Colombia Forum - Issue 36 - May - mid September 2004
Dialogue with illegal armed groups:
· Paramilitary process rolls onwards with creation of 'Location Zone' and AUC congressional appearances
· FARC rejects humanitarian exchange offer from government but families of kidnapped are hopeful
· ELN cautiously steps into the negotiation arena
Outrage over army killings of trade unionists
European Cooperation to Colombia
· Peace Laboratory II gets off to shaky start
US increase in personnel in Colombia.
Colombia Forum is an independent source of information and is compiled using a variety of sources in English and Spanish, including mainstream and alternative press, reports from NGOs and the United Nations, and primary sources. It aims to give space to voices not normally heard in the media and provide analyses of under-represented populations. It is distributed by the ABColombia Group. The contents do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the members of the Group.
Emma Grant Neil Jeffery
Madeline Church Mikel Prieto
Shaun Kirven Rosemary McGee
To be included on the mailing list, please contact Colombia Forum :
Address: PO Box 100 London SE1 7RT UK
During the period covered by this issue of Colombia Forum, President Alvaro Uribe Vélez's government completed two years in power. A year ago, a broad-based group of Colombian NGOs published a critical analysis of his first year, entitled "The Authoritarian Spell". Their analysis of the second year has just been published, under the title "Re-election: The Spell Continues". Uribe's re-election drive is, indeed, a key factor in interpreting events of the past four months, and has come to dominate - explicitly or covertly - debates within Colombia's political institutions.
The last issue noted the considerable controversy already surrounding the paramilitary demobilisation process, initiated earlier this year. As the analysis in this issue shows, the controversy has only swelled since then. Concerns have grown over lack of transparency; questions arise about what the "verification" mission is actually doing; there is a creeping sense that Government is reacting and improvising rather than jointly controlling the process; and the appearance of paramilitary leaders in Congress in July touched a raw nerve in many quarters of Colombian society.
Meanwhile, flagrant and repeated violations of the ceasefire by many of the paramilitary groups represented at the Santa Fé de Ralito negotiating table appear to present no obstacle to the government in continuing the negotiations. Government complaints over lack of support for the process, directed at the international community and important sectors within Colombia, are getting more numerous and petulant. Is the government trying to spread responsibility for the very uncertain future of the negotiations?
Meanwhile, Government gestures towards negotiation with the FARC and ELN have been comparatively lukewarm, if surprising, given Uribe's earlier vehement rejection of this possibility. Considered together, these facts readily lend themselves to the interpretation that Uribe is trying to be all things to all people as his re-election drive gathers momentum.
Much hangs on the credibility of Government claims about significant improvements in human rights statistics: so much, in fact, that the recent challenge by human rights and displacement NGO CODHES to official displacement figures could represent a serious threat for Government. This challenge is particularly acute due to the imminence of a follow-up meeting to the July 2003 Donors´ Round Table to present advances in the national cooperation strategy and review progress against UN human rights recommendations and the 'London Declaration'. The meeting is currently scheduled for February 2005 in Colombia.
Some strong statements have emerged from the US Government on President Uribe's continued hostility towards critical human rights NGOs and on insufficient compliance with the UN recommendations. The EU's position, on the other hand, has become more ambiguous. The scant and confused progress to date in launching the second Peace Laboratory does not help to distinguish a clear position either in the EU's political line or as to its will to contribute practically towards peace-building and constructing a favourable climate for a negotiated solution to the conflict. The apparent weakening of the EU's previously decisive support for a negotiated solution is unfortunate, coinciding as it does with a renewed international relations offensive by Government as part of the re-election effort.
The question posed in our last issue remains: how sustainable is President Uribe's popularity? It is clear that his strong man image has persisted and the democratic security measures have been implemented with increasing ferocity. How long the 'spell' remains unbroken - to para-phrase the civil society book mentioned above - will depend on the effectiveness of Government´s continuous efforts to demonstrate the value of the all-out war strategy to a population increasingly suffering its military and economic effects.
Paramilitary demobilisation process
In the last few months the process with the paramilitaries has lurched onwards, despite several major obstacles including repeated breaches of the cease-fire agreement, the dramatic April disappearance of Carlos Castaño, former leader of the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group (see CF 35), and the kidnapping (and subsequent release) of former Senator José Gnecco by paramilitary commander Rodrigo Escobar ('Jorge 40' - a key member of the AUC negotiating committee). This latter incident threatened the process in a way that the many other breaches of the cease-fire by paramilitaries had failed to do. However, after the government issued an ultimatum and suspended 'Jorge 40' from the process, Gnecco was released, and 'Jorge 40' was then allowed to return to the process.
Shortly after Castaño's disappearance, a second paramilitary leader with a similarly critical view of drug trafficking - Carlos Fernández or 'Doble Cero' - was also murdered. Together these incidents represent the removal of all significant internal opposition to drug involvement from within the top ranks of the AUC and a consolidation of more radical drug lords within the hierarchy. As Semana magazine commented in May, there has been a simultaneous 'narco-isation' and de-politicisation of the paramilitaries, within a 'war of illegal enrichment'.
At the time of Castaño's disappearance, both the Government and the Catholic Church as facilitator insisted on clarification of what had happened before further advances could be made in the negotiations, but none was forthcoming - on the contrary, paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso's statements during his visit to Congress in July (see below) have only served to further muddy the waters by suggesting that Castaño may well be alive, in direct contradiction to earlier comments. Despite this lack of clarity, a key milestone has now been reached with the creation of a zona de ubicación, or 'Location Zone' (see below).
The dialogue with government is now led by a negotiating committee, headed fundamentally by Salvatore Mancuso, Iván Roberto Duque and José Vicente Castaño (brother of the recently disappeared Carlos) on the side of the AUC, alongside Diego Murillo and Julián Bolívar on behalf of the Central Bolívar Bloc (BCB), also in negotiations alongside the AUC. Miguel Arroyabe, commander of the Centauros Bloc, belatedly started negotiations after a government ultimatum warned this bloc to immediately stop fighting the Autodefensas Campesinas de Casanare, fighting in which hundreds of people have been killed in recent months. Mancuso has recently provided a list of the pseudonyms of all the paramilitary commanders concentrated in Santa Fé de Ralito as part of the agreement with the Organisation of American States (OAS) who are meant to be verifying the process, but the real identities of most of them remain unknown.
Mancuso has a very different profile to Castaño: unlike Castaño who was critical of paramilitary - narco trafficking links, Mancuso maintains very strong links with the narco elements of the AUC and refuses to cut those ties - allegedly until realistic alternatives to coca cultivation have been developed. He is vehement in stating that the AUC leaders must not serve any jail time for their crimes and that they must be exempt from extradition to the U.S. Information that he might be able to offer to the U.S. regarding drug trafficking networks is probably his most valuable bargaining chip in this respect, for he is high on their list of 'extraditables'. Nevertheless, the U.S. needs at least one or two high profile extraditions, otherwise there is a danger of the process looking like a farce.
Ralito II and the creation of a 'Zone of Location'
On 13 May 2004, the opening of demobilisation talks was formally begun with the signing of 'Ralito II' agreement and the establishment of the Location Zone in Tierralta, Cordoba. The idea of the zone is to consolidate those agreements already reached in Ralito regarding the concentration and subsequent demobilisation of paramilitaries. Supposedly, the zone offers the possibility of verifying the paramilitary cease-fire - currently heavily criticised by almost all observers to the process, both nationally and internationally, as paramilitaries continue to commit atrocities, kidnappings and human rights violations across the country. The zone is meant to provide a more solid framework within which a timetable for demobilisation of all AUC troops could occur (not just the 400 or so who are already present in the Zone), and where the nitty-gritty of the negotiations can be discussed in the presence of the OAS. Crucially, all those paramilitaries who concentrate there will be exempt from arrest by authorities, until such time as the government declares the process terminated. Protection of the 19 paramilitary leaders currently located there is provided by 400 or so paramilitary fighters, who are allowed to retain their weapons, as well as police and armed forces who surround the area, serving both to keep the demobilised individuals inside the zone as well as to protect them from any attacks by armed insurgents.
The outspoken Mancuso has made a number of further demands from the government regarding more concentration zones, claiming that the agreement with the government allows the AUC leaders to move in and out of the zone at will providing there are always a number of key AUC leaders within the zone at any one time. Both these statements have been rejected by Peace Commissioner Restrepo, although he conceded that there might be some kind of temporary concentration zones set up in other areas. The Location Zone in Santa Fé de Ralito is not at present being used for concentration purposes as such - there are no significant numbers of demobilised troops currently concentrating there - but other areas of key paramilitary controlled regions are being discussed. According to Restrepo, even getting the paramilitaries to accept that they could no longer have a 'counter-insurgency role' after demobilisation - maintaining control of huge swathes of drug-producing territory - has been a struggle. Mancuso has proposed that the process of demobilisation run hand-in-hand with local authorities in the areas where the paramilitaries have had a presence, in order that these areas do not become susceptible to guerrilla attack when the paramilitary forces withdraw.
Quite what the nature of civic participation will be - and very specifically the participation of victims - at the negotiating table has yet to be established. The Inter American Commission on Human Rights who are assisting the OAS in the verification process, has stressed that this is crucial if the process is to have any legitimacy. What is clear is that human rights organisations and civil society more broadly have considerable reservations about the process so far, and involvement and consultation with these groups at the earliest possible moment will be crucial:
"Colombian government officials, parliamentarians and NGO representatives [argue] that there has been too little transparency regarding the cease-fire, security in the zone, the cost of demobilisation and where the funds for it will come from as well as details of the state's role inside the zone" ICG Latin America Report no. 8, 5 Aug 2004.
Huge controversy resulted from the July appearance by Salvatore Mancuso with two fellow paramilitary leaders - Ernesto Báez and Ramón Isaza - in Colombia's Congress, an appearance that had the support of the Colombian government. However, as Gustavo Petro, congressman of the Polo Democrático party, pointed out in his answering speech that day, Congress itself did not invite the paramilitary leaders to speak, nor did the Peace Commission. Arriving fresh from the Location Zone, the 3 paramilitary leaders used the time in Congress to defend their actions over the years, and to repeat their proposal to retain a counter-insurgency role after demobilisation and to hang onto illegally acquired land. They left without waiting to hear responses from the floor, adding even more fuel to the outrage of many critics.
As well as causing huge offence to many Colombians by setting themselves up as 'heroes of the people' by keeping the guerrilla groups out of much Colombian territory, their appearance in Congress caused a more political stir across the board as analysts questioned the reasoning behind the Colombian government's agreement to their appearance in the first place. Even many of those who look favourably on the process with the paramilitaries insist that this appearance should only feasibly have been considered after the AUC have actually disarmed and agreed to a peace process with the government, a situation that is still a considerable way off.
The international community
The OAS continues to monitor and verify the process with the paramilitaries, along with the Inter American Commission on Human Rights. However, the failure to publicly condemn the frequent breaches of the cease-fire, coupled with a rather ambiguous approach to verification which at times borders upon participation - according to many human rights organisations - means that so far the OAS has failed to really convince the international community or indeed the Colombian government of their usefulness. Human rights groups have repeatedly called upon the OAS to analyse and verify the effects of the Medellin demobilisation of the Bloque Cacique Nutibara last year and whether or not the supposed demobilisation of the group actually impacted upon deep-rooted paramilitary structures. They believe verification should entail more than just counting the numbers of killings and atrocities, and examine the underlying power structures and the more complex paramilitary infiltrations. In July, Vice President Francisco Santos also criticised the OAS' failure to carry out their responsibilities, suggesting that the credibility of the peace talks was suffering as a result, and stressing that they should play a technical not a political role. Only the U.S., Colombia and the Bahamas have so far agreed to fund the OAS mission, though Sweden and Canada appear to be negotiating their involvement.
The rest of the international community are largely adopting a role of watching and waiting: waiting to see at least whether the truth, justice and reparation bill will be reformed to adequately encompass international norms, and watching to see whether or not the paramilitaries will even consider complying with it. The fact that the paramilitaries are currently refusing to accept the bill as it now stands - let alone the changes demanded by human rights groups and international law- is not encouraging (see Colombia Forum 35 for more details of the bill). The EU has expressed support for the OAS but insists on further clarification regarding international legal parameters and impunity for the process before funds would be made available.. The current EU presidency has stated that the EU is considering removing the AUC and the ELN from their list of terrorist organisations, a decision that could be taken as early as September 2005. Although this move is based upon a desire to take an apparent step forward in the peace process (it is difficult for the EU to become involved in the paramilitary negotiations in any way whilst these latter remain on the terrorist list), the removal of the AUC from the terrorist list may contribute towards establishing this entity as a legitimate political actor in Colombia.
Meanwhile, estimates by the U.S. Embassy claim that the AUC is responsible for 40% of cocaine entering U.S., and they are not prepared to be flexible on the issue of extradition. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega told journalists on 4 August that 'we will continue pursuing extradition because criminals who have committed acts against U.S. citizens must face justice, must be judged by the law. The Colombian government knows we are going to insist on this topic of extradition'. It may be that U.S. insistence is actually favourable for President Uribe since it allows him to draw a non-negotiable line in the sand regarding this point with the AUC. It is notable that in the second agreement Ralito II, no mention is made of extradition. The only possibility of avoiding extradition may be to retrospectively re-negotiate U.S. prison sentences for those demobilised AUC members who are convicted of drug trafficking in U.S., perhaps allowing them to serve time in Colombia instead. However, this is not a solution that is often cited in the U.S.
Prisoner exchange rejected by FARC
In August, President Uribe took the controversial step of offering a 'humanitarian deal' to the FARC group regarding the exchange of prisoners for hostages. Whilst for some - such as Colombian senator and supporter of the government German Vargas Lleras - this was a horrifying step, encouraging the guerrilla groups to continue to take hostages and thus exert some kind of leverage on the government, it was for others a long-awaited signal that the government was at last responding to the continual calls of the families of the kidnapped to broker some kind of deal. The terms of the deal encompassed 50 FARC prisoners, convicted of 'acts of rebellion' (excluding those convicted of kidnapping, extortion, terrorism etc), who would be freed and, according to the terms of the deal, could then choose either to join the government's national reinsertion programme or to live in exile - possibly in France. The government did not insist on a ceasefire as they had previously suggested, in itself a significant concession. In return, the FARC would free some 20 politicians and officials, 40 members of the police and army, and the three American hostages that they are holding. The other hostages held by the FARC would thus remain captive. Former Minister Ramírez Ocampo has pointed out that the FARC too have made concessions since they are no longer insisting on having two de-militarised regions in which to base themselves before even considering the proposal, and they have also accepted the Church as an interlocutor.
The FARC immediately rejected the offer, saying that any deal should allow its freed comrades to return to the rebel ranks. Nevertheless, they said that they hoped the two sides eventually could find common ground for some type of swap, leaving the door open for a future agreement. Undoubtedly this reflects the enormous importance that the FARC have always attributed to the liberation of their imprisoned members and the creation of a permanent exchange law. Although the FARC's response was a refusal, families of the kidnapped have found reason for hope in their reply and are continuing to push for further negotiations.
Commentators analysing the government offer have tended to view it as a political ploy rather than a sincere gesture for peace. One observer argues that the proposal was designed to kill several birds with one stone, assuaging international critics who complain about the government's exclusive concern with right-wing paramilitaries; easing pressure from hostages' families; and reducing the hostility of the group of former presidents concerned about the hostages' fate. The timing of the offer is interesting, appearing to be linked to the re-election campaign that the President is trying to push through: by showing a willingness to negotiate with the FARC, President Uribe may be able to notch up further popularity with sectors of the population who until now have not been able to see any sign of possible negotiations between this group and the government. Nevertheless, cynical though the offer may have been, it is also important to recognise that it represents at the very least a recognition by the government that repression is not the only way to deal with the armed opposition groups. The FARC themselves have continued over this period with a number of horrific atrocities against the civilian population, allegedly including two massacres of peasant coca workers, attributed by authorities to FARC members, in recent months in Norte de Santander region. According to survivors and witnesses, FARC members believed the workers were linked to paramilitary groups.
ELN enter into negotiations
At the end of May, President Uribe announced that interest had been expressed by Mexican President Vicente Fox in mediating in peace talks between the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (ELN). President Fox's offer was immediately taken up by the Colombian government. At very short notice, and without forewarning the public, jailed ELN commander Francisco Galán was given the unexpected opportunity to leave Itagui prison for a few hours to read a proposal from the ELN's Central Command during a congressional forum on land mines in July. The last minute nature of the invitation forestalled any outcry from the public regarding the appropriateness of a jailed guerrilla commander being invited to speak to Congress when his group was not yet even formally in peace negotiations.
The government was cautious, asking for understanding from the media as the very first steps were taken towards a possible negotiation with this group. Galán visited the Congress and, reading a short message in the name of the Central Command, he confirmed the ELN's willingness to negotiate a humanitarian agreement:
"The ELN proposes working with the government on a humanitarian accord that will include limits on use of antipersonnel mines and explosives and achieve a general amnesty for political prisoners and prisoners of war and a bilateral and temporary ceasefire. Such accords together could open the door to the political solution of which all Colombians are dreaming. . . . We understand there have been so many years of pain and anguish because of this conflict and that each time the door to dialogue is opened it raises hopes. I ask for calm but call for fervour so we can, in a single voice, search together for a political solution to the conflict that we Colombians are all living. We've already taken the first step." (Francisco Galán 040704)
The government later tried to use the presence of Galán in the Congress to justify the problematic and massively controversial invitation to three top paramilitary commanders to speak in the very same venue, the Colombian Congress (see above). Whilst the ELN have historical legitimacy as a political actor, however, the AUC do not have the same status. Some critics of the government wonder whether Galán's appearance was just a way of clearing a path for the later AUC appearances.
By the end of June, Mexico's ambassador to Israel, Andres Valencia Benavides, was designated to monitor the dialogue between Colombia and the National Liberation Army (ELN). He met with Francisco Galán, spokesman for the ELN, and presented him with President Uribe's offer to suspend military operations against the ELN if the latter agrees to a cease-fire.
A few days latter the ELN announced that it was able to start a peace process immediately if the Colombian government was able to declare an amnesty for political prisoners, accept a humanitarian agreement and establish a "National Convention", the mechanism by which the ELN hopes to launch peace talks. Historically, in their attempts at peace talks, the ELN peace strategy has tried to open a dialogue with civil society, by creating a national forum to discuss social reform.
By the end of July, Senate President Luís Humberto Gómez Gallo offered the Colombian Senate as a location for holding a National Convention, an offer that was immediately accepted by the ELN. However, their apparent willingness to work towards peace was massively undermined as that very same day the group retained Bishop of Yopal, Misael Vaca in Casanare, a move that was strongly criticised by the public and earned the condemnation of the Pope himself. This criticism from the Vatican is particularly important given the strong historical links between the ELN and the Catholic Church.
On behalf of civil society, a public statement was released on 10 August, in which academics, scholars, trade unionists and Catholic leaders showed themselves willing to facilitate the process, urging the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) to move ahead with the peace talks.
For the ELN, negotiations are contemplated very much within a political scenario, where civil society would assume an important role during the National Convention in designing the necessary changes required for Colombia to reach peace. For the ELN, this represents an acknowledgment of their diminished military capacity, but draws upon the political capital they have developed over the last 40 years.
The latest news of this process, as the Colombia Forum goes to press, comes from Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo, who reports that the ELN group is studying a new proposal from the Colombian government, offering a mutual cease-fire and an exchange of kidnap victims for members of the ELN jailed in prisons across Colombia.
Anti-terrorist bill thrown out due to procedural error
A much-anticipated pronouncement by the Constitutional Court at the end of August declared the controversial anti-terrorist constitutional reform bill non-executable due to a technical error in the congressional procedures that had approved the bill. The court's decision is a massive blow to the government's democratic security policy, since bestowing judicial police powers on the military would have facilitated arrests and raids of any individuals judged to be suspicious without, however, having to seek approval from trained judicial authorities or having to provide evidence. Whilst the decision by the Court represents a commendable political independence from governmental pressures - given the extraordinary importance the bill has acquired for the Uribe administration - those in favour of re-election argue that the pronouncement failed to actually evaluate the content itself of the bill in terms of its constitutional legality. Human rights organisations have suggested that in cases such as this the government should submit the question to the Inter American Court who can pronounce on whether the bill's contents are contrary to the American Convention on Human Rights or not.
Government supporters immediately launched into a defence of the procedures, claiming that an adequate majority had been obtained to move ahead with the bill, and that they would seek to overturn what they considered to be an error by the Court through a process of appeal. If the Court's decision is upheld, President Uribe would either have to re-embark upon another whole process of debate and approval in Congress - a very lengthy procedure that will consume a lot of time and may not be prioritised over other issues such as the re-election bill - or simply drop it until post-elections.
The persecution continues: killings of three trade unionists and indigenous human rights defender
On 4 August, three leading trade unionists were killed by the Reveiz Pizarro battalion of the army's 18th Brigade in Arauca in extremely suspicious circumstances. The victims were Leonel Goyeneche, Treasurer of the CUT trade union federation in Arauca; Jorge Prieto Chamucero, President of the health workers' union ANTHOC in Arauca; and Hector Alirio Martinez, President of the agricultural workers union ANUC in Arauca. Accounts of the killings by the army and by witnesses did not tally. According to the army, the three men were ELN members for whom arrest warrants had been issued by the Attorney General's office, and were killed in combat and bearing weapons - an account initially endorsed by Vice President Santos who, without waiting for any investigation, immediately made a declaration to the effect that the victims were involved in the ELN. The same view was offered by Defence Minister Uribe. However, accounts of eye witnesses suggested that the men were taken unarmed from a house where they were staying and extra judicially executed by the soldiers, the latter having been led there by a hooded informant - possibly an ELN deserter participating in the informer network, suggests Cambio magazine.
Reactions from Colombian trade unionists across the country were immediate and outraged. Carlos Rodriguez, the national president of the CUT trade union federation, described the murders as the "annihilation of our movement in Arauca". All the men were under special protection measures from the Inter American Court of Human Rights, and were well-known trade unionist leaders both within and outside Colombia. The international community was also horrified, and pressure on the Colombian government to investigate the events increased, with the human rights community urgently calling for a civil investigation to be carried out, as opposed to the military investigation already underway. Under intense pressure, the Inspector General's office (Procuradoria) initiated an investigation, and a preliminary report suggested that the office rejected the Army's account of events. The event has highlighted the fact that not only did the State fail to protect these individuals as the Inter-American Court's measures demand, but moreover the State itself was directly responsible for their killings. The killings highlight the absurdity of the government's claims that they are doing everything in their power to protect unionists. In the light of recent scandals and cover ups by the army (the April killings of 6 civilians by the army in Cajamarca is one example, or the March killings of 9 police agents by the army in Guaitarilla), an investigation by the military system lacks any credibility. The most serious investigation and due judicial process, including punishing those responsible for the murders, is called for. Moreover, if the civil investigations show the men were extra-judicially executed, as the Attorney General's office's arrest of some low-ranking soldiers responsible suggests, and if there is no evidence of any link to the ELN, Congressman Wilson Borja has called for the resignation of Vice President Santos for falsely accusing the victims of being ELN members. To date, Mr Santos has recognised his error but wholly failed to make any apology appropriate to the seriousness of his mistake. Such allegations and stigmatisation of social and union leaders are extremely dangerous and part of a pattern of discrediting any groups that challenge the government. As Congressman Borja insists, they cannot be allowed to pass without proper reprimand and punishment.
These killings by the army follow closely upon the killing on 3 August in Valledupar of Freddy Arias Arias, allegedly by paramilitaries. Mr Arias was the Human Rights Coordinator from the Kankuamo Indigenous Organisation, which dedicates itself to reporting the systematic brutality and violations of the human rights of the Kankuamo people who live in the Sierra Nevada, North-Western Colombia. This killing occurred just days after the Inter American Court of Human Rights decreed emergency measures to protect the community, and had given an ultimatum to the Colombian government to protect the lives of members of this indigenous people. Human rights groups have called attention to the fact that since 2002, 92 members of the community have been murdered, and 1,732 have been forcibly displaced, from a community of just over 5,000. They themselves have claimed that the persecution they are suffering amounts to ethno-genocide.
The EU marked the change in its presidency in July by stepping back from its insistence that a negotiated solution is the only way to guarantee long lasting peace in Colombia, saying instead that there could be no 'purely military solution' to the conflict. When the EU issued their declaration to mark the inauguration of the formal process with the AUC in Santa Fé de Ralito, the NGO community expressed their concern to the incoming presidency, the Netherlands, that this could be interpreted by the Colombian Government as support for their highly controversial security policies. At the time, the 'Patriot Plan' had caused the displacement of around 1,200 families in the southern provinces of Colombia in its drive to corral the FARC into negotiating, whilst simultaneously the leaders of almost all the main paramilitary groups were installing themselves with their bodyguards in the Location Zone.
This subtle change in wording comes at a time when the EU is undergoing some major changes both in administration and size. 1 May marked the beginning of a long process of integration of a further ten countries to the EU. Since the constitution was not immediately approved as planned, there is a degree of uncertainty regarding expectations for the 25 designate Commissioners when they assume their new postings in November. Some political analysts believe that Colombia will drop off the agenda of the EU whilst this major upheaval takes place, with some human rights NGOs even suggesting that it will take at least two years before the influence of countries such as Poland will have any bearing on European-level ministerial decisions. The European Parliament seems at least on the surface to have weathered the enlargement storm slightly better and has come out looking new and refreshed - almost ready, it would seem, to face the challenges of controlling both the Council and the Commission as stipulated in its mandate. There are now several committees, sub-committees and inter-parliamentary delegations that could if pushed monitor EU policy on Colombia, but it may be a struggle for them to keep human rights in Colombia on the agenda.
The diplomatic community in Colombia seems very concerned about maintaining the downward trend of violence in Colombia, and tend to present a very upbeat view of the developments, on occasion brushing aside criticism of the how the government is addressing security problems. In meetings held at the beginning of the summer between human rights organisations and various members of the diplomatic community in Bogotá, few of the latter seemed aware of the rise in forced disappearances for example. Even fewer seemed aware of the UN concern over the cases of violations carried out by the armed forces or that the UN had recognised a change in tactics in favour of less orthodox and internationally alarming methods. Concentration on the most basic of rights, the right to life, has its limitations in a situation as complex as the Colombian one. The EU's approach seems to have simplified the conflict in a way that is perhaps unhelpful: since the London Agreement in 2003, for example, there has been a growing tendency to concentrate solely on the recommendations made by the UN Human Rights Office in 2003, forgetting the backlog of recommendations that have been made by other UN mechanisms.
Meanwhile, an EU pilot project for demobilising children is apparently under way in seven of the major urban centres. The Head of the OAS Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia, Mr Sergio Caramagna has recently asked the head of the Commission for Foreign Affairs to finance the OAS Mission. Upon receiving a negative response, Mr Caramagna apparently requested the EU to finance projects in the communities worst affected by the conflict. Mr Caramagna according to his team sees these communities as being Valledupar, Barrancabermeja, Medellín, Villavicencio, Cucúta and Montería. The focus perhaps will not be too different for the Commission as they already have demobilisation projects in most of those areas.
The Head of the EU Commission Delegation to Colombia, Adrianus Koetsenruijter was recently quoted as saying that governmental policy has created a greater confidence for the international business sector in Colombia. At the end of this year, he predicted that the EU would pass from being the third largest trading partner to Colombia to being the second largest. It is currently the largest international investor in the country. In the same speech, Mr Koetsenruijter noted that by changing the emphasis from primary exports to more processed goods, more value-added would accrue to Colombia through the involvement of the labour force in developing export products, and more advantage could be taken of the General System of Preferences (GSP). The government of Colombia has recently embarked upon a campaign aimed at extending the GSP for a further ten years after it runs out next year. It is to be hoped that in such a context the EU will seriously concern itself with the killings of 72 trade unionists in 2003, as well as pressing the Colombian government to abide by due judicial process in the cases of the many unionists in prison awaiting trial on charges of rebellion or even terrorism. In many cases, no evidence has ever been presented against arrested unionists, or they are released when the charges are dropped. Hernando Hernandez, president of the USO oil workers' union, was recently released from house arrest with no charges being brought having been held for over a year. The London Agreement stipulates that the Colombian government has a special duty to protect union leaders. Whilst numbers of trade unionist killings have dropped, the EU nevertheless needs to go beyond congratulating the government on this point, and concern itself with protecting the broader rights of trade unionists.
The EU is presently in the process of revising its Country Strategy Paper for Colombia, and the Commission in Bogotá is also planning to produce an evaluation of the flagship Peace Laboratory in Magdalena Medio. In December 2003, an agreement was signed between the European Commission and the Colombian Government to launch the beginning of a second Peace Laboratory, based on the model of the original. 41 million euros was agreed for this programme by the EU. The second Laboratory is already underway, spread over three different areas: Norte de Santander, Nororiente Antioqueño, and Cauca-Nariño. These two laboratories are the two main pillars of European cooperation with Colombia, a counter-balance to the U.S. Plan Colombia with its principally military focus. The basic premise is that social and economic development can assist in the creation of peace at a local level, and that establishing basic human rights will contribute to reconstruction of the social fabric and recovery of a sense of citizenship that can guarantee lasting peace. This regional peace and development programme is one of the priority lines of the Colombian government's national action plan, designed to improve conditions of governance and democracy, and the peace laboratory is partially co-funded by the State.
Whilst some observers consider that the EC's funding of what is essentially a big development programme is crucial in order for Europe to clearly distinguish itself and its priorities from the U.S. military aid programme, and to maintain a constant push for peace even after the collapse of peace talks with the FARC in 2002, nevertheless a number of profound criticisms have been levied at the second laboratory. Since no external evaluation of the original programme has been made publicly available, the EC have been criticised by both grassroots organisations and international development agencies for leaping into a commitment whose real benefit is questionable and which as a result may well have failed to incorporate any 'lessons learnt' from the Magdalena Medio project. A series of meetings for mutual exchange between the laboratories has in fact been set up recently, which it is hoped may become a forum for critical analysis of these programmes.
There are other concerns that environmentally sensitive areas may be negatively affected by some of the mega projects proposed (similar criticisms are made about the mono-crops of African palm and cocoa in the Magdalena Medio). In addition, the creation of mega-projects in areas of extreme political sensitivity and high conflict is likely to generate further tension as different armed groups struggle to reap the benefits and to gain power. Critics argue that the selection of the three regions may be because the areas are strategically important for the European Union in terms of laying the groundwork for European businesses at a later date (both the Oriente Antioqueño and Norte de Santander regions are rich in natural resources), or alternatively that they are strategic for the Colombian government for security reasons: either way, there are plenty of reasons for thinking that development and peace objectives may not have been paramount in the regional selection process.
Procedural criticisms regarding the body responsible for implementing the peace laboratory in the Norte de Santander have been voiced by a range of local government bodies and NGOs in the region: municipal authorities, human rights organisations and civil society more generally have not been involved in consultations, they argue - a fundamental requisite for the success of this kind of programme. Whilst the implementing body - CONSORNOC - refute the accusation and claim that the process is merely slightly delayed, the criticisms nevertheless reflect the way in which many local populations are viewing the EU projects with distinct unease. Unlike the first peace laboratory in Magdalena Medio, this second peace laboratory is not an extension of an existing programme and cannot therefore rely upon having such an organic and participatory underlying model. Transparent evaluations and broader and deeper participation by local sectors will be crucial if the projects are to be sustainable and to contribute in a positive way to local development and peace.
If Colombian society does not take up the gauntlet of the peace laboratory programme - as may well happen unless the EU better explains the process to the regional stakeholders involved - there are questions surrounding what will happen after 2006 when the funding is supposed to end. According to the Delegation in Colombia, the onus is on the Colombian government if the laboratories are to continue
Donor meeting: February 2005
Complications in EU programmes in Colombia may ensue due to the expected change in priorities and a probable decrease in funding available for Colombia. The EU has said that in January 2005 it will begin to draw up its cooperation plans for 2007-2011. In February next year, there are plans to hold an international meeting, attended by high level officials from donor governments, that will not only evaluate the Colombian government's compliance with its obligations in the London Declaration, but also visit the regions in Colombia most affected by the conflict. This meeting has been confirmed by the UN which is hoping that the event will include an evaluation of the UN human rights recommendations. The EU really needs to urge President Uribe for results now, as opposed to waiting until next year's meeting, and to request a timetable for the implementation of the UN recommendations. Such a timetable would help to ensure that progress is both consulted with civil society and also that key commitments are actually met. If a timetable were available, human rights groups would be able to see when and where progress could be expected and to hold the government to account in a more logical way. They might also be able to advise and support the government if such commitments were a reflection of genuine desires to make progress in this field.
Congress questions Bush Administration's request to raise the 'Cap' on U.S. Military Presence in Colombia
Earlier this year, as part of the Defence Authorisation Bill, the Bush administration requested that the present limit on U.S. military personnel operating in Colombia at any given time be doubled to 800 and the similar 'cap' on U.S. civilian contractors be raised by 50% to 600 (see Colombia Forum 35). In response to this request the Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA), went one step further and proposed entirely removing the troop and contractor cap from the initial version of the bill put forward to committee for discussion and approval. Those Members such as Reps. Gene Taylor (D-MS) and Ike Skelton (D-MO) who had originally supported the idea of a cap as an attempt to control the growth of the U.S. military commitment to Colombia, fearing the U.S. military would become overstretched, quickly acted to challenge Mr. Hunter's move. In committee on 12 May Rep. Taylor offered an amendment to restore the cap on U.S. military personnel to 500 and the contractor cap to its original level of 400. The Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal had broken only days before and heavily influenced the vote of some Members, ensuring that six Republicans voted to support the amendment on a show of hands 32 to 24. All Democratic Members voted for the amendment. Reps. Taylor, Skelton, Rodriguez (D-TX) and Abercrombie (D-HI) spoke in favour of the Taylor amendment, while only Representative Hunter spoke against. The House of Representatives' version of the Defence Authorisation Bill then passed to the House floor with the troop and contractor caps in place.
Over a month later, on 23 June, after a passionate debate on the floor the Senate voted down an amendment from Senator Byrd (D-WVA) that would have limited U.S. troops in Colombia to 500 and contractors to 400, identical to the Taylor amendment in the House. The vote lost 58 to 40, ensuring that the administration's original request for the cap to be set at 800 troops and 800 contractors passed into the Senate version of the Defence Authorisation Bill. However, the amendment received strong support from Democrats and signalled the Senate's first significant challenge to the administration's Colombia policy. Only 9 Democratic Senators voted against the amendment. One Republican, Fitzgerald (IL) voted in favour. Presidential candidate Senator Kerry (D-MA) did not vote. The House and Senate versions of the Defence Authorisation Bill must now be reconciled in conference committee before being passed into law. This will probably happen in September after the congressional summer recess.
The unexpectedly stiff resistance to the passage of the Defence Authorisation Bill highlights congressional scepticism about U.S. policy in Colombia. This was further evidenced by a second lively debate on the troop cap issue on 15 July in the House of Representatives, during the passage of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill. Members expressed concern that the military was becoming overstretched, and fears that the U.S. would become further embroiled in another complex conflict and disquiet at on-going human rights violations in Colombia. No other country has similar restrictions to receive U.S. foreign assistance or has so consistently been the subject of discussion on the floor of the House of Representatives over the last 4 years.
United States Senators send strong message of support for UN recommendations
At the end of July, twenty-three U.S. Senators, including Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry and Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards, sent a public letter to President Uribe expressing their support for the recommendations of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights' (UNHCHR) as a framework for human rights progress in Colombia. They highlighted the need for improvement in several key areas, particularly the cutting of on-going links between Colombian Armed Forces and paramilitary groups and the reduction of 'continued levels of violence directed at the civilian population'. The Senators also expressed concern for civil society organisations, indicating that, "human rights, church, and union leaders have also been targeted for searches and detentions, sometimes upon faulty information provided by paid informants." Although the letter was originally co-sponsored by Senators Feingold (D-WI) and Dodd (D-CT), it was the signature of Presidential candidate John Kerry that drew most press attention, with the letter making front page news on Colombia's only national daily newspaper, El Tiempo, and top story in several radio and TV stations. Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos, while indicating agreement with many of the recommendations, dismissed the letter as a campaign stunt by Senators Kerry and Edwards to appease the left of the Democratic party during an election year. Although the letter is an indication of Senator Kerry's greater commitment to human rights than the present occupant of the White House, most observers would not expect a Kerry administration to radically alter the make-up of U.S. aid to Colombia. Vice President Santos emphasized this in his response to the letter by confirming '(W)e do not forget that Plan Colombia originated during the Clinton Administration'. Nevertheless, the fact that U.S. lawmakers are raising the issues with the Colombian government - as opposed to the more frequently articulated European concerns - is likely to send a strong message to President Uribe that he must improve his record in this area. This message was echoed by Colin Powell when, speaking from Panama, he made a statement in support of President Uribe but warning that human rights concerns must be addressed.
U.S. Continues Trade Talks with Colombia
Negotiators from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and the United States opened the third round of talks on the Andean Region Free Trade Pact in Lima, Peru at the end of July. Richard Zoellick, the U.S. Trade Representative at the talks confirmed that despite President Bush's re-election campaign the U.S. administration is "committed to trying to achieve as much as we can this year". While Colombia enjoys tariff-free access to U.S. markets for many products as a result of previous trade deals, these agreements are set to expire in 2006. The United States is Colombia's biggest trading partner and President Uribe has thrown his full support behind the proposal. Some Colombian negotiators have expressed reservations that any far-reaching agreement with the U.S. might expose Colombian businesses to what they describe as 'unfair' competition.
The second round of trade talks held in Atlanta several weeks earlier produced an agreement on the terms of customs reduction on industrial and agricultural products. During the opening round of talks in Cartagena, several thousand state employees, Colombian Central Workers Union leaders, and representatives of other civil society organisations protested against the proposed agreement. Union leaders in Colombia believe that a free trade agreement with the U.S. would worsen the employment situation and pose a significant threat to domestic industries.
To close this issue of Colombia Forum, we present a summary taken from a report by human rights and displacement NGO CODHES (2 September 2004). The government's Social Solidarity Network is currently engaged in a dispute with CODHES over displacement statistics, since their own statistics show lower levels of displacement during the first six months of the year. However, CODHES argues that the government uses only partial statistics in order to portray a successful image of democratic security policy. The CODHES study points to significant deterioration in the humanitarian and displacement crises, and constitutes a significant rebuttal of the government's claims that democratic security policies are winning the war and protecting civilians. At this critical juncture in the re-election campaign, the study is potentially extremely damaging for President Uribe's reputation. It is likely, then, to contribute towards the civil society - government rift, as both sides argue the legitimacy of their data before a general public desperate to see signs of improvement in the security and conflict context, and an international community pondering the next step in its international cooperation strategy.
Summary of report of first semester of 2004: Report from CODHES, Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement
v Forced displacement increased during the first semester of 2004 throughout the country, but particularly in those areas affected by Plan Patriota, areas where there is a strong paramilitary presence, and regions where the Army has a strong presence.
v In the south of the country, the FARC are exerting pressure on communities to displace whilst the Army are developing ways to confine and blockade the communities, who have thus become pawns in the war strategy.
v In departments such as Caquetá, Guaviare, Putumayo, Meta, Caldas, Tolima, Arauca and Nariño, displacement has not decreased for the past two years. Other departments such as Chocó, Guajira, Norte de Santander, Magdalena, Cesar and Arauca, show continuity regarding forced migration patterns. Every department in the country is affected by displacement, and in all of them displacement patterns either stayed the same or increased during the first semester of the year.
v Hunger is being used as a strategy in the conflict: blockages of essential foods and control of agricultural production is causing food insecurity and a worsening of the situation for those communities living under threats and blockades.
v Indigenous groups are subject to a systematic campaign of extermination, displacement and blockades, putting whole communities at risk. Approximately 9,376 indigenous people were displaced during the first semester of 2004, and roughly 237,158 people consisting of 51 indigenous groups are under blockade in 21 of the 32 departments in the country.
v 72% of displaced people (IDPs) in 2003 are suffering from malnutrition and increased impoverishment due to forced displacement.
v Use of violence, stigmatisation, and threats against displaced people within cities is leading to inter and intra urban displacement. The informer network is central to this.
v Women, children, widows, elderly people, abandoned and orphaned children make up 51% of displaced people, requiring special responses from the State.
v The number of Colombian refugees to neighbouring countries is also increasing, a source of great humanitarian concern for those countries.
v Aerial fumigation has led to the displacement of hundreds of families, although they are not recognised by the State and are thus in situations of particular vulnerability.
v 27% of applications for registration as a displaced person - necessary in order to access government humanitarian care - were rejected by the Social Solidarity Network in 2003. In one region the proportion of applications rejected was as high as 58%.
v Massive arbitrary detentions and the related stigmatisation for the family members of those arrested are also adding to the numbers of displaced people in cities.
v Government policy lacks any preventative component that would address the causes of displacement, or a holistic policy to provide care, protection and re-establishment of those displaced. The roles of the international community, the tutela and Constitutional Court are thus critical in ensuring that the government complies with its responsibilities.
v The government considers that democratic security policy - including talks with the AUC - is in itself a prevention strategy regarding forced displacement, but they fail to consider the lack of compliance with a ceasefire to which the AUC have supposedly agreed.
v The government's legal and constitutional responsibility to care for displaced people and to have a holistic displacement policy goes beyond the UN's Humanitarian Action Plan, which should be seen as complementary to the State's responsibility.
v Current returns of IDPs are often in violation of basic principles of being voluntary, safe, dignified and non-repeated. Forced returns are as bad as forced displacement.
v All sides in the conflict (guerrilla, paramilitary, public forces) are responsible for forced displacement when they participate in indiscriminate attacks against the civilian population, ignore the principle of distinction between combatants and non combatants, and do not employ preventative measures in accordance with article 17 of additional Protocol II of the Geneva Convention.
v The country is experiencing a severe social crisis as well as a humanitarian crisis with unforeseeable effects for the future.
ANTHOC Asociación Nacional de Trabajadores Hospitalarios de Colombia: -
Health workers union
ANUC Asociación Nacional de Usuarios Campesinos - National Peasants' Union
AUC The United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia. An umbrella for right-wing paramilitary groups, currently in negotiation with the government
BCB Central Bolívar Bloc. - Paramilitary bloc in negotiations with the government
BCN Cacique Nutibara Bloc. -Paramilitary group based in the city of Medellin that was demobilised in 2003
CODHES Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement NGO
CONSORNOC Corporación Nueva Sociedad Region Nororiental Colombiana - an administrative body in charge of coordinating part of the second EU Peace Laboratory
CUT Central Unitaria de Trabajadores: Colombian trade union federation
ELN The National Liberation Army. Second largest active guerrilla group
FARC The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Principal active guerrilla group
Fiscalía Attorney General's Office
GSP General System of Preferences - European Union trade agreement with the Andean Region
ICG International Crisis Group: an independent non-profit multi-national organisation working on issues of conflict around the world
IDP Internally Displaced Person
IMF International Monetary Fund
MoD Ministry of Defence
NGO Non-Governmental Organisation
OAS Organisation of American States
Procurador Inspector General
UNHCHR United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
USO Unión Sindical Obrera de la Industria del Petróleo - oil workers' union
· International Crisis Group (ICG): - www.crisisweb.org
Demobilising the paramilitaries in Colombia: an achievable goal? 5 August 2004.
· Human Development Report 2004. - www.hdr.undp.org
Cultural Liberty in Today's Diverse World.