This week a new chapter in the history of Colombia’s long and bloodthirsty civil conflict is set to open. The “Victims’ Law” and land restitution bill, which has been crawling through the national congress for the last six months, is about to be passed. And with it, says the Colombian government, an entirely new settlement between Colombia’s three million victims of internal violence and the state.
The law provides financial compensation to Colombians affected by guerrilla, paramilitary and state violence. It also aims to restore lands lost by rural Colombians during the conflict, confiscated or forcibly bought by rightwing paramilitary groups. Combined with an ambitious programme of rural development, the law aims to restore millions of hectares of misappropriated land to up to two million internal refugees.
Significantly, the Victims’ Law legally recognises for the first time the state’s culpability in the violence. Last Wednesday a clause was inserted in the law asserting that the beneficiaries of the bill were victims of “armed conflict”. This seemingly obvious proposition is bitterly opposed by a faction led by former president Alvaro Uribe, who argues that it equalises the actions of the state and illegal armed groups. For Senator Juan Fernando Cristo, the author of the bill, Uribe’s words demonstrate a “profound ignorance of international humanitarian law”.
Indeed, President Juan Manuel Santos’s administration has been keen to use the law to distance itself from the policies of Uribe, whose government presided over a string of human rights scandals during its offensive against Colombia’s rural guerrillas. Yet many human rights groups and victims’ representatives say little has changed.
Earlier this month a 70-year-old land restitution activist was assassinated in a shopping centre in Medellín, Colombia’s second city. This takes the number of murders of victims’ leaders up to nine under Santos’s young presidency. Paramilitary groups supposedly disarmed by the last government continue to act with impunity in large areas of Colombian territory. Many of them enjoy links with Colombian congressmen.
The government not only cannot guarantee security for displaced Colombians seeking back their land, convictions of former paramilitaries have been pitiful. The new law supposedly ensures a judicial investigation against the antagonists of victims – if their claims are found to be valid. Yet, because only one paramilitary chief has been sentenced since 2005, when the demobilisation process began, hopes of justice are not high.
The Colombian judiciary has made a better fist of things with the armed forces. Yet it is still left to battle against a culture of military impunity resistant to accepting any responsibility for human rights abuses during the decades-long conflict. Recently a major Colombian magazine exposed one of the country’s main military prisons as being an effective “holiday camp”, for soldiers convicted of civilian murders.
If the “Victims’ Law” is to effect a real reconciliation with the innocents of Colombia’s violence, a thorough inquisition of state and non-state abuses must be carried out, and the perpetrators brought to trial. So far civil society truth commissions and the government’s own investigative body have been hampered by the iron grip of paramilitaries and local elites on many Colombian regions. Even journalists working on the crimes refuse to publicly speak out for fear of reprisals. This stands in marked contrast to more successful post-conflict investigative commissions, for example in Chile or Argentina.
For land restitution to be successful, the government must break the power of the paramilitaries and drug-trafficking gangs in their remaining strongholds. With this must be the recognition that the terms of the peace brokered in 2005 left many of the armed actors relatively untouched. In the words of Luis Eduardo Celis Méndez, of the peace institution Nuevo Arcis, “the only way to make the law effective is to step up security in rural areas”. The Santos administration has promised to do just that but, until rhetoric connects with reality, all that many rural Colombians face in reclaiming their lands is a death sentence.
Colombia’s “Victims’ Law” is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. It has drawn support from unexpected places, such as the Chilean socialist congressman Juan Pablo Letelier, whose father was a high-profile victim of Pinochet’s brutal regime. But until the perpetrators of Colombia’s crimes are brought to justice, a measure designed to bring closure to the country’s society will leave it as divided as ever.
9 May 2011