(This posting combines dispatches from CIP Fellow Winifred Tate, who is in Colombia, and CIP Intern Marcela Guerrero.)
On June 8th, the High Commissioner for Peace, Luis Carlos Restrepo, sent a directive [PDF format] to international humanitarian agencies and embassies establishing strict limits on what international agencies and diplomats are entitled to do, and what language they use to describe it.
The list reads like a Macondian effort by a beleaguered administration to impose the fiction that they maintain absolute control of the country. But it has serious consequences for the vitally important work of the United Nations, journalists and humanitarian agencies â€“ local and international â€“ supporting work for peace and human rights in Colombia.
First, the document prohibits any public servant or individual from establishing contact with illegal armed groups, making a single exception for the International Red Cross. Even though Restrepo assures that the press will not be subject to the new measures and that international organizations will be allowed to carry on with their programs, no exceptions are mentioned for journalists conducting interviews, other international humanitarian agencies involved in work in remote rural regions where illegal armed groups maintain almost total control, or the hundreds of people who are forced into contact with such groups in the course of their work on any given day.
Restrepo goes on to write that the government will not accept any projects intended to â€œcommit the future action of the National government in terms of peace agreements with illegal armed groups.â€ This is a marked departure from President Uribeâ€™s constant insistence that the international community offer financial support, but not critique, his current demobilization process with paramilitary groups.
The directive forbids the use of expressions like â€œarmed actors,â€ â€œactors in the conflictâ€ and â€œnon-state actors.â€ Terms like â€œpeace community,â€ â€œterritory of peace,â€ or humanitarian zoneâ€ are also unacceptable. Instead of â€œcivilian protection,â€ one must use â€œmeasures for self-protection of the civilian population.â€
Restrepo once again attacks the Peace Community of San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³, saying that its model of non-violent resistance â€œgenerates confusion,â€ and that such peace and humanitarian projects cannot exclude, or question the action of, the armed forces and justice system. Ana Teresa Bernal, director of the Colombian NGO Redepaz, states that this document is mainly aimed against civil-society peace initiatives â€“ currently more than 400 in the country. Bernal told Inter Press Service that, for the Uribe government, this document is an â€œintegral part of the warâ€.
In addition, Peace Commissioner Restrepo insists that international agencies not plan â€œhumanitarianâ€ activities that imply contact with the armed groups. The goal of such a directive could not be more clear in a country where the main goal of international organizations is to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis. As stated by Diego PÃ©rez, a consultant to Suippcol – a network of Swiss NGOs that work with grassroots groups in Colombia, â€œhelping the conflictâ€™s direct victims â€“ among whom can be found not just civilians but combatants who have been wounded or put out of combat â€“ is impossible to do without coming in contact with the parties to the conflict.â€
The repeated warnings against contact with armed groups sound more like accusations against international organizations and other NGOs. Indeed, the governmentâ€™s distrust for human rights and peace organizations has never been a secret. In particular, the reports and information published by these groups often disagree with official sources; hence the addition of a new directive which â€œrecommendsâ€ that donors only support the formulation of projects with official â€œtrue facts.â€ In other words, as long as the information used by NGOs coincides with government figures, the project will have complied with the guidelines. Needless to say, this is an unreasonable request when, among other examples, the government only recognizes only half of the 700 persons who are displaced every day.
In a particularly Orwellian turn of phrase, High Commissioner for Peace states that â€œaccepting the existence of the armed conflict implies negating the proper channels of democracy,â€ and in effect supports the illegal armed actors in their quest for power. Notwithstanding, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rightsâ€™ representative in Colombia, Michael FrÃ¼hling, recalled at a June 13 press conference that the term â€œarmed conflictâ€ is part of the basic agreement between the Colombian government and his office.
The guidelines specifically state that â€œany kind of activity that could imply any contact with armed groups is unacceptable to the national government,â€ so presumably any travel or development projects outside major cities in areas where armed-group roadblocks are common is out of the question. What is more, projects already in place led by the UN and other independent international organizations become questionable under the new parameters. According to Diego PÃ©rez, this statement ignores existing G-24 donor-country declarations (London in 2003 and Cartagena in 2005) as well as the recommendations issued by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and declarations by the European Council of Ministers regarding aid to Colombia.
Restrepo does not simply address international support, however, but also rules out any possibility of regional peace dialogues without the presidentâ€™s authorization. Thus, local projects â€“ such as the Nasa indigenous groupâ€™s â€œLife Projectsâ€ in Northern Cauca, which must inevitably require some contact with armed groups due to their heavy presence in the region â€“ as well as other development and peace programs where leaders have no choice but to speak with armed actors in order to save lives or to preserve their projects, would clearly lose ground. Even the role of the Catholic Church in any sort of peace effort has been expressly limited.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Carolina Barco admitted at a press conference that perhaps the High Commissioner for Peace was remiss in distributing this document to embassies and international agencies, suggesting instead that he should have discussed the concerns in private meetings. She did not address the content of the directive, however.
Luis Carlos Restrepo did come forward in its defense and reiterated that the statementâ€™s purpose was to ensure that international cooperation â€œspeaks the same languageâ€ as the national government. Restrepo called it a â€œtechnicalâ€ document that â€œdefines concepts and criteria to be used in projects that include the government as a counterpart.â€ According to the peace commissioner, many requests for projects that arrive in his office involve the direct or indirect participation of armed groups. The argument goes that contact with armed groups endangers the organizations initiating such relationships, the people in the region and â€“ most importantly â€“ delegitimizes the government. However, if the number of programs that fit this profile is as high as Restrepo asserts, it is worth asking whether it is possible to plan projects without taking armed groups into consideration, or whether the criteria that define â€œinvolvementâ€ of armed groups is too broad or imprecise.
Shortly after the document was made public, several Colombian NGOs released strong responses. However, the international community was reticent to offer a public reaction. Alfredo Witschi-Cestari, resident coordinator for the UN system in Colombia, stated to the press that he had no official declarations to give. Likewise, European embassies maintained silence, and of course the U.S. embassy had nothing to say.
Only UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) Colombia office director Roberto Meier expressed clear disagreement with the directives. Meier contended that the terminology in question has been in place for about 50 years, has been internationally approved, and that any attempts to change it should be addressed to the UN General Assembly. Meier states that the guidelines are â€œnon-bindingâ€ as they have not been directed through the appropriate channels; however, he added that any attempt to enforce them may force UNHCR to pull out of the country.
Concludes CIPâ€™s Winifred Tate, writing from BogotÃ¡: â€œReading this directive was particularly instructive having just returned from a five day trip through Putumayo, the southern state along the border with Ecuador currently under dispute between paramilitary groups and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC.
â€œI was lucky in my travels not to come into direct contact with illegal armed actors, but according to well-informed local sources, I ate lunch on several occasions with paramilitary commanders sitting near by table. During my trip, I met many dedicated local elected and appointed officials, as well as religious and community leaders, who would like nothing more than not to have to face daily contact with illegal armed groups in the course of their work. Iâ€™ll be writing more about my trip in the next week, but be warned: my account will include discussion of the â€˜armed conflict,â€™ â€˜armed actorsâ€™ and â€˜non-state actors.â€™â€