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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Latin America & Caribbean > Andes > Colombia > Colombia: President Santos’s Conflict Resolution Opportunity

Colombia: President Santos’s Conflict Resolution Opportunity

Latin America Report N°34 13 Oct 2010


President Juan Manuel Santos, in office since 7 August 2010, has an opportunity to end Colombia’s generations of armed conflict by building on but adjusting and substantially broadening the strategy followed for eight years by his predecessor. Alvaro Uribe’s predominantly military approach – the “democratic security policy” – did produce important security gains, but Colombia remains plagued by new illegal armed groups (NIAGs) and other criminal actors. By concentrating mainly on fighting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), it neglected other sources of violence and, most importantly, failed to address underlying causes of the conflict. Santos, who was elected with the largest majority in history, should use his political capital to implement a more integrated conflict resolution strategy that advances institutional and structural reforms needed to address illegality and impunity, expand access to services and tackle issues of land and victims’ rights.

FARC and ELN have been weakened significantly but are not defeated. FARC, which still has some 8,000 to 10,000 combatants, has partly adapted to the heavy military pressure and has forged alliances with NIAGs, exposing unprotected civilians – mainly indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities – to mounting violence. The armed forces have been tainted by allegations of thousands of extrajudicial executions and other violations of human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL), due in part to the single-minded pursuit of battlefield successes. With diplomatic ties at a nadir with Venezuela, the Uribe government was unable to control cross-border movements of illegal armed groups, weapons and drugs. Despite costly counter-drug efforts, Colombia has the largest number of hectares under coca cultivation in the world and is the origin of a significant share of global cocaine production.

The Uribe administration sought to consolidate security gains by expanding and strengthening the presence of state institutions in formerly insurgent-dominated areas and produced some positive initial results in two pilot regions. However, those successes are overshadowed by the persisting threats of illegal armed groups and a distrust of the authorities that prevent citizens in such areas from exposing themselves by openly participating in state programs. Consolidation efforts have further suffered from a legally weak and financially uncertain framework; poor coordination of military and civilian roles; delays and problems in the restitution of land to victims of the conflict; and the limited access of citizens affected by the violence to legal income-generating opportunities. Victims and organisations that defend them are exposed to death threats, while implementation of the transitional justice framework has been slow to establish the truth behind atrocious crimes, prosecute perpetrators and provide comprehensive reparation to victims.

Santos was Uribe’s defence minister and is expected to continue applying military pressure on the insurgents. But he needs also to correct the flaws of his predecessor’s policies and push forward vital reforms. The military and law enforcement aspects of the strategy should be conducted with full respect for human rights and IHL. He needs simultaneously to implement a comprehensive rural and urban citizen-security strategy capable of addressing related threats, such as the expansion of NIAGs, domestic drug trafficking and violence against victims. Reforms are required to tackle the pervasive problems of corruption, impunity and criminal influence in politics and government, so as to expand the rule of law and consequently the greater legitimacy of state institutions.

To advance the “democratic prosperity” policy Santos has proclaimed the successor of the Uribe policy, he must widen access to services and alternative development programs, as well as speed up land restitution. Rebuilding relations with Venezuela and Ecuador, as a prerequisite for joint security and intelligence cooperation and engaging all the country’s neighbours in developing effective regional security mechanisms, is another major challenge.

The new president has indicated he is prepared to negotiate at some stage with the FARC and ELN. This is prudent and should be actively pursued, since a complete military victory continues to be unlikely. The new government’s initial proposals on land issues, judicial reform and victims’ rights, among others, suggest that it is committed to go beyond the Uribe legacy to pursue a broader-gauged response to the full range of issues underlying the conflict, as must be done in any event if a peace is to be sustainable.

Implementing extensive reforms as part of a comprehensive conflict resolution agenda will not be possible without a broad political and social coalition. Some conditions appear favourable. Fresh from a landslide victory, Santos operates from a strong base in Congress and with the media and the population at large. He shows an encouraging willingness to consult broadly that has contributed to a palpable sense of political honeymoon in Bogotá and is essential to maintaining sufficient support. However, as he moves forward on issues like land that touch the special interests of many powers in Congress and the country, he is likely to encounter resistance that will test both his commitment and his skill to move Colombia to a truly new day.


To the Government of Colombia:

1.  Ensure the security forces’ respect for human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL) by:

a) applying existing human rights and IHL policy rigorously;

b) transferring all cases of violations committed by the military and involving civilian victims from military to ordinary courts;

c) strengthening financially and technically the units of the attorney general’s and public prosecutor’s offices responsible for investigating extrajudicial executions and other violations; and

d) issuing a revised presidential decree that recognises the legitimacy of human rights defenders, orders all security forces to take measures to protect them and provides that there will be specific consequences for individuals and entities that do not comply.

2.  Pursue a more effective, integrated citizen-security policy by:

a) maintaining strong military pressure against insurgents, combined with effective law enforcement against new illegal armed groups, with support as required from the armed forces in intelligence and logistics, in the context of a comprehensive conflict resolution strategy that makes effective use of new mechanisms for coping with criminal groups created in the last days of the Uribe administration (Decree 2374);

b) investigating and prosecuting all links of illegal armed groups with state authorities, including the security forces;

c) designing a citizen-security strategy that emphasises both urban and rural crime prevention, pays particular attention to the problems of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities and establishes clear responsibilities and cooperation mechanisms between army and police and between national and regional authorities; and

d) strengthening the office of the ombudsman’s early warning system (SAT); improving coordination between it and the inter-agency warning committee (CIAT); publishing its risk reports; and ensuring there are consequences if individuals and entities do not respond adequately.

3.  Improve counter-drug policy by:

a) giving greater financial and technical aid to alternative development initiatives;

b) prioritising voluntary manual eradication over forced manual or aerial eradication; and

c) integrating security, eradication, alternative development and institution-strengthening measures by means of improved coordination between national and local authorities.

4.  Consolidate security by extending state services and the rule of law in areas formerly dominated by insurgents, including by:

a) ensuring that the offices of the attorney general, the prosecutor general and the ombudsman are present in the consolidation zones;

b) giving the Coordination Centre for Integrated Action (CCAI) a specific budget line; strengthening its legal standing; ensuring its leadership has direct access to the president; and allocating a specific consolidation-related budget line to each relevant ministry;

c) guaranteeing civilian leadership in the design and execution of consolidation zone plans and programs; and

d) improving police-military coordination so that the population is adequately protected at all times, including when force is being used against illegal armed groups; and giving the police adequate training and resources so that they can better defend the rule of law against these groups and protect the population.

5.  Fight corruption and criminal influence in politics by:

a) continuing efforts to strengthen judicial independence, accountability and efficiency, including by separating the interior and justice ministry into two separate ministries;

b) improving transparency, accountability and control mechanisms in state institutions at all levels, including by strengthening independent inspectors general and other mechanisms, so as to protect against the influence of and infiltration by criminal groups;

c) increasing relevant resources in general, including in the specialised tribunals responsible for confiscation of assets acquired from drug trafficking and other criminal activities, as well as by appointing more judges and investigators; and

d) supporting fully the judicial investigations of senior public officials’ alleged involvement in illegal operations of the presidential intelligence agency (DAS); passing legislation to eliminate the DAS; and establishing an effective, coordinated intelligence sector with congressional and judicial oversight.

6.  Enforce victims’ rights to justice, truth, reparation and protection by:

a) obtaining passage of and allocating sufficient funds to implement legislation, including a Land Law and any additional necessary complementary measures, that returns land to victims and guarantees security, development opportunities and technical assistance for those who go back to their land;

b) adopting measures to prevent suspected criminal interests from appropriating land, particularly in the La Macarena and Montes de María regions;

c) strengthening, technically and financially, the Justice and Peace Unit (JPU) of the attorney general’s office and relevant units in the public prosecutor’s and ombudsman’s offices; and

d) obtaining passage of and allocating sufficient funds to implement a Victims’ Law that provides for comprehensive reparation of all victims – including those of state abuses – and for protected participation of victims in judicial proceedings.

7.  Improve the demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) program, particularly by strengthening job-related components and implementing measures to prevent recruitment of former combatants by NIAGs.

8.  Establish and actively pursue a road map for negotiations with FARC and ELN aimed at ending the conflict without worsening impunity and consider how possible third-party support for a negotiations/peace process might best be utilised.

9.  Work toward effective cross-border security mechanisms, starting by restoring full diplomatic relations with Ecuador and Venezuela and strengthening regional cooperation through the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Organisation of American States (OAS).

To the President and Supreme Court of Justice:

10.  Recognise the damage of continuing delay and reach a rapid compromise on the naming of a distinguished new attorney general.

To the Congress of Colombia:

11.  Prioritise debate on and passage of the Land and Victims’ Laws.

To the U.S. Government:

12.  Continue to condition assistance to the security forces on absolute respect for human rights and elimination of any links with criminal organisations and evaluate compliance more rigorously, including by requiring progress on prosecuting extrajudicial execution cases involving members of the security forces in civilian courts.

13.  Make the economic and governance components of aid to Colombia not less than half the total package, while increasing resources for alternative crop development, rule-of-law capacity building and empowerment of local communities.

14.  Announce support for exploring negotiations to end the conflict, including third-party facilitation if sought by the Colombian government.

To the Donor Community:

15.  Maintain and strengthen its presence by:

a) continuing to support the state institutions responsible for the Justice and Peace Law as well as for other victims’ rights, including the right to recover land;

b) funding projects fostering alternative rural and institutional development, in particular community-driven initiatives;

c) prioritising assistance to civilian-led security consolidation efforts and for ensuring that indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities enjoy protection of the rights guaranteed them by the constitution and international instruments, including prior consultation with respect to regional and national investment plans.

Bogotá/Brussels, 13 October 2010


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