Uribe’s re-election and the bond market Paramilitary talks: the breaking point?
Feb 232005

For the past four years, Marc Grossman has served as the undersecretary of State for political affairs, the number three position in the State Department and usually the most senior post held by a foreign service officer. In his occasional dealings with Colombia, Grossman has made some statements with which we strongly disagree, but he has been relatively thoughtful and measured. He has usually listened to other points of view, and his support of the current policy of military aid and fumigations can be described more as “managerial” than “passionately ideological.”

Grossman is leaving soon, to be replaced by Nicholas Burns (another non-neoconservative). Last week, while on what will probably be his last official trip to Colombia, the undersecretary gave a very noteworthy interview to El Tiempo. Noteworthy for both good and bad reasons.

Grossman’s most encouraging statements had to do with the conditions under which the United States would support for the Uribe government’s negotiations with paramilitary groups. Instead of equivocating, he went solidly on record in support of a strong “truth, justice and reparations” law that seeks the complete dismantlement of the AUC.

Q: What kind of law is needed?

A: We hope that it is a strong law, a law that should set a precedent for the FARC and the ELN. As such, it should guarantee the dismantlement of the AUC, stop its financing and confiscate its properties. It should also assure that justice is done, that the door is open for the reparation of victims, and it should be transparent. That is what we have said in this visit to President Uribe and Senator Pardo.

Q: Does the United States support the pardoning of paramilitary leaders in order to achieve peace?

A: We are on the side of justice and we believe that justice must be done. We think that whoever has committed a crime should pay for it and should be punished. And let there be no doubt that we consistently support the extradition of those who are wanted by the U.S. justice system.

Q: How does the United States view the probability that some leaders of the AUC might participate in politics after the negotiation process?

To us, the AUC is a terrorist organization, and at the end of the demobilization process, it should completely cease to exist.

While brief statements like these of course leave plenty of wiggle room, these are the strongest words about the paramilitary talks that we have heard from a U.S. official in months. By calling for asset seizures, reparations, punishment and dismantlement, Grossman appears to endorse a very strong law for dealing with demobilizing paramilitary leaders: something close to the legislation proposed by Sen. Rafael Pardo and other legislators, and something so strongly worded that, should it pass, Colombian government peace negotiator Luis Carlos Restrepo would probably submit his resignation again.

The rest of the interview is less encouraging. Grossman repeats the administration’s tough line on Venezuela, criticizing the “negative role” the Chávez government is playing in the region, while failing to make clear how U.S. policy is encouraging the moderates and isolating the extremists (instead of the opposite) in that very polarized country.

Then, in a real misstep, Grossman effectively denies that a conflict exists in Colombia.

Q: Is there an armed conflict or a terrorist threat in Colombia?

A: It is an attack on Colombian democracy by three narcoterrorist groups.

This is more than a semantic issue. If Colombia’s violence is not a “conflict” but just a criminal or terrorist nuisance, several things change. First, much of international humanitarian law goes out the window, since Protocol II of the Geneva accords does not apply. Second, it is impossible to consider negotiating any political demands with any of the armed groups (as happened in El Salvador and Guatemala) – just the terms of their surrender and disarmament. (We discuss the “is it a conflict” issue more thoroughly in another posting.)

At the Cartagena donors’ meeting earlier this month, the Uribe government tried to sell the idea that no conflict exists in Colombia. Most countries in attendance refused to buy into that notion – especially since, while the meeting was occurring, the FARC was proving itself able to hit military targets in several parts of the country – and the meeting’s final declaration includes a reference to the conflict in Colombia.

In his declaration as U.S. representative to the donors’ meeting, USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios was careful not to use the word “conflict,” but the U.S. position was still somewhat ambiguous. Grossman’s response last week left all ambiguity aside: the U.S. government is now on record endorsing the Uribe government’s view of the violence in Colombia. Because of its implications for humanitarian standards and future negotiations, this is a disturbing development.

6 Responses to “State’s Grossman on AUC talks, “conflict””

  1. David Holiday Says:

    Are you sure that U.S. recognition of a “conflict” necessarily presages a disposition to support negotiations? If today’s standards for defining terrorist groups were in place in 1990, the FMLN would have qualified. Seems to me the bar has been raised, and that makes for a more difficult position on negotiations.

    I’m not sure what the U.S. called the Guatemalan “conflict,” but it was not much of one by the time the peace accords came around, and the U.S. wasn’t much of an influence — rather, Guatemala piggy backed on negotiated solutions elsewhere in the region.

    In El Salvador, whether or not the U.S. referred to the applicability of international humanitarian law to the war, this was not much of an indicator of its willingness to support negotiations.

  2. Adam Isacson Says:

    You raise a very important question: could the Esquipulas process have happened today?

    Using the post-9/11 distinction between guerrillas and terrorists, the Reagan administration could have added the FMLN and URNG – which both targeted civilians at times – to its FTO list, and cited whatever evidence it had of Sandinista arms transfers to the FMLN in order to put Nicaragua on its list of terrorist-sponsoring states. (On the other hand, what would have become of the contras, who also killed civilians? Another interesting question.)

    Esquipulas 2 would not have been a success, obviously, without the Bush I administration’s decision to support it. Could that decision have been made today, or would the line be that political reforms are not to be negotiated with terrorists? I’d like to think that pragmatism would still win out, and the U.S. would still support political negotiations instead of a continued war of attrition until the guerrillas were too weak to negotiate anything but their surrender and disarmament. But the terrorist label now takes a lot of flexibility out of the process by making a decision to support substantive negotiations a politically costly one.

  3. David Holiday Says:

    I think the ANC too might have qualified for that label. This is quite a predicament, since when the US government attaches the terrorist label (like its predecessor, the communist label), it seems to make military action more likely, and political settlements less feasible. The problem is, of course, that despite the lack of a commonly accepted definition of terrorism in international law (correct me if I’m wrong), it’s a reasonable argument to make. Perhaps the problem is making this qualification a deal-breaker, since there are numerous enough precedents for peace being made among warring factions, some of which engaged in terrorist actions, or might routinely be considered “terrorists”.

    How did we get this designation process, anyway. Can you point me to some history of this, or any other analysis looking at how problematic this has been or has become?

  4. Adam Isacson Says:

    According to the State Department’s annual Patterns of Global Terrorism report, which since 1997 has included the famous list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations:

    No one definition of terrorism has gained universal acceptance. For the purposes of this report, however, we have chosen the definition of terrorism contained in Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f(d). That statute contains the following definitions:

    The term terrorism means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant1 targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.

    The term international terrorism means terrorism involving citizens or the territory of more than one country.

    The term terrorist group means any group practicing, or that has significant subgroups that practice, international terrorism.

    By this very broad definition, any group that has killed civilians or military personnel out of combat qualifies as a terrorist, and if any of these victims have been foreign nationals the group qualifies as an “international terrorist.” Perhaps there is an example of an insurgency that has never purposefully harmed civilians, but I admit I’m drawing a blank.

    The main page of the State Department’s Counterterrorism Office includes the following rigid guidelines for dealing with groups that meet the above description.

    U.S. Counterterrorism Policy

    First, make no concessions to terrorists and strike no deals;
    Second, bring terrorists to justice for their crimes;
    Third, isolate and apply pressure on states that sponsor terrorism to force them to change their behavior; and
    Fourth, bolster the counterterrorism capabilities of those countries that work with the U.S. and require assistance.

    International Terrorism: American Hostages

    The U.S. Government will make no concessions to individuals or groups holding official or private U.S. citizens hostage. The United States will use every appropriate resource to gain the safe return of American citizens who are held hostage. At the same time, it is U.S. Government policy to deny hostage takers the benefits of ransom, prisoner releases, policy changes, or other acts of concession.

    If there can be no “striking of deals” with terrorists, how can the United States support peace processes anywhere with insurgent or paramilitary groups that have killed civilians?

  5. David Holiday Says:

    Thanks, this is helpful. Do you know if your last question was asked by people at the time this list came into effect? I’m fairly narrowly focused, and only recently saw it crop up around Colombia, but it must be problematic in many other places. Yet it seems that it would be extremely hard at this point to propose some more flexible set of policies vis-a-vis negotiations without being label “pro-terrorist.” Ugh.

  6. Adam Isacson Says:

    I don’t know either whether that question was asked. Of course, even today the U.S. government makes exceptions to this policy if (a) a friendly government asks for U.S. support for a peace process and (b) the “terrorist” group does not have a policy of targeting Americans.

    Colombia offers 2 examples. In December of 1998, a representative of the State Department met with the FARC’s Raúl Reyes in Costa Rica, a meeting encouraged by the government of Andrés Pastrana, who was trying to drum up support for negotiations that were about to start. At the time, the FARC were already on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) – in fact, the FARC was a charter member of that list in 1997. The Costa Rica meeting proved politically costly, as congressional Republicans vented their outrage for months and years afterward and refused to confirm Clinton’s choice for assistant secretary of State for Latin America, Peter Romero.

    The other Colombian example, of course, is the paramilitary negotiations, which the Bush administration is still quite conflicted about how to support. But since the Uribe government has asked us to contribute, the difficulty is less about the AUC’s presence on the FTO list than it is about questions like jail time, reparations, dismantlement and extradition.

Leave a Reply