Friday links (Saturday edition) Traveling…
Mar 082010

“Within the Armed Forces, some think that the battalions have been paralyzed by fear of ending up on trial, and as a result are not fighting,” noted Colombia’s main newsmagazine, Semana, last July.

This is something that we’ve heard too, in conversations with Colombian military officers and others close to the country’s defense establishment: the “false positives” scandal has left Colombia’s Army reluctant to leave the barracks for fear of being accused of committing human rights abuses, and ending up losing officers and soldiers to years-long legal processes.

The “false positives” scandal refers to members of the military, seeking to pad their results and win incentives, allegedly killing more than 1,600 civilians in recent years, presenting their bodies as those of armed-group members killed in combat. With more than 2,000 members of the armed forces under investigation, the argument goes, Colombia’s Army is now unwilling to go on the offensive and risk more prosecutions.

This argument was taken up in yesterday’s edition of Semana by left-of-center columnist María Jimena Duzán, a fierce critic of Álvaro Uribe.

After the successful Operación Jaque [2008 hostage rescue], which was preceded by a series of blows that pierced the innermost layers of the FARC, the Army has stopped combatting, and that decision has produced an increase in the FARC’s terrorist acts in some zones of the country. According to the government’s own statistics in the last year and a half, the most important attacks against the FARC have been the work of the Police and the Air Force.

The reasons for this stoppage in the Army have to do with protuberant flaws in the Democratic Security policy that the government has not wanted to accept. Flaws that allowed, for nearly six years, inhumane practices like camouflaging extrajudicial executions as acts against terrorism, murdering innocent campesinos to make them appear to be guerrillas killed in combat.

Is this true? Has the military really stopped fighting for fear of human rights trials? Probably not: the July Semana article noted that, in fact, the Army’s statistics for the first half of 2009 showed an increase in operations, as well as soldiers killed and wounded.

If it were true, though, it would be a historically foolish overreaction to a legitimate outrage. After the horror of the “false positives” scandal, the Army’s proper reaction would be to improve training in international humanitarian law and focus more strictly on the rule of law in military operations. And to do so while continuing its offensive against the groups that are killing Colombian citizens every day.

To instead leave Colombians unprotected, while quietly blaming human rights prosecutors for its inaction, would be the height of irresponsibility. Let’s hope this “soldiers paralyzed by fear of human rights trials” notion is just a red herring.

9 Responses to “Afraid to fight?”

  1. Kyle Says:

    We see such an argument appear often in Internation Humanitarian Law academic literature. Often many soldiers are reluctant because they do not know if a spli-second decision will end them up in court, as mostly military officials argue. Here lies the big difference: many military officials argue that a SPLIT SECOND DECISION will cause their soldiers to end up in court. False positives, though, are far from a split second decision. They are planned and carried out OUTSIDE of combat. As long as legitimate combat exists, these soldiers have no fear. If they kill a citizen in the crossfire, usually no trial, and in fact, they could even argue “military necessity” and probably be OK. There is no reason for them to fear combat at all. As long as real combat occurs, they will be OK legally (less killing someone AFTER the combat – including a combatant who has surrendered). If they carry out a false positive, it is outside of combat (and for many reasons is illegal). I don’t buy it – especially if military operations are up. I see a problem with journalism here: “confirming” something from many sources does not always make it true. Simply, many sources could be conspiring (See Ahmed Chalibi case leading up to Iraq war) (maybe I’m conspiring?). And let’s assume it were true: who’s fault is it for false positives? And who’s fault would it be for such a reaction? How could commanders let morale just drop and let is continue to occur? Soldiers take orders and leaving the barracks for missions is one they must complete? If this were the case, I’d look at the commanders to blame, and not human rights workers…

  2. Alvaro Hurtado Says:

    I am sure it is generally going to be a red herring, by and large, but the problem is that there are surely some Colombian Army officers and soldiers who either honestly believe it or at least want to. That does nothing for morale and, what’s worse, those frustrations could end up being expressed as part of further abuses if there isn’t a real discussion about these matters.

  3. Camilla Says:

    It WOULD be the fault of the military if the human rights investigators were not to blame. Unfortunately, with human-rights ‘advocates’ turning up in FARC camps and on FARC computers and in Spain, the fears are live ones. Any leftwing lawyer can spin anything to the disadvantage of the army to win headlines and robotic approval from all the other “human rights” community. There’s no sorting good cases out from bad, all cases are good if the human rights “community” says so. It’s like a special cedula to go out and hunt soldiers. Already the rules of engagement are cumbersome – any military action at all has to be filled out in triplicate like a police report. So, sometimes it works best for soldiers to play it safe, take only the shots that have no potential of landing them in the dock at the mercy of an ambitious human rights types. If the financial and fame incentives in the HR community were gone, not to mention the radical leftist ideology (why don’t they screen those types out?), there would probably be a more objective picture.

  4. Block Says:

    Well put, Kyle. My thoughts exactly.

    As usual, Camilla, you spin a wild fairy-tale that has nothing to do with the substance laid out in the previous two posts. Why don’t you address the “split-second decision” argument that Kyle so convincingly lays out? Maybe because you know you can’t reasonably dispute it?

  5. Winifred Tate Says:

    Claims that the military is not fighting because of fear of unfair human rights violations have a long history in Colombia. In Counting the Dead, I document this argument dating back to the early 1990s:
    Officers focused on the violations of their rights – the rights to a fair trial, defense counsel, to face their accusers and to know the evidence against them. According to this logic, human rights denuncias were responsible for the military defeats: having no recourse against these unfair allegations, officers would avoid any combat operations in order to escape being demoted, jailed or fired because of unjust charges of misconduct. This fear even had a medical diagnosis; it became known as the Procuraduría Syndrome, after the oversight agency created by the 1991 Constitution to investigate allegations of official misconduct. Military officers complained of being empapelado, literally, papered over, by complaints and investigations of allegations of misconduct. (Counting the Dead, 274)

    Obviously this argument is very convenient for the military: they simultaneously dismiss evidence of human rights violations and explain away their military failures.

  6. Jaime Bustos Says:

    “Obviously this argument is very convenient for the military: they simultaneously dismiss evidence of human rights violations and explain away their military failures.” Touché

  7. Camilo Wilson Says:

    The “false positives,” or the killing of civilians by soldiers to pass them off as felled insurgents, is, plan and simple, MURDER. I doubt that improved “training in international humanitarian law’, or a stricter focus “on the rule of law in military operations,” will make much difference. How do you train somebody not to murder?

    The issue speaks to a deeper problem—the low value placed on human life—that seems tragically widespread in Colombian society. One sees it in the behavior of insurgents, of paramilitaries, of delinquents (sensu estricto), and yes, of members of the armed forces. And one also sees it in the knowing indifference vis-à-vis this murderous behavior among those who support these groups, or at least loosely ally with them.

  8. Alvaro Hurtado Says:

    I would admit that the same argument has in fact been used a convenient excuse by abusers, but I don’t think we should assume that every single person who employs that reasoning is trying to hide human rights violations. The perpetrators might contribute to promoting that line of thought in order to do so, of course, but by this point in time it’s probably moved into the minds of many personnel otherwise uninvolved in abuses. Lots of people can sleep under that tent, from the guilty to the innocent.. Arguing or implying that nothing can be done about it because that’s just an excuse is essentially giving those criminals unchallenged free rein in the realm of ideas.

    Just as well, I don’t think it’s only a matter of providing human rights or international humanitarian law training. The debate must be open and should directly touch upon the actual motivations that are behind those murders, such as they are. Why do those murders happen? Camilo Wilson has a point, but there are specific motivations in addition to the low value placed on human life, which must also be addressed. The desire to get a raise, permission to take a vacation, ambition for rewards…or simple frustration due to the lack of real positives. I don’t think they can all be eliminated outright as long as the war continues, it should be impossible, but there must be an effort to change how the military structure operates in order to reduce these as much as possible.

    “False positives” is a relatively new term, as a description, but extrajudicial executions and civilians being dressed up as guerrillas are not new in Colombia at all. Training is not enough, there must be a constant engagement and a real debate, the likes of which isn’t really happening in Colombia as it’s much easier to focus on the political ramifications of the day and not facing the underlying root causes.

  9. JUAN FELIPE Says:

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