Colombia: Towards Peace and Justice?
Colombia: Towards Peace and Justice?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Crimes against the Climate: Violence and Deforestation in the Amazon
Crimes against the Climate: Violence and Deforestation in the Amazon
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Report / Latin America & Caribbean 3 minutes

Colombia: Towards Peace and Justice?

How Colombia implements its controversial new legal framework for demobilising the far-right paramilitaries and returning them to society is critically important.

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Executive Summary

How Colombia implements its controversial new legal framework for demobilising the far-right paramilitaries and returning them to society is critically important. It can either take a decisive step towards ending its 40-year armed conflict or see prolongation of violence and the rise of an ever more serious threat to its democracy. Most paramilitaries have turned themselves in but the Justice and Peace Law (JPL) – criticised by human rights groups when enacted in July 2005 – has still not been applied. There is concern the Uribe administration prioritises quick fix removal of the paramilitaries from the conflict at the cost of justice for victims and the risk of leaving paramilitary economic and political power structures largely untouched. International support for JPL implementation should be conditioned on a serious government strategy to apply the new framework, as well as steps by President Uribe to contest paramilitary efforts to keep their crime (including drug) fiefdoms and build their political power.

By early March 2006, President Alvaro Uribe had achieved demobilisation of some 24,000 of an estimated 27,000 to 29,000 paramilitaries, including its most notorious commanders, using a 2002 law which authorises pardons for rebellion and sedition. Focusing on dismantling the overt military structures of the paramilitaries, but not their powerful mafia-like criminal networks that continue to exist in many parts of Colombia, however, his government has not sent a clear signal that it is determined to apply the JPL rigorously and take into account the arguments of its many critics. Indeed, the new law is still not being implemented – because of a constitutional court review but also tactical calculations.

The government appears to believe it may endanger demobilisation of the remaining 4,000 or 5,000 paramilitaries if they witnessed an early demonstration that the JPL was being applied stringently. However, the overlap of the congressional elections (12 March) and presidential elections (28 May) with the final phase of paramilitary demobilisation has raised suspicion in some circles that the reluctance to send a clear message about how the JPL will ultimately be implemented is also affected by electoral considerations. Uribe is running for re-election and while it would only damage him in the long run to have any taint of support from the paramilitaries, there is evidence that former commanders and circles supporting them have attempted to use intimidation and money to get some of their own candidates into the new Congress, elected on 12 March, and weaken the anti-Uribe opposition.

Whether, if re-elected, Uribe could achieve sustainable peace depends in large measure on how his administration handles the implementation of the JPL and the reinsertion of former paramilitaries. The law has a history of strong human rights criticism because it does not guarantee victims’ rights to reparations and truth and opens the door to impunity – or at best relative judicial slaps on the wrist – for former paramilitaries who committed heinous crimes. These concerns need to be addressed now through a transparent government strategy that prioritises full dismantling of the paramilitary military and criminal structures, the rigorous prosecution of past atrocities and partnership of the victims and civil society in implementing the JPL. The government also needs to remedy the flaws of its programs for reinserting demobilised paramilitaries.

The law was designed to apply as well to demobilisation of the country’s left-wing insurgencies, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). It is highly unlikely that it could be used in the foreseeable future with the larger and more powerful FARC, which has staked out a position of unremitting hostility toward Uribe and is unwilling to negotiate. But the commitment the government shows now to a transparent and rigorous application of the JPL to the paramilitaries could help advance the rapprochement with the smaller ELN, which talks in Havana in late 2005 and February 2006 seem to have set in motion (though a number of other obstacles exist, such as fragmentation of the insurgent organisation).

Bogotá/Brussels, 14 March 2006

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