U.S. Congress in Colombia to look at Rights, Peace Process

by Adam Isacson, Associate, Center for International Policy

A peace process is the only viable way to end Colombia's conflict. Human rights abuses and forced displacement are worsening, and the Pastrana government is doing almost nothing to stop them. Coca cultivation will remain widespread without alternative development programs. U.S. policy appears divided and contradictory, often helpful but occasionally threatening to escalate the conflict.

These were some of the most frequently heard views during a delegation to Colombia organized by the Center for International Policy (CIP). From May 31 to June 3, Rep. William Delahunt (D-MA), a member of the House International Relations Committee, and staffers for six other members of Congress met with U.S. and Colombian government officials, human rights organizations, academics and experts, business representatives, and church leaders. The group also held an unprecedented meeting in the southern "demilitarized zone" with leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.

The delegation was the first congressional trip in years whose main focus was not counternarcotics. Instead, CIP sought to familiarize progressive sectors of the U.S. Congress with some of the broader issues surrounding Colombia's difficult and complicated conflict. Meetings emphasized the peace process, human rights concerns, and perceptions of U.S. policy toward Colombia.

Views of Colombia's peace process

All with whom the group met B left, right, and center B appeared to recognize that a political solution is the only way out of the conflict between the Colombian government, guerrilla groups, and paramilitaries. None argued that the conflict is "winnable" by military means without an unacceptably high sacrifice of resources and lives.

Consensus on the peace process, however, did not appear to go any further than that basic principle. The individuals and groups interviewed by the delegation disagreed substantially about how a peace process should work.

Nearly all disagreed with the way in which President Andrés Pastrana is managing the current dialogues with the FARC. Those on the right argued that Pastrana has given away "too much, too fast" to the FARC, while receiving nothing in return. Some expressed concern that making the FARC's demilitarized zone "indefinite" instead of for a fixed period B a step announced two weeks earlier by High Commissioner for Peace Víctor G. Ricardo B brought the guerrillas closer to gaining belligerency status under international law. Concern was expressed repeatedly that such a status would allow the FARC to have diplomatic relations with other countries, to buy arms legally from other countries, and to have its prisoners recognized as prisoners of war instead of common criminals.

The promise of an "indefinite" demilitarized zone B later reduced to six months after the delegation left Colombia B was cited as a key cause for the resignation one week earlier of Defense Minister Rodrigo Lloreda. Those who offered an opinion about Lloreda expressed regret that he had chosen to resign, as his support was considered important to the peace process and his stated reasons for quitting didn't seem sufficient. Some acknowledged, though, that the military strongly opposed the change in the demilitarized zone's status, and Lloreda could not simultaneously keep the military satisfied while supporting Pastrana in a policy which he personally disliked.

Centrist and left-wing criticisms of Pastrana's management of the peace process centered on its closed, secretive nature. The delegation heard several times that the peace policy is managed by only a few people close to the President, with little discussion or consultation with the media or with civil society. Many cited the National Peace Council, a multi-sector consultative body created by law during the Samper Administration, which Pastrana has convened only twice. With this hermetic management of peace, many argued, Pastrana and his advisors are merely improvising without a fully thought-out policy. Several warned that this peace process will be weakened by a lack of broad-based support and by its identification only with the current government rather than with the state as a whole.

Nor was there much agreement on how to end the conflict with the National Liberation Army (ELN, Colombia's second-largest guerrilla group) or with right-wing paramilitary groups. In what are regarded as perverse attempts to gain seats at negotiating tables with the government, both of these groups have carried out high-profile kidnappings in recent weeks.

While most of the delegation's interviewees agreed that separate negotiations with the ELN are necessary, most rejected the group's call for their own demilitarized zone in strategically important southern Bolívar department B though some supported granting them a zone elsewhere. All strongly condemned the group's recent kidnapping of passengers on a domestic airliner and of worshippers in a Cali church. With these acts, said many, the group has shed a great deal of its credibility, its claim to political status, and the goodwill it had gained after signing an accord with civil society representatives in Mainz, Germany in July 1998.

The delegation found almost no agreement about how B or whether B to include paramilitary groups in the peace process. Some favor combating the paramilitaries militarily. Some favor a negotiation that does not recognize their political status, focusing only on the terms of their demobilization and reintegration into society. Still others favored an eventual negotiation that does recognize the paramilitaries' political status, including a discussion of reforms to the state and the economic system.

Peace commissioner Víctor G. Ricardo explained the government's positions to the group. Ricardo said that early concessions were necessary to bring the FARC to the table, but it is false to say that the government has received nothing in return. With the arrival at an agenda for formal negotiations, he said, the FARC is closer to peace than it had been in two previous peace processes. Ricardo added that it is necessary to limit participation in the early stages of a peace process, when the talks are still too fragile for the decision-making process to be played out in the media and in broad public forums. The process, he said, will be opened up later. The peace commissioner added that the government remains willing to begin talks with the ELN once it releases its captives, but said it is impossible to grant them a demilitarized zone in resource-rich, densely-populated southern Bolívar department. Paramilitary groups, said Ricardo, will not get negotiations; they are considered criminals by the government and will be pursued.

Views of human rights

All of the people with whom the delegation met agreed that the peace process has had no effect on Colombia's human rights situation; in fact, it has worsened. Though it is simply too dangerous to do reliable monitoring, none doubted that massacres, kidnappings, disappearances, forced displacement, and other violations of international humanitarian law were at least as frequent as in 1998. As in previous years, the vast majority of victims are civilian non-combatants in conflict areas.

While many praised the reduction in human rights abuses committed by the security forces, several pointed out that this decrease has been accompanied by a rise in paramilitary abuses, which now account for nearly three-quarters of all violations. Military complicity with paramilitary abuses B often through omission or communication of intelligence B remains a problem, as does the impunity enjoyed by military personnel accused of violating human rights or of tolerating or facilitating paramilitary activities.

Most agreed that the Pastrana government is neglecting human rights. Though the government made much of its placement of human rights under the direction of Vice President Gustavo Bell, no coherent human rights policy has emerged. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights' field office in Bogotá lacks a government interlocutor to which it can convey its concerns. Many expressed a concern that the Pastrana government believes it can focus entirely on peace for the time being, dealing later with other pressing issues like human rights. This separation of peace and human rights, they argued, is untenable; it will be impossible to gain one without the other.

Views of U.S. policy

Most interviewees said they found U.S. policy toward Colombia to be confusing and incoherent. They said it was evident that the U.S. government is divided about what to do about Colombia, with the State Department and White House on one side of the dividing line and congressional Republicans and the Pentagon on the other.

Human rights and peace groups had praise for a conference hosted in Medellín last March, which focused on peace and human rights. In particular, they praised U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Harold Koh for a speech at that event critical of continued cooperation between the security forces and paramilitary groups. Some also mentioned a well-timed show of U.S. government support for the peace process following Defense Minister Lloreda's resignation.

Several expressed surprise that these initiatives could come from the same government that is rapidly increasing military aid, refusing even to meet with insurgent groups, and pursuing a counter-drug policy of fumigation without alternative development. Some worried that while the administration remains undecided about how to proceed in Colombia, powerful congressional Republicans want to escalate the conflict.


The delegation's June 3 meeting with the FARC attracted the most attention. Arranged in coordination with High Commissioner for Peace Víctor G. Ricardo, the group's meeting with Comandante Raúl Reyes, a member of the FARC's seven-member secretariat, was the first encounter between the FARC and a member of Congress (see box for more on visit with the FARC).

The delegation left Colombia the morning after the trip to the demilitarized zone. The Center for International Policy is satisfied with this effort, as it helped a corps of congressional friends to wade through Colombia's complexity, while making a real contribution to the peace process itself.


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