In a letter to the foreign ministers of the member states of the Organization of American States, Human Rights Watch asks them to ensure that the OAS does not lend its support to a demobilization plan that grants impunity to Colombian paramilitaries.

Dear Foreign Minister,

I write you with regard to the meeting that is to be held on February 4 in the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States. The focus of the meeting is the recent agreement between OAS Secretary General César Gaviria Trujillo and the Colombian government, known as the Agreement for the Accompaniment of the Peace Process in Colombia.

Specifically, I urge you to request Secretary General Gaviria to suspend the implementation of the agreement. In the view of Human Rights Watch, the Secretary General’s offer was made prematurely, and without the necessary consultation with member states befitting such an important proposal. It is crucial, given developments so far in Colombia, that the OAS take steps to ensure that it does not bestow international legitimacy on a process that grants impunity to the perpetrators of gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. And we note that the Secretary General should not try to justify the agreement by reference to the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which was established in order to strengthen, not weaken, democratic institutions and the rule of law.

Before any verification agreement is resumed, the OAS must first require that Colombia establish a clear and public set of guidelines that insure that the most serious crimes against humanity and other serious human rights and humanitarian law violations are investigated and that the perpetrators are punished. In addition, paramilitaries cannot be allowed to use the profits of their crimes—generated by land seizures, murder, drug trafficking, and threats—to fund their new careers. Full confessions and restitution to the survivors of paramilitary attacks are an essential part of any agreement.

Of additional concern, in our opinion, is the fact that the agreement would not permit the OAS to wholly fulfill its proper role of assisting and verifying the Colombian peace process. This is because, according to reports, the document bars the OAS from providing its opinion regarding legal and political decisions that the Colombian government decides to make in crucial areas such as the disarmament, demobilization, and rehabilitation of the paramilitaries—unless the government or other actors in the process request its opinion. Under these circumstances, the OAS is wrongly reduced to acting as a mere spectator. In fact, it is unacceptable and inconsistent with regional standards for the Colombian government to insist—and the OAS to agree—to view justice and accountability as strictly domestic concerns on which the OAS is barred from providing an opinion.

Please be assured that Human Rights Watch fully supports efforts aimed at ending political violence in Colombia. We also believe that the OAS can make an important contribution to these efforts. We would like to ensure, however, that justice is not ignored in efforts to end hostilities. For this reason, we are deeply concerned about steps taken by the Colombian government that threaten to grant impunity to individuals who have planned, paid for, and in some cases even carried out some of the hemisphere’s worst atrocities.

In Latin American, countries such as Argentina and Peru have acted to roll back or curtail laws granting impunity to human rights violators, recognizing their corrosive effect on the rule of law. Only last year, both houses of Argentina’s Congress voted by a large majority to annul the Full Stop and Due Obedience laws, which had barred the prosecution of military officers for human rights violations.

Indeed, influential Colombians share our concern that impunity for human rights crimes would have grim results. Colombia’s Procurador General, Dr. Edgardo Maya Villazón, has publicly and forcefully opposed legislation that would lead to what he called “forgiveness and forgetting.” As he points out, “This is not a mechanism that would promote peace; rather, it would lead to an increase in violence.”

There is a growing international consensus on this question. In 1999, for example, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights adopted resolution 1999/32, urging governments to “abrogate legislation leading to impunity for those responsible for grave violations of human rights such as torture and prosecute such violations.” It also stressed that “those who encourage, order, tolerate or perpetrate such acts (torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment) must be held responsible and severely punished.”

The Commission also recognized that “accountability of perpetrators of grave human rights violations is one of the central elements of any effective remedy for victims of human rights violations and a key factor in ensuring a fair and equitable justice system and, ultimately, reconciliation and stability within a State.”

In two Presidential Statements, the U.N. Security Council has emphasized the need to prosecute those responsible for criminal violations of human rights and humanitarian law. And at the regional level, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ruled repeatedly that a “State has a legal duty to take reasonable steps to prevent human rights violations and to use the means at its disposal to carry out a serious investigation of violations committed within its jurisdiction, to identify those responsible, to impose the appropriate punishment and to ensure the victim adequate compensation.”

Unfortunately, the Colombian government has already taken measures that would put it at odds with these precedents. In August 2003, the government backed a bill that would allow paramilitaries who have committed atrocities to avoid even a single day of imprisonment, in exchange for cash payments. Met with strong opposition, the bill, which could benefit some 11,000 paramilitaries, is currently a matter of intense debate in Colombia’s Congress.

In November 2003, the government hosted the demobilization of over 800 alleged members of a Medellín-based paramilitary faction. There was no independent verification of the terms of the demobilization, or accounting of what, if any, crimes these individuals had committed. Even as hundreds of fighters paraded before television cameras, Diego Murillo Bejarano, the faction leader, remained free and in command of fighters still deployed, fully armed, in the city’s slums. According to The Economist, “after three weeks in a rehabilitation programme…,” the 800 presumed paramilitaries “…were back on the streets.”

During the event, the authorities also allowed Murillo and other paramilitary leaders, among them Carlos Castaño, to address the nation over a live video connection. Murillo is a former security chief for drug traffickers and has been linked by the authorities to Medellín gangs used by paramilitaries to carry out high profile assassinations. He identifies himself as the “Inspector General” of the main paramilitary coalition, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC).

Even as the government was broadcasting these statements, paramilitaries were routinely violating the cease-fire that was supposedly a prerequisite for talks. Residents along Colombia’s north coast told journalists that paramilitaries were killing and threatening people who refused to sell them businesses and land. Paramilitary activity is not confined to rural or isolated regions, but takes place even in densely populated areas with a pronounced police and military presence. For example, local authorities and human rights groups in the city of Barrancabermeja, including Bishop Jaime Prieto, charge that the government has ceded de facto control of the city to paramilitaries.

As discussed in recent debates in Colombia’s congress, human rights groups have recorded over 600 killings attributed to paramilitaries since the declaration of a cease-fire in December 2002. Equally worrying, Human Rights Watch continues to document links between units of the Colombian armed forces and paramilitaries. In January 2004, for instance, army troops raided a paramilitary base only to discover an active duty army sergeant and police officer there.

Human Rights Watch believes that the OAS must ensure that its monitoring of the demobilization process takes place under terms consistent with Colombia’s obligation to prosecute and punish the most serious violations. If paramilitaries fail to agree to such terms, the OAS should refuse to verify the accords. Under the circumstances, its involvement would risk bestowing international legitimacy on a process that could guarantee impunity for individuals who have committed and continue to commit heinous crimes.

Sincerely yours,

José Miguel Vivanco