Background Briefing

index  |  next>>

COLOMBIA: Letting Paramilitaries Off The Hook

Two years after the start of negotiations for the demobilization of paramilitary groups, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe plans to present a draft law to govern demobilization at an international donors’ conference in Cartagena, Colombia, on February 3-4, 2005.  Donors should closely scrutinize this proposed legal framework before providing any support—political or financial—to the demobilization process.

The government appears poised to propose a bill that would provide substantial benefits to paramilitaries but would lack adequate mechanisms for investigating paramilitaries for gross human rights violations.  Unlike competing proposals in the Colombian Congress the government’s proposal would fail to hold paramilitaries to their commitments to cease hostilities, cooperate with authorities, and make reparation for their crimes.  Such a law would be ineffective at dismantling paramilitary groups and bringing about actual peace.

Paramilitary leaders—who include notorious drug kingpins and vicious murderers—initiated negotiations with the Colombian government seeking an agreement that would prevent their extradition to the United States, minimize potential prison terms in Colombia, and allow them to retain as much of their illegally obtained wealth as possible.  The organizations they command are extraordinarily powerful and complex, well-financed through decades of extortion and involvement in the drug trade, and responsible for some of the most heinous human rights abuses ever committed in Colombia.  As a result of their economic power, they also have a significant capacity to replenish their ranks.

With the right legal framework, the demobilization process could have a significant impact in reducing human rights violations in Colombia.  But unless the law takes into account the complexity, power, and regenerative capacity of paramilitary mafias, there is a serious risk that the demobilization process will simply give paramilitary leaders the benefits they seek without resulting in any real advances in terms of accountability or peace.

Moreover, the terms, conditions, and benefits contained in the paramilitary demobilization law will be the main precedent to which other illegal armed groups in Colombia, such as the FARC, will look in future peace negotiations.  To the extent that other countries support the demobilization process in Colombia, the legal framework governing this process may become a broader precedent and influence the terms according to which governments negotiate with illegal armed groups throughout the world.

It is therefore essential that the Colombian government and the international community ensure that the paramilitary demobilization process in Colombia does not simply benefit paramilitary leaders without satisfying international standards on accountability.  The process must be designed to effectively dismantle paramilitary structures as well as to respect the victims’ rights to truth, justice, and reparation.

index  |  next>>