Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Framework for Peace - or Impunity?

Church in Bojayá hit by a guerrilla bomb,
killing and injuring civilians hiding inside. 
Almost incredibly, on Tuesday - the very same day that bombers tried to assassinate an ex-minister in north Bogotá and killed and injuring others nearby, and while the FARC held French journalist Romeo Langlois - Colombia's House of Representatives approved a polemic 'Framework for Peace' Bill.

The law, which still needs to pass the Senate and be signed by Pres. Santos, creates a legal framework for ex-members of outlaw armed groups following future peace treaties and demobilizations of armed groups. 

The proposed law has strong critics, including the respected Human Rights Watch, which charges that it will allow perpetrators of horrendous human rights violations to escape punishment.

Aftermath of a recent guerrilla bombing in Tumaco, Colombia.
The law comes after years of government gains against the FARC guerrillas, including the killing of several of their main leaders. But the guerrillas remain potent. Some evidence suggests that the FARC were behind this week's assassination attempt against ex-Minister Fernando Londoño, an arch-conservative. And today's newspaper reports the FARC killing several soldiers and 'recruiting' 13 teenagers from a rural schoolhouse, evidently to turn them into chld soldiers.

Guerrilla fighters: How much punishment do they deserve?
Colombia's history of demobilizations is mixed. In the late 1980s, the M-19 guerrillas demobilized and became a political party. None of them, as far as I know, did prison time for their 1985 attack on the Justice Palace, which ended with about 100 dead. But several ex-M-19 leaders have become respected politicians, and one of them, Gustavo Petro, is now mayor of Bogotá. During the early 1990s, splinter groups of ELN guerrillas and most of the EPL demobilized. All of those demobilizations took place after the guerrilla groups had been weakened.

In contrast, the right-wing paramilitary forces, which had long fought alongside Colombia's regular military, demobilized between 2003 and 2006 after Colombia's armed forces seemed to have become strong enough to beat back the guerrillas without the paramilitaries' assistance. The paramilitaries had long done the military's dirty work, including even chainsaw massacres against peasants suspected of collaborating with leftist guerrillas.

Young FARC fighters: Victims, perpetrators or both?
The legal framework for the paramilitary disarmament, the Peace and Justice Law, was widely criticized for permitting impunity. And, in fact, in the years since then only about a dozen paramilitaries have been condemned under it - altho about a dozen paramilitary leaders are doing time in United States prisons for narcotrafficking. In many parts of Colombia's countryside, the departed paramilitaries have been replaced by drug cartels, which are also violent but lack ideological motivation. Still, the number of atrocities has dropped.

According to Human Rights Watch "the Legal Framework for Peace "would allow Congress to exempt from prosecution individuals responsible for crimes against humanity—and ensure that even the “most responsible” for the worst crimes do not spend a day in prison. By allowing human rights abusers to escape justice under the protection of the Constitution, it would irreversibly undermine the rule of law and expose Colombia to action by international tribunals."

If demobilizations reduce violence, aren't they good for Colombia, even if many criminals escape punishment? Punishment is, in any case, very complex.

Take, for example, the horrific 2002 Bojayá massacre, in which 119 civilians were killed by a FARC bomb which landed on the roof of the church in which they had taken refuge.

Who is guilty of the massacre? The guerrilla fighters who launched the bomb were following orders to aim at paramilitary fighters. And those guerrilla fighters may have been victims themselves, perhaps recruited as children and desiring to flee the guerrillas, but afraid that they'll be murdered if they do. How about the guerrilla commanders who ordered their fighters into battle in a town, despite the obvious danger to civilians? They are certainly guilty of tremendous human rights violations - but if they know they'll rot in prison, they won't likely negotiate a peace agreement.

And what will relatives of massacre victims say if terrorist leaders get a pass, even if it prevents future violence and murders?

The complexities of guilt are highlighted by the bizarre case of Sigifredo López. He was a regional deputy from the city of Cali whom the FARC kidnapped in 2002 and held for five years in the jungle. In 2007 the guerrillas murdered all of the deputies but López, who reportedly escaped the massacre because he happened to be in a different location. Now, based on statements by demobilized guerrillas, a video and messages recovered from captured guerrilla computers, authorities suspect that López actually helped organize the mass kidnapping. He is now under arrest

Colombia's outlaw groups carry more than enough guilt to go around. But deciding whom the country can afford to punish, and how much, will be key to creating any lasting peace.

Another issue is the guerrillas' trustworthiness - or lack of it. During the last peace negotiations 14 years ago the guerrillas continued committing kidnappings and even hijacked an airplane. However, the military's right-wing paramilitary allies, who have since mostly disbanded, also continued carrying out atrocities.

Just a few weeks ago, the FARC seemed to have changed their stripes by releasing a dozen kidnappees and promising to cease kidnapping civilians - only to violate that by seizing reporter Langlois. Even more barbaric are the reports of the guerrillas carrying away the children from a Putumayo Province schoolhouse. Taking away children this way violates all sorts of moral and legal principles, and it's not hard to imagine what role the guerrillas have planned for the young girls, who made up the majority of the kidnapped children.

How viable, and moral, would it be to negotiate with a group like them, even if it meant bringing peace to Colombia? 

Foreign Affairs magazine opined that negotiations are worth trying: 'Without a peace agenda, the world will continue to witness unnecessary human suffering from a conflict that prevents Colombia and the United States from achieving their social development, antinarcotics, free-trade, human rights, and democratization goals.'

Probably, they are right - but the price could be very high. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


mauricio forero l said...

Excellent post.

Mauricio Forero.

Miguel said...

Thanks Mauricio.