Does Colombia pass the “town square test”? A familiar scenario
Jan 272005

Next week, Colombia’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 countries’ 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 government’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 “armed conflict?”
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 “terrorist problem” or “situation of violence.” (The July 2003 London declaration, by contrast, used the word “conflicto” five times.)

The difference is significant for international humanitarian law, as a communiqué released Monday by Refugees International (a group headed by former Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon) makes clear: “President Uribe denies there is a conflict in Colombia, and instead refers to the perpetuation of violence as ‘terrorist activities.’ By characterizing the conflict as a terrorist threat, the government is able to deny civilians protection guaranteed under international humanitarian law.”

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 – however brutal and murderous – 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 Colombia’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 “in accordance with Colombia’s international commitments and taking into account victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparations.” 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 Wood’s disappointingly negative reaction this week to a recent Human Rights Watch report supporting Sen. Pardo’s tougher proposal.

Our view: the Cartagena declaration should build upon the European Union’s call for a legal framework that respects victims’ 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 government’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 “principle of distinction” 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 “Democratic Security” 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 UN’s “good offices” role.
The July 2003 London Declaration specifically thanked the UN Secretary-General’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 Colombia’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.

9 Responses to “At issue in Cartagena”

  1. Wastelandlive Says:

    Dear Mr. Isaacson –

    I read your latest entry with great interest. There’s a lot here from the UN and NGO world that’s out of my league, and I’m not sure I have an opinion.

    (Other than I’d rather be in Cartagena attending this convention myself. I’m guessing that after long days in the convention center there will be long nights in front of the Charleston and at Ba Bar…)

    I tried to plow through the UN recommendations that you say Colombia has mostly failed to implement. There is much which I assume to be pro-forma:

    “113. The High Commissioner urges FARC-EP, ELN, AUC and all other illegal armed groups to immediately and unconditionally release everyone they have taken hostage and anyone who has laid down their arms or has ceased to take part in hostilities.”

    Omnbudsmen, yatta yatta.

    Without a doubt, you understand this far better than I – if you had to sum up the recommendations in this document which the government COULD implement realistically, and which would have significant impact… what would you say they are? Maybe just the top two things?

    Thanks. WLL question for the day!

  2. Adam Isacson Says:

    The UN High Commissioner’s own report, in “Annex 1,” evaluates to what extent, in their view, Colombia has complied with the recommendations.

    The most important recommendations are the ones whose fulfillment would require the most political will. The ones grouped under the heading of “Rule of law and impunity” are particularly critical and far from compliance. Complying with these would require the Uribe government to disband its civilian informant networks, not re-introduce the antiterrorism law, actively punish collaboration with paramilitaries, and would require Fiscal Osorio to go after abusers in the security forces much more than he does now. Among other things.

  3. Wastelandlive Says:

    Well that’s a lot to chew on. I’ll have a look at annex 1.

    Does the civilian informants network refers to the peasant soldier program, or something else?

  4. Adam Isacson Says:

    The “civilian informants network” isn’t the peasant soldiers. It’s two other things:

    • As of August 2004, the Uribe government claims to have signed up 2.5 million Colombians (of a population of 44 million) as “cooperators” willing to provide intelligence about armed-group activity to the security forces.
    • As of April 2003, 7,011 had signed up as “informants,” individuals paid to provide intelligence on a regular basis. Many of them are former combatants.

    The Colombian Commission of Jurists actually would include the “peasant soldiers” as well; they wrote in October, “the current government forgets the principle according to which, under the democratic and social rule of law, the authorities exist to protect people (article 2 of the Colombian Constitution) and not the people to protect the state. … Programs like the networks of informants and cooperators, and that of the ‘peasant soldiers,’ lead to new forms of paramilitarism and ignore the fundamental principle of distinction between combatants and non-combatants.”

  5. Wastelandlive Says:


    They do indeed write that. Good article.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    What’s the difference between a civilian informants network and a neighborhood watch program? Also, how does the idea of community policing, as pushed by WOLA, fit into the idea of a civilian informants network?

    Would you argue that the neighborhood watch program here in the States is a form of paramilitarism being that civilians are taking security into their own hands?

  7. Adam Isacson Says:

    Come on now, that’s disingenuous. One need look no further than Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (or, some might argue, Venezuela’s Bolivarian Circles) to see what purposes these kinds of programs can serve. Yet if a conservative government puts it in place, it’s just a neighborhood watch program?

    That said, I would (and you probably would) most definitely oppose a U.S. neighborhood watch program if it had the following characteristics:

    • It was centrally run out of Washington instead of in my local community.
    • It lacked effective mechanisms to weed out specious tips from people anxious to collect reward money, or acting on long-held grudges against the accused.
    • It led thousands of people to be detained for days or weeks in a guilty-until-proven-innocent justice system, only to be freed for lack of evidence in the majority of cases.

    For more about problems with Colombia’s informant network, see this article (in Spanish) in Colombia’s Semana magazine.

    Neighborhood watch programs without those characteristics are certainly part of the community policing formula. However, instead of seeking anonymous tips, “community policing” puts much more emphasis on increasing relations of trust between citizens and the police, and increasing the physical presence and accessibility of police in neighborhoods. The Colombian informant network risks becoming almost a substitute for that real police presence.

    Meanwhile, I’m sure many Muslim-Americans and African-Americans would have lots of additional complaints even about the neighborhood watch programs that already exist in the United States. (Remember that Chris Rock joke about the little old ladies who, when they see him in their neighborhoods, sit by the window, dial “9-1” on their phones, and keep their finger poised on the “1”.)

  8. David Holiday Says:


    How do Colombian human rights groups (or the guerrillas, for that matter) categorize these informants and “cooperators” under the laws of war — are they being considered legitimate military targets? The CCJ mentions the blurring of the line between civilian and combatant, but I’m not sure where how far they take it.

  9. Adam Isacson Says:

    Human rights groups don’t consider informants and “cooperators” to be legitimate military targets – but they fear that the armed groups will choose to treat them as such by specifically targeting them. It’s well known that guerrillas and paramilitaries have no qualms about killing those civilians whom they regard to be informants. The Colombian slang term is “sapos”, or toads, and “muerte a sapos” is a very common bit of graffiti you see on walls in zones where illegal armed groups are present.

    To be clear, though, if an armed group killed a paid civilian informant, I can think of no human rights group that would consider that to be a legitimate action according to the laws of war (and indeed, it isn’t – it’s an extrajudicial execution).

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