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Monday, August 12, 2013

Secretary of State Kerry in Colombia: His Check List for a Just and Lasting Peace

This post first appeared as an op-ed in Colombian newspaper El Espectador on August 11, 2013, as Secretary of State John Kerry met with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. It was written by Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director of the Latin America Working Group.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has a lot of thorny matters on his mind: who the United States should support in Egypt, should a reluctant United States get involved to any degree in Syria, how to address Russia, where relations are so frayed that the United States actually cancelled a presidential summit.

So Colombia, which is such a reliable partner of the United States, and where President Juan Manuel Santos has shown inspirational leadership in opening peace talks, may seem like an easy stop.

But Colombia is never easy.

Secretary of State Kerry comes bearing strong diplomatic support for the Colombian peace process. That’s good and important. As long as both sides are at the negotiating table, the Obama Administration stands strongly behind this process. Within the U.S. Congress, the voices raised concerning the peace process are in support, as an April letter from 62 members of Congress made clear. John Kerry is a man who believes in peace; now trying again the impossible task of moving forward a Middle East peace process, he also was involved in ending Central American wars and supporting Central American peace accords.

The United States can be counted on to provide substantial support for peace accord implementation.

We hope Secretary Kerry will also contribute to a just and lasting peace in Colombia by encouraging the negotiating teams to include the voice of victims of violence, especially as the discussion on victims approaches. If this peace is to be sustainable, victims of violence must help to build it.

If this peace is to be sustainable, it must have strong pillars of truth and justice. An independent truth commission is an essential step.

We know Secretary Kerry’s message will start with support for peace negotiations, but we hope his message does not end there. Even if an accord is signed, and on the long road to peace, Secretary Kerry would be a good friend to Colombia by talking about and helping address the still grim human rights situation on the ground.

This means talking frankly about the constitutional reform of its military justice system that leaves loopholes so that false positive cases could return to military courts. There must be justice for the over 3,500 ejecuciones extrajudiciales. U.S. security assistance is conditioned on respect for human rights, with the law stating that Colombia must effectively investigate and prosecute in civilian courts members of the security forces credibly alleged to have committed gross human rights violations. Secretary Kerry, as a U.S. senator, called on the State Department not to certify Colombia due to army abuses and lack of progress in prosecuting these crimes.

For the Obama administration, relying on the Colombian armed forces to "export" safety lessons to other countries seems a cost-effective solution to US budget woes. This is certainly a topic of discussion during the visit. But the fact that so many abuses by the armed forces remain in impunity makes it deeply concerning that the United States is encouraging the Colombian armed forces’ role in training other nation’s military forces.

Supporting a just and lasting peace also means Secretary Kerry should talk frankly about the ongoing assassinations of human rights defenders. Thirty-seven human rights defenders were assassinated in the first half of 2013. To stop the violence, threats and murders of defenders must be investigated and prosecuted. To stop the violence, the Santos Administration must do more to dismantle illegal armed groups, including paramilitary, BACRIM and guerrillas, and to prosecute the members of the armed forces, companies, politicians y public officials who finance and support them.

It also means talking frankly about the Labor Action Plan that both governments signed in order to achieve passage of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. There’s still far to go to carry out this plan. The Colombian government can highlight the fall in the murder of trade unionists as an important and positive change. Unfortunately, this has been the only positive change for a trade union movement that continues to struggle against illegal third-party subcontracting, constant harassment, and arbitrary dismissals for any degree of union activity. The Colombian government must act in favor of workers against these labor violations, implement effective inspection and sanction mechanisms to discourage the use of labor practices that restrict labor rights.

To pave the way for a just and lasting peace, the United States should encourage as well as fund the creation of meaningful protection for returned and returning communities, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. Effective protection plans can only be designed in careful consultation with the communities they are intended to benefit. The United States should continue to fund the innovative Victims’ Law. But it must be done with real protection.

So no, it’s not an easy stop. But the right words and actions from Secretary Kerry could mean a lot for a just and lasting peace in Colombia.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Killings of Human Rights Defenders Increase in Colombia: What Is Going Wrong?

This post was written by Lisa Haugaard of the Latin America Working Group Education Fund. The original article can be found on the LAWG Blog. To read the original version, click here.

"What is going wrong in Colombia?" asks the coalition of human rights defenders in Colombia. The government of Juan Manuel Santos last year invested time and funding in mechanisms to protect communities and people at risk, among them human rights defenders.

And yet, in 2012, every five days a defender was assassinated in Colombia, and every 20 hours one defender was attacked. In 2012, 357 men and women in Colombia were attacked for their work as human rights defenders, according to Somos Defensores ("We Are Defenders"), which maintains a unified database of attacks against human rights defenders. Sixty-nine defenders were assassinated, a jump from 49 assassinations in 2011. Indeed, this is the highest number of aggressions against defenders registered by the database in the last ten years, and a 49 percent increase since 2011. The attacks include: 202 threats, 69 assassinations, 50 assaults, 26 arbitrary detentions, 5 forced disappearances, 1 arbitrary use of the penal system, 3 robberies of information, and 1 case of sexual violence.

"Is it possible that protecting leaders and defenders goes beyond providing bulletproof vests, bodyguards and laws that sit unused on top of the desks of ineffective government officials?"
Somos Defensores 2012 annual report.

There were efforts to improve and expand the coverage of the protection program in the last year, according to Somos Defensores. This was driven by substantive discussions in the National Roundtables for Guarantees between local and national human rights and social organizations and government officials. In 2012, the government's National Protection Unit received 9717 requests for protective measures, of which 3668 were approved. There was little progress in implementing collective protection measures, however, which are essential for returning communities, Afro-Colombian, indigenous and other communities at risk. Contingency plans were developed for various zones by the Interior Ministry but not a single one was implemented; according to the Ministry, local authorities are responsible for implementation.

There were advances in 2012 in judicial rulings regarding the protection of defenders, including a Supreme Court ruling that crimes against defenders or land rights leaders should be considered crimes against humanity, given a context of systematic persecution. Other advances included: the network of international agencies in Colombia established a National Prize for Defending Human Rights in Colombia, and the government pledged to launch a media campaign on the rights of defenders in 2013.

But the sad truth is: even if protection plans were fully implemented, no amount of protection can make up for the lack of progress in investigating and prosecuting attacks against human rights defenders. Three agencies that should help the most in defending defenders--the Attorney General's office, the Ombudsman's Office (Defensoría del Pueblo), and the Inspector General's office (Procuraduría General) were "absent" in 2012. In particular, "it is discouraging that after 8 long years of silence from the administration of Volmar Antonio Pérez [the Ombudsman], we hoped for a positive change, but it did not happen."

The 69 defenders who lost their lives include indigenous leaders, people involved in organizing over mining companies, hip-hop musicians who organized against violence, youth leaders, community organizers, heads of victims' associations, land rights crusaders, union organizers, Afro-Colombian leaders, the organizer of a women's handicraft cooperative and an LGBT defender. Of the 69 murders, 9 are believed to have been committed by paramilitaries, 11 by the FARC guerrillas, 1 by the armed forces, and the vast majority are unknown. This represents an increase of assassinations attributed to the FARC compared to the 5 believed to be committed by this guerrilla group in 2011.

Defenders were threatened by phone, visits to their homes, and distribution of threats via pamphlets, flyers, emails and text messages. Paramilitary successor groups such as the Black Eagles, Rastrojos and Urabeños were behind the majority of threats.

Of all types of aggressions against defenders in 2012, paramilitaries were believed to be responsible for 41 percent; guerrillas for 9 percent; the Colombian government (army, police, intelligence, Attorney General's office, etc.) for 13 percent; and 37 percent were unknown.

Somos Defensores notes that some of the increase in aggressions listed in the database may be due to the greater determination of the human rights community in Colombia to document abuses against them despite their fears.

The year 2012 was "an endless round of meetings, workshops, encounters, studies, cell phones for protection, bullet proof vests, bullet proof cars, bodyguards, arms and conferences to debate the eternal situation of insecurity and persecution of a legal and legitimate exercise of rights that each day costs more lives in Colombia, but without attacking the real causes of the violence against human rights defenders in Colombia: the lack of investigations, and the real prevention of aggressions, impunity, corruption, stigmatization, and the abandonment of many leaders in regions of the country that are handed over to the control of armed actors, corrupt politicians and multinational corporations."

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Colombia Civil Society and the Peace Process

As Colombia's peace process advances, here are some words to live by.

“We can't condemn Colombians to another one hundred years of solitude and violence.”
--Enrique Santos Calderón, former editor of El Tiempo, brother of President Juan Manuel Santos

“It's one thing that the victims aren't present at the table in Havana, and it's another thing to ignore their voice, deny their rights. A peace without victims will have neither political nor moral legitimacy.”
--Senator Juan Fernando Cristo

"The dialogue for ending the armed conflict should be a moment in which sectors of Colombian society that have been marginalized, discriminated against and excluded have an opportunity to effectively present their demands, needs and rights that have long been neglected."
--Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos

What has happened so far in the process? The Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas opened peace negotiations on October 18th, 2012 in Oslo, Norway, raising some hope of putting an end to the hemisphere's longest-running armed conflict. In August, the two parties had agreed upon a five-point agenda which consists of: rural development, political participation, ending the conflict, solving the problem of illicit drugs, and victims.

With the governments of Norway and Cuba acting as guarantors for the peace process and Venezuela and Chile providing logistical support and accompaniment, the substantive talks started in Havana in November on point number one, rural development. The government and the guerrilla delegations each have 30 members, with five from each team participating at the negotiating table at any one time. The U.S. government has repeatedly indicated its support for the Colombian government's decision to enter into peace talks, although the USG is not playing a direct role in negotiations. Colombia's second principal guerrilla group, the ELN, has offered to join the talks but the Colombian government asserts that it will proceed solely with the FARC at this moment. President Santos has stated his intention to achieve a final accord with the FARC before the end of November of this year.

The talks are closed door, although information does leak. While the FARC floats proposals aimed at more sweeping change, President Juan Manuel Santos has repeatedly made clear his determination that Colombia's basic economic and political model is not on the table for negotiation. He has stated that fundamental aspects of national life such as the Constitution, the development model, and the concept of private property are not up for discussion.

Bones of contention. A cease-fire has been an important bone of contention. The Colombian government has so far refused to establish a cease-fire until the FARC lays down its weapons, and indeed has escalated military action in a number of areas of the country. The FARC announced a unilateral cease-fire in November, which it then lifted on January 20th, stating it would not continue as the government had not reciprocated. There were accusations that the FARC had violated its own cease-fire. Another area of contention is over keeping the negotiations under wraps; the FARC complained after President Santos's brother, Enrique Santos, gave an all-too frank media interview revealing details of the negotiations.

Progress? Despite these differences, talks do appear to be moving forward. On the first agenda point, for example, both sides have agreed to the need to provide land to the landless and displaced, while the FARC has backed off of its longstanding demand for more sweeping agrarian reform. While some sectors—notably former President Alvaro Uribe and his active twitter account—raise objections to the negotiations, broad sectors of the Colombian public at the start of negotiations appeared to be willing to give the process a chance, even if optimism is greatly tempered by the wreckage of past failed peace efforts that litters the Colombian mental landscape.

Civil society involvement in the peace process. There is no formal civil society involvement at the negotiating table. The Colombian government and the FARC have agreed to several more indirect mechanisms for civil society involvement at this stage. First, they have set up a web page ( where any Colombian citizen or civil society organization can submit a proposal. This very limited mechanism receives “proposals” of up to 500 words, which are provided to negotiating teams but not displayed publicly. Second, the negotiating teams asked the National University and the UN agencies in Colombia to convene working groups on the first agenda item, rural development, and to summarize and synthesize the proposals that emerge for them. Over 1300 people participated from 1200 organizations. Potentially, this kind of effort could continue for other agenda items. Third, Colombia's congressional peace commission is organizing regional forums to collect and debate civil society input.

The negotiating teams have stated that civil society participation can be more substantial in the third phase, which is the discussion of how to implement the agreements. However, this leaves the victims of the violent conflicts – victims of the guerrillas, of government forces, and of paramilitary warlords—on the margins as crucial decisions that affect them are made, including the measure and quality of truth, justice and reparations for victims that these peace accords promise to deliver.

Rural development ideas from civil society. In the public forums on rural development, civil society organizations called for protection for communities returning to their lands; distribution of unproductive state-owned land to small-scale farmers; building of “campesino reserve” areas where small-scale farming will be protected; promotion of opportunities for rural youth; improvement of rural infrastructure; respect for indigenous and Afro-Colombian territories, including use of “prior consultation processes” for development projects; and limits on mining exploration.

Human rights groups raise concerns for truth and justice—and safety for the civilian population. A major network of civil society groups, Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos, raised the following concerns and recommendations:

  • Protect the civilian population now, as talks proceed. As peace talks advance, the war is only escalating in certain regions, particularly indigenous and Afro-Colombian areas. Coordinación calls on both the Colombian government and the FARC to respect international humanitarian law, including ending recruitment of minors, sexual violence, aerial bombardments of civilian populations, and military operations in indigenous and Afro-Colombian territories. The coalition called on both parties to agree to a bilateral cease-fire.
  • Provide more effective inclusion of civil society, particularly victims' organizations, in this current phase of dialogue. “Given that the agenda should address the rights to truth, justice, reparation and the guarantee of non-repetition [that abuses will not continue], how the parties can attempt to reach agreement on these issues without the participation of victims and human rights groups cannot be comprehended”; “this leaves their participation for the implementation phase, when everything has already been decided."
  • Add to the agenda the topic of justice for grave human rights abuses, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Justice “has been excluded from the agenda.”
  • Establish a fully independent Truth Commission, as a “crucial and nonnegotiable demand.” The Coordinación calls for a commitment from all actors—whether “state, para-state, and against the state” –to speak the truth about their actions that have violated the human rights of Colombia's citizens. This includes revealing what happened to the kidnapped and the disappeared. Transitional justice measures cannot be applied without truth and reparations to victims.
  • Ensure a complete and effective demobilization of paramilitary groups and paramilitary successor organizations.
  • As the peace talks advance, we hope that the voices of victims of the conflict, victims of all armed actors, whether the guerrillas, paramilitaries or state security forces, can be truly heard, and that their demands for truth, justice and meaningful reparations will be reflected in the negotiations and agreements. As Senator Juan Fernando Cristo, who had championed the Victims' Law which President Santos signed into law, cautioned, “A peace without the victims will have no political or moral legitimacy.”