Colombia’s current demobilization procedures will not dismantle paramilitary groups and will result in widespread impunity for even the worst atrocities, Human Right Watch said in a report released today. At an international donors’ conference in Cartagena on February 3-4, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe plans to unveil a draft law that is likely to reproduce these flaws.
The 17-page report, “Letting Paramilitaries Off the Hook,” details serious deficiencies in the laws and procedures currently governing Colombia’s recent paramilitary demobilizations. Human Rights Watch called on international donors meeting in Cartagena to withhold demobilization aid unless Colombia enacts a law that can effectively dismantle paramilitary groups and hold their members accountable for massacres and other crimes against humanity.
“There is a real risk that this demobilization process will leave the underlying structures of these violent groups intact, their illegally acquired assets untouched, and their abuses unpunished,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch. “As it is currently being conducted, this process does not justify the support of the international community.”
Existing law provides substantial economic and judicial benefits to those who demobilize. But the law fails to condition those benefits on any specific action by paramilitaries to dismantle their networks. Paramilitaries can receive benefits even if they refuse to cooperate with any investigations by the authorities, fail to disclose information about their structure or sources of financing, refuse to turn over land and other assets taken by force, and fail to make reparations to their victims.
Moreover, paramilitary leaders can receive benefits under the law even if their group continues to engage in attacks on civilians or other criminal activities such as drug trafficking. As a result, paramilitary leaders have few incentives to ensure a complete demobilization and ceasefire.
Meanwhile, a multiparty group of Colombian senators, led by Senators Rafael Pardo and Gina Parody, has made public a draft bill that would correct most of these problems. This draft would also reflect international standards of justice and accountability.
But the Uribe administration has strongly objected to the Senate draft. Indeed, President Uribe appears poised to propose a substantially weaker bill that would perpetuate most of the problems with the laws and procedures already in place.
Paramilitary groups are tremendously complex organizations, well-financed through years of extortion, forced takings of land, and drug trafficking. They are responsible for some of the most heinous acts of violence ever committed in Colombia, including numerous massacres, extrajudicial executions and kidnappings. In 2001 the U.S. Department of State officially designated the largest paramilitary coalition, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC), as a foreign terrorist organization.
For more than two years, the Colombian government has been engaged in negotiations with paramilitary leaders on demobilization. Negotiations are being conducted in a specially designated area—Santa Fé de Ralito in the country’s northern department of Córdoba—where paramilitary leaders, including notorious drug lords and vicious murderers, are safe from extradition and arrest.
In the last two months of 2004, the Colombian government claimed as a success the purported demobilization of 2,624 paramilitaries. Yet those demobilizations have been conducted in a superficial manner, without the proper safeguards to ensure that the structure of these complex organizations is effectively taken apart and that those responsible for atrocities are brought to justice.
Current law completely fails to require any investigation of the overwhelming majority of paramilitaries. Unless they are already being prosecuted, paramilitaries who have committed crimes against humanity and other abuses will not be investigated. This enormous loophole in the law is likely to result in backdoor impunity for hundreds or thousands of paramilitaries responsible for atrocities.
Whichever bill the Colombian Congress ultimately passes will not apply exclusively to the current paramilitary demobilization. The law would probably also have a tremendous impact on future demobilizations of other illegal armed groups in Colombia, such as the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC) or the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or ELN).
“Donors should carefully consider the precedent this process is setting,” said Vivanco. “In future demobilizations, other armed groups will expect to get the same sweetheart deal that the paramilitaries are getting.”