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Colombian VP: Innocent People Suffer Most from Rebel Groups - 2002-03-21

A senior Colombian official has appealed to the United Nations to continue its support for Colombia's efforts to create a peaceful, democratic society. Vice President Gustavo Bell-Lemus told diplomats attending the U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva Thursday that his country needs international assistance to defeat terrorism and drug trafficking.

Vice President Bell-Lemus said it is the innocent people in Colombia who are suffering most from the violence by rebel groups. But he insists that the rebels, even after years of fighting, have not been able to hinder the development of democracy in his country. He speaks through an interpreter.

"It is not a civil war we are facing in Colombia. Broad sections of the population are affected for ethnic, political reasons. What we are suffering from is a war in which outlaw groups - who represent no more than 1.1 percent of the population - have declared war on a constituted state. We have a democratic system which violence has not weakened," he said.

Mr. Bell-Lemus has said some of the rebel groups may have begun fighting for ideological reasons, but he said they now are firmly in the grip of drug-traffickers and are continuing their struggle for reasons of greed, not ideology. He blames most of the violence and human rights abuse in his country on the alliance between the rebels and drug-traffickers.

But the secretary-general of the International Commission of Jurists, Louise Doswald-Beck, says the Colombian government should share some of the blame for what is happening in the country.

In an interview with VOA, she expressed her disappointment that Vice President Bell-Lemus, in his statement, ignored the gross human rights abuses carried out by paramilitary groups in Colombia. She said these groups have close links with the military and the government should be doing more to rein them in.

"Not only are some of these paramilitary members actually, in reality, members of the army as well. But also a number of their activities, including massacres, murders and the like, do take place in areas which actually are controlled by the army or even quite close to military installations as such and the military just stood by and did nothing," she said.

Ms. Doswald-Beck said the Colombian government is in the process of drafting an anti-terrorist law that would actually legalize many of these paramilitary groups. She said she is very worried that human rights violations by these groups will worsen after they get some kind of judicial recognition.