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Correcting Course: Victims and the Justice and Peace Law in Colombia
Correcting Course: Victims and the Justice and Peace Law in Colombia
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Stopping the Violence Devouring Colombia's Forests
Stopping the Violence Devouring Colombia's Forests
Report 29 / Latin America & Caribbean

Correcting Course: Victims and the Justice and Peace Law in Colombia

The more than 155,000 victims of Colombia’s conflict registered to date with the attorney general’s Justice and Peace Unit (JPU) – mostly those who suffered from the paramilitaries – are mainly onlookers to, not actors in, a lagging transitional justice process.

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Executive Summary

The more than 155,000 victims of Colombia’s conflict registered to date with the attorney general’s Justice and Peace Unit (JPU) – mostly those who suffered from the paramilitaries – are mainly onlookers to, not actors in, a lagging transitional justice process. Over three years after passage, implementation of the Justice and Peace Law (JPL) is stymied by the relative disinterest in promoting victims’ rights of the Uribe government and much of political and civil society. The problems are exacerbated by serious operational and financial bottlenecks in the judicial process and assistance and reparations to victims, as well as the persistence of armed conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) insurgents and the emergence of new illegal armed groups (NIAGs) and paramilitary successors.

To avoid failure of the process, more government commitment to rigorous JPL implementation is required, as is constructive dialogue with the political opposition and victims and human rights groups on the new victims of violence law before Congress and an integrated victims and reparations strategy. There is also need to increase protection of victims from illegal armed groups, eliminate military abuses and strengthen the rule of law across the country.

The government has treated military efforts to reestablish security throughout the country as a much higher priority than defence and promotion of victims’ rights. The institutions charged with JPL implementation experience great difficulties moving the judicial process forward, providing assistance to victims and recovering ill-gotten assets that can be used to pay them reparations. Focused narrowly on its security policy, the government has done little to address these serious shortcomings. Its recent decree establishing an administrative reparations program is likely to provide only short-term relief to victims and could undermine the justice and truth goals.

Some civil society as well as human rights organisations are trying to reach out to victims and give them legal and other help, but they represent only a small sector of the large and fragmented victim universe. Political parties kept their distance for several years, and the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation (NCRR), charged with defending and promoting victims’ interests, has been hamstrung by its closeness to the government and internal divisions. Only a recent initiative by the Liberal party for a victims law has started to bring civil society and parties, both opposition and pro-government, together on the issue.

Victims’ active participation in the JPL process is hindered by the evolution of the armed conflict. The emergence of NIAGs is a major obstacle, especially in regions like Nariño, where the new groups are using intimidation and violence much like their paramilitary predecessors did. The ongoing military struggle with the FARC, in which the security forces sometimes have used questionable and even criminal tactics, also causes difficulties. Victims have been able to increase their participation and make themselves better heard only in regions where NIAGs have not yet emerged, insurgent groups have been driven out and civil society organisations and local, departmental and national government institutions are cooperating more closely, such as eastern Antioquia.

Expanding the rule of law, security and victim protection and strengthening institutional capacity for JPL implementation are major challenges the Uribe administration must meet if it is to prevent the transitional justice process from failing. The current debate in Congress about a new victims law is an opportunity for government and political opposition to work together and engage victims, human rights and civil society organisations in the design of a policy seen as an essential complement to, not a competitor with, the effort to win the military struggle with illegal armed groups. Efforts by the security forces to recover territory contribute to the consolidation of the state’s presence in Colombia’s regions, but to be ultimately successful they need to be combined with rigorous implementation of the JPL, so as to end impunity, as well as expand the rule of law across the country – two measures that are rhetorically key pillars of the government’s pacification strategy but in practice are too often undermined by its own actions.

Bogotá/Brussels, 30 October 2008

Stopping the Violence Devouring Colombia's Forests

Originally published in Newsweek

Government leaders gathering at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) to discuss climate change signed the "Glasgow Leaders' Declaration on Forests and Land Use," which commits them to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. In countries such as Colombia, where both the perpetrators and victims of conflict drive the razing of forests, it will be impossible to fulfill the promises of the declaration without addressing the root causes of violence.

Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world, but about 780,000 hectares of primary forest—a territory the size of Haiti—have been cleared since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) declared a unilateral ceasefire and began to withdraw from their traditional strongholds. Last week, the U.S. National Intelligence Council listed Colombia among the 11 countries most vulnerable to the threat of climate change, and the current rate of tree loss aggravates the potential risks posed by drought and flooding in Colombia.

The country's natural riches have long been vulnerable to man made devastation.

The country's natural riches have long been vulnerable to man made devastation. Throughout Colombia's guerrilla wars and other conflicts, dating from the 1960s, collateral environmental damage has been routine: terrorist attacks against pipelines resulted in oil spills, causing irreversible harm to fragile ecosystems, while as part of the U.S-sponsored war on drugs 1.8 million hectares were fumigated with a poisonous herbicide. At the same time, criminal groups have been plundering natural resources such as coca, timber and illegal gold, the profits from which continue to fuel competitive violence.

But if conflict ran roughshod over the environment, a peace deal signed by the government in 2016 with the largest Colombian guerrilla group, the FARC, has actually made things worse. With the swipe of a pen, former President Juan Manual Santos and FARC's chief negotiator Rodrigo Londoño, alias Timochenko, theoretically ended over half a century of internal strife. The treaty was widely applauded for charting a path to defend the environment, but deforestation rates have skyrocketed since its signing.

Historically, the FARC prohibited commercial logging and punished those who harmed the environment by imposing fines or expelling offenders. Forest conservation was mostly motivated by self-interest: The FARC needed forest cover to secretly move troops and set up camp. Deforestation quickly began to rise soon after the guerrilla—which had operated mostly from rural areas—declared a ceasefire in December 2014, and gained pace after the 2016 accord was signed.

The rebels' demobilization provided an opportunity for other insurgents and organized crime groups. With state authority in the countryside still feeble, those groups cleared land to expand their enterprises, sometimes in partnership with legal businesses. "After we handed in our weapons," a former guerrilla commander said to me, "neither the army nor the police was capable of protecting the environment."

But armed groups are not the only ones driving rising deforestation—so are their victims. In several trips to the Amazon, illegal gold mines in the Andes and cattle ranching regions on the coast, we spoke with some of Colombia's most vulnerable people, the small-hold or landless farmers who are among the millions displaced from their homes by violence over recent decades. They are now frequently the ones wielding the gasoline-fueled chainsaws that bring forests crashing down. "I can clear almost three hectares a day with one of these machines," a farmer told me while walking through a recently razed forest in the Amazon.

Farmers and miners ... forced off their lands by violent groups turn to cutting down forests as a means to survive in Colombia's most remote areas.

These subsistence farmers and miners who have often been forced off their lands by violent groups turn to cutting down forests as a means to survive in Colombia's most remote areas. They are often used as expendable labor and end up doing the bidding for armed groups that build cattle ranches or mine fragile ecosystems for gold. The Colombian government has responded to rampant land clearance by creating a special military and police campaign, Operation Artemisa, but it has taken the easy route, targeting families struggling to survive while white-collar criminal financiers behind large-scale deforestation remain untouched.

The peace accord promised sustainable development to address poverty in Colombia's most conflict-affected areas, but little has so far been done. After the government failed to fulfill its end of the bargain in a voluntary coca eradication scheme, some growers decided to turn back to the illicit crop. Others, tired of the risks of dealing with drug traffickers, opted to chop trees and rear cattle. Cows get thin when they are transported from remote jungle areas to urban buyers, a farmer complains. "But at least ... you know that cow will be sold."

What can be done and why should we care? If Colombia does not design law enforcement strategies that target those behind large-scale forest clearing or implement the parts of the peace agreement that will prevent victims and the rural poor from destroying jungles to make a living, deforestation will simply plough on.

The world can and should help Colombia reach its goal of halting deforestation by 2030. This means scaling up their political and financial support for environmental conservation and rural development, so that core aspects of the peace agreement, like a plan to redistribute existing cleared land that stands idle, are implemented. International buyers of products coming from illegally razed forests should clean up their supply chain. The Amazon Protection Plan proposes import bans on products from illegally deforested areas and suggests debt relief for countries that show progress on environmental protection.

The environment has been often overlooked as a factor that can make or break peace in Colombia. Ending violence and conserving forests are interconnected goals, and the stakes are high. These issues should be pushed to the top of the agendas of the Colombian government, international backers of peace and foreign governments. They should start this week at COP26, by ensuring that any climate finance there pledged to stop deforestation takes account of the conflict conditions that contribute to it.