Liberal Party Senator Juan Fernando Cristo will be in Washington for a series of events and meetings next week. Over the past year, Sen. Cristo has become the legislature’s leading advocate of legislation to provide reparations to the victims of Colombia’s conflict.
In the Senate, Cristo has been the principal sponsor of a Victims’ Law: a bill compelling the state to provide “dignified, effective and integral” reparations to those who suffered “physically, morally or economically” as a result of the conflict, without regard to the identity of the victimizer.
This bill has been making its way through Colombia’s Congress; in the House of Representatives, however, supporters of President Ãlvaro Uribe – who have a commanding majority – gutted the Victims’ Law’s provisions so completely in November that Sen. Cristo now opposes the House version of the bill he helped to create.
Here is a translation of a column Sen. Cristo published in Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo, in January. (Thanks to CIP Intern Stacy Ulmer for translation help.) We look forward to welcoming him back to Washington next week.
Reparations: a Right, or a Handout?
Sen. Juan Fernando Cristo, El Tiempo, January 13, 2009
The scene last December 16, near midnight in the full House of Representatives, when the government literally locked up more than 80 legislators with the single and exclusive goal that they approve an initiative to perpetuate the Head of State in power, caused many Colombians to feel pain for the fatherland. It has been decades since we have seen such demonstrations in Colombia of power used for personal benefit and authoritarianism.
The pain for the fatherland is even worse when we realize that the government considered it to be â€œcrucialâ€ for the country that the House of Representatives approve, in the second debate, an initiative that benefits just one person, though at the same time it openly promoted the postponement of a bill that seeks to benefit more than 3 million compatriots who have suffered the rigors of violence.
It is sad to recognize that the victimsâ€™ law, which had its last plenary debate after a long discussion, became an obstacle that had to be removed to fulfill the reelection obsession, so with no decency and even less discussion, they decided to postpone its approval until next March. Without thinking of the millions of Colombians, without remembering the mothers of Soacha who will not be able to get reparations, without attending to the more than 3,000 victims of the FARC, â€œparasâ€ and ELN who expressed themselves at 10 public hearings throughout the country demanding a worthy treatment. In sum, they could not care any less about these victimsâ€™ suffering and their mistreatment and abandonment by the state.
The basic issue that impedes an agreement between the billâ€™s authors and the government is not the well-publicized attempt to exclude the victims of state actors, much less the vaunted fiscal problem, nor is it the governmentâ€™s refusal to accept international principles like the victimsâ€™ good faith or the lawâ€™s interpretation in their favor. No. Here there is a gigantic difference, from a conceptual and human point of view, which makes agreement difficult, and while it is not removed we will keep going.
International organizations with expertise on this matter, like the UN and the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, the Inspector-Generalâ€™s Office [ProcuradurÃa], the Ombudsmanâ€™s Office [DefensorÃa del Pueblo], the billâ€™s authors and the organizations representing the victims, consider reparations to be a fundamental right of victims, independent of who the victimizer is. The government does not recognize that right, it sees the victims as an obstacle to any peace process, perceives them to be a â€œproblemâ€ for the state and its institutions, and considers that they should be â€œhelpedâ€ so they donâ€™t â€œbother us so much.â€
The rest are legislative technicalities: whether reparations are given for â€œduty of guaranteeâ€ or â€œsolidarityâ€ reasons; what the definition of â€œvictim;â€ whether there must be a judicial reparation, or at what moment the stateâ€™s responsibility is accepted. These disagreements can be summarized by saying that we have a different vision of the victim. For us, he is a citizen who suffered physically, morally or economically as a consequence of the conflict, and who has every right to receive reparations in a dignified, effective and integral manner. The government considers him to be a poor person who lives in a conflictive zone and the state, according to its possibilities, must attend to him with its assistentialist programs.
Reparation and alms are two sides of the same coin. Only when Colombian society, not just the government, recognizes that there should be an aggressive and effective state policy to provide reparations to these three million compatriots who have rights â€“ not just a handout whenever thatâ€™s possible â€“ can we hold the hope of achieving peace and reconciliation in Colombia. The Victimsâ€™ Law, in its Senate version, should be the first step and nothing else.