At this historic conference on October 2, 1998, in Washington, D.C., some 200 participants gathered to reflect on emerging possibilities for peace in Colombia. Representatives Jim McDermott (D-WA) and Sam Farr (D-CA) opened the day with their commitment to continue to monitor the situation in Colombia while working for a more just and effective US policy. Congressman McDermott stated that US efforts to combat drug cartels must be a "smart war" in which the rights of civilians are protected. Congressman Farr, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia, observed that newly-elected President Pastrana has developed contacts with various members of Congress, including the Hispanic delegation, and encouraged conference participants to raise the visibility of Colombia in Congress.
The first panel, which focused on peace initiatives, stimulated a sense of energy and hope, as panelists described recent peace-related developments in Colombia. On October 26, 1997, over 10 million Colombians participated in a nonbinding "vote for peace" ballot initiative. On May 19,1998, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demand a peace process in a series of events commemorating the assassinations of human rights defenders. On July 30-31, 1998, over 3,000 citizens gathered at a Permanent Assembly for Peace to define the role of civil society in future peace initiatives. During July and August of this year, informal dialog took place between government representatives and leaders of guerrilla and paramilitary groups. President Pastrana has pledged to initiate conversations with guerrilla groups during the first three months of his administration.
Fr. Jorge Martínez, secretary-general of the Commission of National Conciliation, spoke of the national consensus for peace emerging not only through the Commission but also through the work of such groups as the Permanent Assembly for Peace, the National Network of Initiatives for Peace and Against War, and the Citizens' Mandate for Peace, Life and Liberty. Fr. Martínez testified that Colombian civil society is committed to combating indifference and delegitimatizing violence while promoting a negotiated political settlement, with significant input from organized labor and popular movements, in a broad-based ethically-grounded effort to work for a more just distribution of resources, a citizen-based construction of social justice, and a pluralistic democracy where differences are respected. He noted that the present moment is a time of inflated expectations. The challenge will be to pursue long-term solutions that are effective in addressing the root causes of the problems.
María Cristina Caballero, an investigative journalist for Semana news magazine, reported that a majority of Colombians have now concluded that peace can only be secured by negotiation. She described efforts to define the true agenda of the various actors in the conflict, and noted a remarkable coincidence in their visions for the country. Points shared by the paramilitaries and the two major guerilla groups (FARC and ELN) include a recognition of the importance of international humanitarian law, the need for political reform, the need for fundamental socioeconomic change, the need to evaluate the role of the armed forces, the need to revamp Colombia's foreign policy, the importance of dealing with drug trafficking, and the need for a new policy on oil and natural resources. The longstanding position of the ELN has been to emphasize that peace is an issue of social justice rather than public order. Traditionally the FARC has rejected the concept of negotiations (saying "we have nothing to give or receive") while focusing on economic inequalities as the root cause of the conflict. Recently there has been a new willingness on the part of the FARC and ELN to engage in peace negotiations. To be successful, the peace process must entail a basic reformulation of the Colombian state, and a new willingness to provide opportunities for the millions who are excluded.
Víctor G. Ricardo, the High Commissioner for Peace in the new Pastrana administration, also observed that Colombia's ongoing problems of violence, corruption, and drug trafficking have evolved throughout Colombia's history within the broader context of a lack of access to resources by the majority of the population. Those who come together at the negotiating table must be supported by diverse elements of civil society to combat narcotrafficking, terrorism, corruption, and inequalities, while promoting respect for human rights and carrying out political reforms. (See box with excerpts from his comments.)
Marc Chernick, a professor at Georgetown University working on a book about the Colombian peace process, pointed out that while peace talks have been initiated by the past five administrations in Colombia, what is different now is the strong international and domestic pressure for peace. The recent document summarizing the position of the various actors is a positive step. An unresolved question is how to include the paramilitaries, as the guerrillas currently refuse to allow them to sit at the table. While the Colombian government can learn from the experience of other nations, it must accept the need for major institutional and structural reforms. Fortunately, there has been a change in the past year in US policy, which no longer focuses exclusively on counternarcotics. While there is not yet a coherent US policy towards Colombia, there is support for the peace process along with confusion about the relationship between counternarcotics work and peace negotiations. One view is that the peace process provides a vehicle for the state to deal with insurgents, who have vast influence in coca-growing areas. Working to strengthen the Colombian state and provide economically-viable alternatives to coca production is different from a military solution to the conflict. The FARC has the ability to end coca production if a viable alternative were available. The US has played a positive role in convening key actors in the peace process, including the Colombian military. As the process moves forward it will be important for the US to be willing to play a listening role rather than pressing a US agenda, being a "friend of the friends of the peace process." Multinational financial institutions, including the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, have expressed renewed interest in peace in Colombia, establishing a peace investment fund. The recognition of these agencies that violence is an obstacle to development represents a change in official policy. The role of the United Nations is not as yet defined. The UN cannot mediate without being invited to do so. There may be a non-military UN presence of human rights observers in the five-municipality area from which the official armed forces (military and police) are to withdraw, referred as the zona de despeje or zona de distensión (demilitarized zone).
A second set of panelists reflected on the peace agenda in Colombia from the perspective of human rights. Speakers included Carlos Rodríguez Mejía, Associate Director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists; Jael Quiroga, Executive Director of Reiniciar and former officer of CREDHOS; Rafael Barrios, a founding member of the "José Alvear Restrepo" Lawyers Collective; Robin Kirk of Human Rights Watch; and Carlos Salinas of Amnesty International.
The Colombian human rights crisis is the worst in the hemisphere. The tactics of the "dirty war," a war of cowards, are devastating for civilians. While 1,000 combatants were killed in 1997, 2,100 non-combatant were killed the same year in political violence. The extermination of the Patriotic Union party has been genocidal. Impunity is at an alarming level; the military justice system lacks credibility and the "faceless-judge" courts, also known as the "regional justice" system, result in widespread abuses. The new government has not yet defined its position on paramilitaries. The problem of displacement must be addressed as a massive violation of human rights; the right to reparation must be guaranteed. There are particular challenges related to the implementation of the demilitarized zone. What will happen to the authorities in that area? Two other serious problems are the use of land mines and the forced recruitment of children by all forces. Up to 50% of paramilitary recruits in Magdalena Medio are under the age of 15.
Ten years of human rights recommendations are still on paper; the new administration has not yet pledged to implement specific reforms, although the president has entrusted the human rights portfolio to the Vice President. The Colombian government has adopted the major laws of war (Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, and Protocol II) but there has been a significant distance between words and deeds. Respect for the laws of war--and the human rights of all Colombians--must be a non-negotiable precondition to peace talks. The laws of war establish a baseline for all parties. They do not legitimize armed opposition, nor do they regulate or condone any type of killing or other violent tactics. The laws of war are broader than human rights laws, which apply to state actions. Insurgents deny being subject to human rights laws, as they are not a state. Paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño wants to establish his own definition or "creole version" of international law.
The security of human rights workers in Colombia remains severely threatened. Human rights workers are routinely accused of working against the state and on behalf of criminals. They discover that access to resources has been cut off; they are infiltrated by undercover agents of the state or paramilitaries and are attacked by armed mercenaries. Individual human rights workers are subject to false actions or arrest. In the past two years, 26 human rights workers have been killed, 20 forced into exile, and one disappeared.
Carlos Salinas of Amnesty International described having been approached by Fr. Arcides Jiménez of Puerto Caicedo, Putumayo, who sought protection for himself and the community in their efforts to declare neutrality. "It was a humbling moment; there was little we could do," confessed Carlos. Shortly thereafter Fr. Jiménez was killed and his assistant wounded. This tragedy impressed Carlos once again with how crucial it is for US aid (to such units as the 20th Brigade) to be monitored. There should also be a true commitment by the US and its Colombian military and government allies to find the killers of Fr. Arcides Jiménez. For the past two years, US military aid to Colombia has been subject to human rights conditions; neither aid nor training may be provided to units that are involved in human rights violations. (Interestingly, the law on end-use monitoring was signed the day after hard-liner General Harold Bedoya stepped down as defense minister, and retired from the armed forces).
Through visits to the Departments of State and Defense, Carlos Salinas has observed a recent change in perspective. There is now a general agreement that political violence is the central problem in Colombia. There is also agreement that any resolution needs built-in human rights protections and that the Colombians must provide the solutions. There is a reluctant recognition that the concept of the demilitarized zone must be accepted. However, the issue of the paramilitaries remains an unresolved "devilish detail." (See Colombia's Killer Networks by Human Rights Watch). At the same time, the Drug Elimination Act, which authorizes significant increases in various kinds of aid, was recently passed in the House. The enforcement of the Leahy Amendment will be crucial; resources must be provided to embassies to track US aid to enable effective end-use monitoring. Key strategies for US activists should include working with Colombian human rights defenders to ensure their protection, increasing resources available to the human rights unit of the Office of the Attorney General (Fiscalía), ending military jurisdiction over human rights cases, and making sure that measures to eliminate impunity are built into the peace process.