11 December 2013
This morning, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing to consider President Barack Obama’s nominations for key foreign policy positions, including the posts of U.S. ambassador to Canada, Chile, and Colombia.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing is only one step in the confirmation process. During the hearing, nominees present their credentials and take questions from the members of the committee. The next step will be an as yet unscheduled vote of the committee, after which their recommendation will be sent to the full Senate for final approval. Some colleagues have suggested that there may be a push to get the nominees approved before the Senate goes into recess on December 20th.
The chair of this morning’s hearing, Sen. Robert Menéndez (D-NJ), opened with an introductory statement (read it here), and invited each nominee to submit statements for the record. Career foreign service officer Kevin Whitaker, who currently serves as Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) of State for South America in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, presented his credentials for the post of U.S. Ambassador to Colombia. (Read his testimony here.)
In his written statement, Whitaker promised, “If confirmed, I will underline our robust support for the peace process and the need, during in that process, to ensure that human rights are respected and rule of law is strengthened.” His oral remarks were even more emphatic about the relationship between human rights and peace. Here is the link to the full hearing: http://www.foreign.senate.gov/hearings/nomination-12-11-2013. Whitaker’s testimony can be heard 2 hours, 8 minutes, and 25 seconds into the tape, and in the Q&A that follows the presentation of all of the nominees. (Note: You may need to wait a few minutes while the audiovisual loads.)
The Dismissal of Gustavo Petro
In response to a question by the chair, Whitaker expressed concern about the potential impact on the peace process of the dismissal and banning from public office of Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro by Colombian Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez. (Read El Tiempo’s take here.) The dismissal, undertaken by an avowed opponent of the peace process (Ordóñez) against a former guerrilla leader of the M-19 (Gustavo Petro) is widely perceived to have been ideological in nature and has been roundly criticized. Whitaker rightly noted that the move goes to the heart of what has been a key topic in the Havana talks–the issue of political pluralism. How, he asks, does one integrate the left into legal, unarmed, democratic processes?
As mayor, Petro has earned some enemies for his fight against corruption. The charges on which he was removed from office purportedly relate to his handling of garbage collection, which he removed from the purview of private contractors.
Petro’s presence as a democratically elected political leader (along with that of other former guerrillas like Antonio Navarro Wolff) is widely perceived as a model for moving from “bullets to ballots.” Petro has also been a leader in themes related to peace and reconciliation at the local and national level, and has spearheaded a number of interesting initiatives in Bogota, including developing trainings and certification programs in peace and peace processes, and attention to displaced persons. (See my report on his initiative to create a network of mayors and governors for peace here.)
As Mr. Whitaker pointed out, Petro’s destitution and other such actions could be interpreted as a sign that the political space for those who lay down their arms does not exist. Petro has announced he will appeal the decision at the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. Many are watching to see what will happen next.