Human Rights as a Weapon of Terrorists

By: LTC Jorge Galindo Cardenas, Colombian Army

Human rights are recognized worldwide as a means to protect the individual from abuses and to guarantee each and every human being the freedom to pursue his own prerogatives.1 The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was written in the midst of the French Revolution, and was followed by the Declaration of Human Rights issued by the U.N. in 1948, shortly after the Second World War. Nowadays, in what we can call the "human rights era," it is almost inconceivable to object to the doctrine of human rights. It can often seem, however, as if every question or attempt at thoughtful debate on that sensitive issue will be considered by someone to be an offense against human rights themselves.

Given the current climate, then, the present article is likely to be considered controversial. The intent of this paper is to demonstrate that the doctrine of human rights can be misused, even abused, by some groups to advance their own agendas. In this context, human rights can become a weapon to advance obscure political movements that legitimize violence, limit the ability of the state to meet its legitimate obligation of protecting its citizens, and undermine the nation's prestige. I will show how terrorist organizations, like modern Robespierres, wave the flag of human rights while mercilessly decapitating people with the contemporary guillotine of terrorism.

The case I examine in this article is Colombia, my country of origin, a nation that has been dealing with an internal conflict for the past 50 years. I concentrate specifically on the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the terrorist insurgent group that has confronted the Colombian government since 1964 in its aim to establish a revolutionary state founded on Marxist-Leninist principles. The article is divided into three main parts: first, a brief orientation to the FARC for the unfamiliar reader; second, a description of the actors and the FARC's strategy; and third, an explanation of the ways in which the strategy operates to achieve the FARC's goals. Through this discussion, I demonstrate that the FARC systematically uses the issue of human rights to achieve three goals: advance its political agenda, constrain the state's legitimate use of force, and undermine the image and prestige of the country.

A priori, this article does not aim to dig into the details of the Colombian conflict. This long-lasting struggle has gone through many stages involving multiple actors, and has caused irreparable damage among Colombia's population, many of whom have been affected by the abuses of the terrorists, and sometimes of the government itself.

Putting the FARC into Historical Context

The FARC traces its roots to the bipartisan struggle known as La Violencia (the Violence, 1948–1958), a bitter confrontation between the two traditional political parties in Colombia, the Liberal and Conservative parties. The FARC contends it is the legitimate successor to an organized peasant movement that resisted government-led persecution during La Violencia. Although an agreement ended the confrontation between the conflict's two main factions,2 the FARC embraced a Marxist-Leninist philosophy of protracted class struggle—a credo that it still defends—and continued to fight against government forces.

During the 1970s, the FARC pursued the "growing and equilibrium phase" of insurgency according to Mao Zedong's theory of peasant revolution.3 The movement reached its peak during the 1980s, in parallel with multiple revolutionary movements throughout Latin America. In 1985, the FARC partially accepted a demobilization plan and created a new political party, the Union Patriótica (Patriotic Union), which won seats in Congress and occupied various government positions. Despite this opportunity to abandon violence, the FARC never fully demobilized; the group instead used its political wing to further the Marxist principle of combining all forms of struggle.

The end of the Cold War in 1989–1990 had both ideological and economic effects on the organization. What limited funding the FARC received from Communist bloc countries, primarily the Soviet Union and Cuba, dried up. Given the failure of communism as a global political movement and the need to alter their ideology and rhetoric accordingly, the FARC's leaders adopted a Bolivarian program, presenting themselves as heirs to the ideas of the Latin American liberator Simón Bolívar. Around this time, the FARC also began to rely much more heavily on a funding source that it had begun exploiting in the 1980s: narco-trafficking.4

In the late 1980s, the Colombian government, with help from the United States, began a campaign to eradicate the big drug cartels. The FARC, which initially had taxed coca production and provided protection to farmers and smugglers, seized the opportunity to take over a larger share of the country's cocaine trafficking. The FARC had a tempestuous relationship with the Colombian drug cartels. At the beginning of its entry into the narco-trafficking business, the FARC formed a partner relationship with some cartels, but it eventually became a major competitor. The rivalry resulted in the merciless persecution and assassination of political representatives, and the disappearance of the Union Patriótica. The FARC has since become the dominant organization in the Colombian cocaine industry.5 Thus, what started out as a Marxist-Leninist organization became a narco-trafficking cartel.

Over its history, the terrorist group has joined six failed attempts to achieve a peace agreement with the Colombian government. The FARC took advantage of these brief respites from combat to increase its military power and number of operatives, as well as to gain some international recognition.6 Beginning in the early 2000s, with the start of the U.S.-led Global War on Terror and the implementation of the Colombian government program called "Democratic Security" (2002–2011), the FARC faced its most difficult period to date, losing its top leadership and significant numbers of personnel to army operations. In late 2012, FARC leaders once again entered peace talks with the Colombian government; these talks are ongoing in 2013.7 To put it another way, the FARC's recent significant losses have forced it back to the negotiating table.

The success of the Democratic Security program rested on the willingness of the government to confront the FARC, not only by military means, but also by making a decisive effort to bring a positive state presence to the most remote parts of the country. It was based on three principles: the expanded presence of the state, generosity toward demobilized combatants, and a refusal to negotiate under threat of violence. This move by the government was different from previous attempts to confront the insurgency because it encompassed both the military and civilian sectors, while severely restricting the FARC's political space within Colombia and abroad.

In summary, the FARC is a powerful drug cartel that was militarily decimated as an insurgency. It nevertheless remains extremely resilient, despite being generally unpopular within Colombia (a recent poll gave the group less than 30% approval)8 and having very remote prospects for achieving its main ambition of overthrowing the government. As a result, the FARC has again refined its strategy: it stubbornly persists in all forms of struggle to advance the group's interests, mixing such apparently disparate means as violence and terrorism with calls for human rights protections. I explain the motivations and facts underlying this assertion in the next section.

Network and Narrative: The Structure to Advance a Political Agenda The FARC takes advantage of two basic structures that it uses to manipulate human rights as an instrument of its agenda. First is a solid and well-connected personnel infrastructure that I call "the FARC Network," and second is a consistent and repetitive public discourse that I call "the FARC Narrative." With these two elements, the FARC has a high chance of success in achieving its intended aims. The FARC has been very resilient throughout its history and still pursues its objective of taking political power, either by violence (which has only the remotest possibility for success), or by following the Leninist principle of combining all forms of struggle—armed, political, and popular. This principle is directly relevant to the current analysis.

When the doctrine of human rights comes to mind in our contemporary world, it is typically closely associated with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). I define the doctrine of human rights here as the insistence of many individuals, organizations, and institutions on viewing everything they do from the one-sided view of human rights, and using these rights for political purposes rather than authentic humanitarian purposes. A "network" encompasses individuals and/or organizations that are mutually linked, and their degree of linkage. The FARC Network I am referring to is composed mainly of NGOs. I am not arguing that all of these NGOs are sponsored by the FARC; rather, what I do claim is that these organizations have been skillfully utilized by the FARC to serve its murky and self-serving interests and that, intentionally or not, a number of NGOs have been effective instruments in accomplishing some of the FARC's goals.

Although the exact number of human rights-oriented NGOs operating in Colombia is hard to pin down, it is possible to describe the distribution across multiple social groups, covering a diverse range of activities. Some examples are the Comisión Colombiana de Juristas (Colombian Commission of Jurists) and the Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear (José Alvear Lawyers' Collective), both of which act to influence the Colombian judiciary. In the agricultural area, there are multiple associations, the most representative of which is the Agencia de Prensa Rural (Rural Press Agency). Indian communities are represented by the CRIC (Consejo Regional Indígena del Cauca, or Indian Regional Council of the Cauca), among others. Many NGOs with suggestive names occupy prominent positions in the sociopolitical arena: CODHES (Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento, Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement), MOVICE (Movimiento Nacional de Víctimas de Crímenes de Estado, National Movement of Victims of State Crimes), Comité de Solidaridad con los Presos Políticos (Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners), and the recently created Marcha Patriótica (Patriotic March). Even religion is included in this myriad of groups, through the Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz (Inter- Ecclesiastical Commission for Justice and Peace).

This "FARC Network" is not limited to NGOs within Colombia's borders; rather, it expands abroad to multiple organizations in different countries, such as the Francebased FIDH (Federación Internacional de los Derechos Humanos, the International Federation of Human Rights), the Denmark-based Asociación Rebelión (Rebellion Association), and the Britain-based Justice for Colombia, among others. The organizations listed here are merely a small sample of the expanded links of organizations that are used to serve the purposes of the FARC. I will address the activities and effects of these groups later in this article.

The other part of the strategy for advancing the insurgents' interests is the "FARC Narrative," which characterizes the FARC as a rebel group representing a segment of the population historically forgotten by the government and subject to isolation, poverty, and harassment. This narrative is a two-way exercise intended to legitimize the terrorist group while delegitimizing the state. The NGOs within the "FARC Network" legitimate the terrorist group by lending credibility to the "FARC Narrative": they often describe its members as "Robin Hoods" stealing from the rich to give to the poor; moreover, the FARC's terrorist actions are presented as consequences of the legitimate defense of the oppressed against the oppressors, the necessary antecedent to reach "social justice."9 This rhetoric has remained almost unchanged over time, and was even augmented when the recent peace talks started, in a bid for the publicity that the organization needs to be considered as a legitimate political actor rather than a drug cartel or terrorist group.

Nothing, however, could be further from reality than the "FARC Narrative." The FARC, which is overwhelmingly rejected by the Colombian population, is an organization dedicated to narco-trafficking, with only a thin veneer remaining of its original Marxist-Leninist ideology. It is also a terrorist group guilty of the most despicable crimes: people kidnapped and held captive in the jungle for decades, unarmed civilians attacked and murdered, hundreds of Colombians mutilated or killed with anti-personal mines, and innocent children murdered.10 To minimize attention to such atrocities, some NGOs prefer to call the people kidnapped by the FARC "retained" rather than "hostages"; they use the sophism of "sociopolitical conflict" to refer to the terrorist threat posed by the FARC, and they use the term "political prisoners" to refer to FARC operatives convicted of terrorist attacks. It is also remarkable that all of these organizations remain silent towards the FARC's terrorist attacks, giving the impression that they do not support human rights for victims of the FARC's attacks, even if they are unarmed civilians.

In the same way, the narrative seeks to delegitimize the government by presenting it as a quasi-dictatorship, and Colombia as an oppressive state where there is no democracy, and where state security forces commit systematic violations of human rights. This disinformation is used to justify the bloody resistance to a "dirty war as a strategy of the terrorism of the state."11 The truth is quite the opposite: Colombia is a stable democracy, and the government is committed to human rights. Vice President of the Republic Angelino Garzón promotes the cause of human rights, civilian and judiciary institutions exercise tight control over the military, and there is an extensive and comprehensive training program on human rights for government officials, especially military personnel. Finally, contrary to the claims of "state terrorism," protection of human rights is actually exaggerated, a situation that unfortunately allows radical groups such as the FARC and sympathizing NGOs to undermine the exercise of state authority. Often the complaints and accusations made by NGOs against the military are accepted as facts by the populace without investigation, and can violate the basic rights that military personnel should have to defense. Moreover, multiple institutions monitor the Colombian armed forces' behavior, including the attorney general's office, the general prosecutor's office, military tribunals, the congress, and international institutions, as well as domestic and foreign NGOs.

Operationalizing the Instrument: Undermining and Constraining the State

The enemies of peace and order in Colombia spare no effort in their attempts to impose limitations on the state. Max Weber defined the state as a "human community that claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a territory."12 The FARC, aware of this definition, uses human rights as an instrument to deny this legitimate use of force to the state, converting human rights from something to be respected into a "tool" or "weapon" to advance its terrorist agenda.

The first step in this process is to constrain the legitimate use of force through a cluster of denunciations at the regional and international level. The FARC's modus operandi seems to be "one operation, one denunciation." After almost every military operation, there is a judicial complaint levied by the FARC against the Colombian military: excessive use of force, indiscriminate shooting,13 harassment and intimidation,14 illegal detentions,15 extrajudicial executions,16 indiscriminate bombing,17 and so forth. While it is undeniable that some members of the military have committed abuses and violations, these have been isolated cases and are not systematic conduct by military forces as many NGOs often claim.

The intent of this barrage of accusations is to paralyze military operations, demoralize the troops, and bring about the often unfair imprisonment of military personnel. An emblematic case is that of Colonel (Ret.) Alfonso Plazas Vegas, who in 1985 led an operation to retake control of the Hall of Justice from the rebel force M-19, who were rumored to be working on behalf of the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar. Plazas was a national hero at that time, but more than 25 years later, he is facing a sentence of 30 years in jail for the "forced disappearances" of civilians who were captured during the operation.18 Even worse, this crime did not exist in Colombian law in 1985, the year when the events took place.

Another case further illustrates the situation. David Ravelo Crespo, a member of one of these multiple NGOs, was arrested in 2010 and accused of participating in the 1991 homicide of a politician.19 Multiple NGOs describe Ravelo as a political prisoner and his situation as an example of political persecution.20 These kinds of denunciations distract the state's attention from legitimate matters, and undermine its image both within Colombia and abroad.

Additional evidence of this tactic—the misuse of NGOs—was obtained from the computer of "Raul Reyes" (an alias), a top leader of the FARC who was killed in a military operation carried out by the Colombian Army in 2008. The Reyes files mention Renacer (Revive), an NGO that was founded in Venezuela by the FARC to "protect the human rights of the significant number of Colombian refugees living in the border areas".21 Emails exchanged between terrorist leaders point out how, parallel to the denunciation of the Colombian government, the organization also provided medical assistance, identification documents, and easy access to Venezuela for the members of the FARC.22

There can be economic interests linked to the promotion of human rights as well. For instance, in 2012 public opinion in Colombia was astonished by news that one of the alleged plaintiffs in a notorious case of human rights violation known as the Mapiripan massacre was exposed as a fraud. In 2005, an illegal paramilitary force raided the remote village of Mapiripan, allegedly killing at least 49 people. Relatives of the victims received millions of dollars from the government in compensation, and an Army general was imprisoned, accused of "omission" because the massacre occurred without military intervention. One of the beneficiaries, Mariela Contreras, later revealed that she was pressured by the NGO Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear, whose lawyers were representing her, to testify at a hearing of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that her husband and two sons were killed the night of the raid. Contreras confessed that one of her sons went missing years before the massacre, the other had been recruited by the FARC, and her husband had been killed by members of the FARC, all before the paramilitary incursion. In return for her false testimony, she and her family had received a considerable amount of money, which she then shared with the Colectivo.23 Currently, the Colombian government is investigating the facts of the massacre again to ascertain whether the numbers of people allegedly killed was further inflated.

There can be obscure interests behind the apparent good will of these human rights defenders. Many of these organizations, skillfully manipulated by the FARC, not only delegitimize, constrain, and undermine the state, they also sometimes receive significant financial dividends from the process. The inevitable outcome of this "symbiotic" relationship between the FARC and some NGOs is the weakening of the state and the advance of the FARC terrorist agenda that lies behind the scenes.

The previous cases are just a small sample of the systematic abuses that NGOs commit under the banner of human rights—abuses that ultimately favor the FARC and undermine the state's legitimate right and obligation to protect its citizens. The well-configured FARC Network and the persistent FARC Narrative are key components of the group's strategy to ensure its own survival and perhaps defeat the state in the political arena. This situation, although specific to Colombia, contains elements that are useful for understanding similar situations in other countries that face terrorists. A "network" of sympathizing NGOs that assist the terrorist group and a "narrative" that is echoed by seemingly independent and therefore more credible organizations are likely to exist in other situations and contexts.24

As we consider this phenomenon of the misuse and abuse of human rights by terrorist organizations, we must remember that the doctrine of human rights is just that—human, not divine. Thus, those who champion it can be fallible and far from perfect themselves. Baseless accusations of human rights violations made by terrorist organizations and their supporting network against the Colombian government should be viewed skeptically, with the understanding that perhaps such accusations are part of a larger strategy by the FARC to take advantage of the ideas, concepts, and laws behind human rights for its own self-serving purposes.

About the Author(s): LTC Jorge Galindo Cardenas has more than twenty years of active service as an infantry officer in the Colombian Army.


1. I would like to express my gratitude to MAJ Achim Biller, USA, for his guidance and support in the writing of this article, and his generosity in editing the first draft.

2. Instituto Internacional de Estudios Estrategicos, Los Documentos de las FARC ( London: Arundel House, 2011), 38.

3. Mao Tse-tung (old-style spelling), Selected Works of Mao Tsetung: On Protracted War (May 1938):

4. Thomas R. Cook, "The Financial Arm of the FARC: A Threat Finance Perspective," Journal of Strategic Security vol. 4, no. 1 (Spring 2011): 21-24:

5. Kirsten Begg, "Police: FARC is Colombia's biggest drug cartel," Colombian Reports, 13 September 2010:

6. Los Documentos de las FARC, 45.

7. "Digging in for peace," The Economist, 1 June 2013, from the print edition:

8. "Encuesta Colombia Opina,", 28 November 2012:

9. Alexander Escobar, "La paz sin memoria de los medios del capital," Marcha Patrió, 5 February 2013:

10. Cameron Sumpter, "FARC guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity: UN," Colombia Reports, 31 March 2010:; Frank Bajak, "Colombia's FARC Executes 4 Captives," Huffington Post. November 26, 2011:; Reuters, "Bomb targeting Colombia politician kills at least two," BBC News, 15 May 2012:; Revista Semana, "Se está perdiendo la guerra contra las minas en Colombia," Semana. com, 27 November 2009;; Associated Press, "2 killed, 37 injured by Colombia bomb blast during children's Halloween festivities," Fox News, 1 November 2012:

11. MOVICE, "Historia," Movimiento Nacional de Víctimas de Crímenes de EstadoI, 24 July 2012.

12. Max Weber, "Politics as a Vocation:"

13. Asociación Campesina de Arauca, "Denuncia: Arauca bajo las balas," Marcha Patriótica. org, 24 October 2012:

14. Asociación Campesina de Arauca, "Allanamientos y Amedrentamientos en Arauca," Marcha Patrió 8 November 2012:

15. Red de Derechos Humanos del Suroccidente Colombiano, "Denuncia Pública," 21 October 2012:

16. Justin Halatyn, "Extrajudicial Killings in Colombia Demand Action,", 5 September 2012:

17. Justice for Colombia, "Indiscriminate bombing causing terror and displacement," Justice For 13 September 2007:

18. Latin American News Dispatch, "Colombian Colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega Sentenced to 30 Years For Forced Disappearances,", 10 June 2010:

19. Julián Espinosa Rojas, "Capturaron a David Ravelo por el crimen de ex candidato a la Alcaldía,", 14 September 2010:

20. Comite de Solidaridad con los Presos Politicos, "Lunes 21 de febrero en Bogotá: Mitin por la libertad de David Ravelo Crespo," Solidaridad con los Presos Politicos 16 February 2011:

21. Los Documentos de las FARC, 190.

22. Ibid., 191.

23. Mary Anastasia O'Grady, "A ‘Human Rights' Swindle in Colombia," The Wall Street Journal, 7 November 2011:

24. For additional information on this topic, see the web sites that have been cited throughout the article, many of which are available in various languages.

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