Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Colombia: Armed conflict or counterterrorism?

Which label would best describe the situation in Colombia: armed conflict or counterterrorism? The debate over semantics has shaken the country’s political establishment and even exacerbated the rift between the current and previous president.

The disagreement has to do with a proposal introduced by President Juan Manuel Santos last year that would provide reparations to victims of Colombian violence. For about eight months legislators have tried to hammer out contentious details of the bill including who would be covered under the proposal and how to fund it. Last week Santos pushed for the inclusion of a single line in the bill acknowledging that an “internal armed conflict” exists in Colombia.

It may seem more than obvious to the most casual observer that Colombia has gone through an armed conflict for several decades with the state combating different forces such as leftist guerillas, rightwing paramilitaries and emerging criminal groups. Santos’ predecessor, ex-president Alvaro Uribe, expressed his displeasure at the use of such a phrase and claimed that Colombia has been instead under a “terrorist threat”.

In addition, allies to the former leader alleged that the wording of the Victims Law draft could lead to the granting of political status to rebel groups such as the FARC instead of them being labeled as a terrorist organization. Though Colombia’s largest paramilitary group gave up their arms under Uribe, it seems as if the Uribistas are ironically opposed to the same happening with the guerillas. For ex-Uribe advisor José Obdulio Gaviria, for instance, the proposal would be like “giving vitamins” to the military-weakened guerillas and he also implied that it would lead to a downturn in foreign investment.

Sen. Roy Barreras, normally a staunch Uribe supporter, contended that the “armed conflict” line couldn’t make it easier for the FARC to get political recognition since they don’t meet the requirements for it. The proposal’s legislative author, Sen. Juan Fernando Cristo, argued that the bill “does not discriminate against victims…be they targeted by an armed group on the left or right or by agents of the State.”

The proposal also has the support of the military high command such as Army chief Gen. Alejandro Navas. He claimed that government acknowledgement an armed conflict would provide a legal “umbrella” where troops can fight without the fear that they can be sued and “end up in prison.”

For now the recognition of an armed conflict remains in the bill’s draft though that can be changed with the final set of debates scheduled for next week. The odds of that occurring, despite most legislators belonging to pro-Uribe political groups, is very slim.

As Juanita León wrote recently on the La Silla Vacia website, the most important aspect of the bill is that the “fundamental” parts of it remain unchanged. It’s the least that can be done for the many thousands of victims hurt for decades in Colombia’s armed conflict/war against terror/whatever-you-want-to-call-it.

Image- Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images via The Guardian

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