Next week, Colombiaâ€™s government is hosting a meeting in Cartagena with representatives of twenty-four governments, both neighbors and donors, as well as officials from multilateral lending institutions and other international organizations. Many non-governmental organizations will also be there (CIP will not, unfortunately), because what is decided in Cartagena will guide many countriesâ€™ aid and diplomacy. This is less applicable in the case of the United States; while U.S. officials will be in Cartagena and will participate in writing the resulting declaration, the U.S.-Colombia bilateral relationship will no doubt take precedence.
This is the first such meeting since a July 2003 event in London, at which the Uribe government sought an explicit endorsement of its counter-terror mission and most foreign governments insisted that Colombia agree to follow the recommendations of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. A year and a half later, most countries have granted the Uribe governmentâ€™s request to include the FARC and ELN on their list of terrorist groups, and most have endorsed its military campaign against illegal armed groups. For its part, the Colombian government has not followed all of the UN recommendations, especially those having to do with separating civilians from the conflict.
Today, as preparations for the Cartagena meeting continue, wrangling among governments and NGOs has already begun. At stake is the wording of the final declaration that will come out of the meeting. Here are the main points that remain unresolved:
Should the declaration state that Colombia is in an â€œarmed conflict?â€
If the Uribe government gets its way, the Cartagena declaration will not recognize that an armed conflict exists in Colombia, recurring instead to other euphemisms like â€œterrorist problemâ€ or â€œsituation of violence.â€ (The July 2003 London declaration, by contrast, used the word â€œconflictoâ€ five times.)
The difference is significant for international humanitarian law, as a communiquÃ© released Monday by Refugees International (a group headed by former Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon) makes clear: â€œPresident Uribe denies there is a conflict in Colombia, and instead refers to the perpetuation of violence as â€˜terrorist activities.â€™ By characterizing the conflict as a terrorist threat, the government is able to deny civilians protection guaranteed under international humanitarian law.â€
Our view: of course the violence should be characterized as an armed conflict. Not just because of its effect on international humanitarian law, but because the guerrillas and paramilitaries â€“ however brutal and murderous â€“ have long histories and claim to have political goals. To deny that an armed conflict exists is to deny the possibility of an eventual negotiation about anything but the terms of surrender and disarmament.
Conditions for supporting the paramilitary demobilizations.
One of Colombiaâ€™s main goals at this meeting is to convince donor nations to be more generous in their support of the AUC demobilization process. The European Union has made clear a reluctance to aid the process until Colombia approves a legal framework to govern demobilizations â€œin accordance with Colombiaâ€™s international commitments and taking into account victimsâ€™ rights to truth, justice and reparations.â€ The U.S. Congress made a similar call in non-binding narrative language accompanying the 2005 foreign aid bill.
Colombia has yet to adopt a law to determine what happens to those who demobilize, especially those who face allegations of crimes against humanity. Two competing proposals are under consideration by the Colombian Congress: one from the Uribe government, and one from several Colombian legislators, including former Defense Minister Rafael Pardo, that would do more to ensure jail time for abuses, reparations, return of stolen property, and the provision of information necessary to dismantle paramilitary networks.
The legislative process could take months, and the Uribe government wants donors to contribute as soon as possible. The U.S. government, for its part, seems less inclined to push for a stringent legal framework, as evidenced by Ambassador William Woodâ€™s disappointingly negative reaction this week to a recent Human Rights Watch report supporting Sen. Pardoâ€™s tougher proposal.
Our view: the Cartagena declaration should build upon the European Unionâ€™s call for a legal framework that respects victimsâ€™ rights to truth, justice and reparations, and should specify that this framework should seek the effective dismantling of paramilitary networks of command and support.
The UN human rights recommendations.
While the Colombian governmentâ€™s commitment to follow the recommendations figures prominently in the July 2003 London declaration, the Colombian government would rather not see them mentioned explicitly in the Cartagena document. The recommendations regarding the â€œprinciple of distinctionâ€ between civilians and noncombatants, as well as those calling for Colombia to respect its international human rights obligations, run afoul of some aspects of the â€œDemocratic Securityâ€ policy.
Our view: the recommendations should appear in the declaration, and the discussions in Cartagena should use them as a framework to determine where progress has been made and in which areas Colombia still has much to do.
The loss of the UNâ€™s â€œgood officesâ€ role.
The July 2003 London Declaration specifically thanked the UN Secretary-Generalâ€™s special advisor for Colombia, James LeMoyne, for his contributions to the effort to seek a negotiated peace. However, we learned this week that, under heavy pressure from the Uribe government, the UN relieved LeMoyne (who was never a favorite of Colombiaâ€™s right wing) of his duties and terminated the special-advisor position.
Our view: the declaration should not ignore the very unfortunate loss of this UN facilitation role. It should at least thank the United Nations and the special advisor for its years of hard work on behalf of peace in Colombia.