed, and illegal activity in Colombia, then we won’t be able to get out of that situation successfully.
Talking specifically about the report by the United Nations Office in Colombia, is there still a concern about the continuing murders of social leaders all over the country? How does that look to you?
It’s one of the administration’s chief concerns. Getting away from that or overcoming that is why we have established the policy of “total peace”, and we hope it will have results. But we have to take care of that. That just can’t continue the way it is.
It’s also been notable that, contrary to the Colombian government’s tradition, it is recognizing international responsibilities for the first time. How is this position going?
It’s a policy and an attitude that is perfectly consistent with the orientation of the new administration, which is aware of the serious human rights situation and of the responsibilities the government has and has had for the generation of much of the violence. So it’s up to me as Ambassador to explain it completely here in the Human Rights Council: we recognize the government’s responsibility, and we are thankful for the service we are receiving, furnishing diagnosis, analysis, and recommendations for improvement on these issues, instead of arguing with the reports and the United Nations experts and other international organizations. This is what we should have done long ago.
What have you won by taking this other path?
We haven’t won anything because, in the end, the truth always comes to light. That means, Colombia can’t be like the ostrich, sticking its head in the sand, believing that nothing is happening. No, in Colombia some very serious things have happened in the human rights area, and we have to overcome that; we have to find a solution for that. And I think this attitude will take us forward with more security than any other.
What other priorities will the Embassy have this year?
We are exploring the possibility of having the Third World Human Rights Conference in this country, and the President of Colombia announced that in a video he sent on the first day of the sessions of the Human Rights Council. The first was held in Teheran in ’68 and led to the adoption of the Convention on Racial Discrimination in ’69, along with other results. The second was held in Vienna, 25 years later, and led to the creation of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, among other results. And it was believed that 25 years later, although nothing is written about that anywhere, the third World Conference would meet. 2018 came and there was no meeting, so then, we are investigating with the other governments the possibility of organizing the third Conference, because there are a lot of things to attend to, especially the flexibility of function of the United Nations agencies that protect human rights.
Because you can’t deny that there is a tension in the Human Rights Council, a very strong polarization that makes it difficult to analyze and make progress in dealing with the human rights violations in certain countries, and I think that alone would make it worthwhile to carry out a third Conference.
Give us more details to help us understand the tension you mention . . .
When there are situations where human rights are being violated, the attitude of the countries implicated is to deny the observations made by other countries in the Human Rights Council, to say they are biased, that they are based on slander, that they are unilateral measures to coerce, and things like that. Things that, in my humble opinion, are baseless. It’s very easy to say that the Western countries are behind it, or some world power that they blame. And then they form coalitions, groups, and others in favor or against. And well, that gets very tense. This year is an auspicious year to reflect on that, because we are celebrating the 30 years since the Vienna Conference, we are celebrating the 75 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it will be commemorated. And with the commemoration, that also implicates blowing out the candles on a cake, because we have the opportunity to reflect on subjects that are very important in this area.
The Situation of Exception and the prison conditions in El Salvador were recently the basis for a very tough pronouncement by the High Commissioner for Human Rights. It was the same situation that led to an exchange of messages between President Bukele and President Petro. Will there be an official pronouncement on this by Colombia in Geneva?
No, right now I don’t have any instructions on this.