The British government should not support Colombia’s new paramilitary demobilization law, which Colombian President Alvaro Uribe will promote when he meets with Tony Blair at Downing Street this week, Human Rights Watch said today.
During his visit to Britain, Uribe will present himself as a strong, effective leader in the international fight against terrorism. Relying on this image, and perhaps counting on British sensitivities in the aftermath of the London bombings, he will ask Britain to lend its political and financial support for his own counter-terrorism policies. But Britain should tread carefully.
“Uribe is about to sign a law that would let Colombia’s paramilitaries off the hook for their terrorist acts,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch. “The British government should urge Uribe to scrap this law and replace it with one that allows for a genuine demobilization of these groups.”
Like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia’s paramilitaries are considered terrorist groups by Britain, the European Union and the United States. Financed through drug trafficking, paramilitaries have arbitrarily executed and forced the disappearances of thousands of civilians. Paramilitary leaders have illegally accumulated immense wealth, and their mafia-like organizations exert political control over various sectors of Colombia.
Prior to the approval of the demobilization bill, Human Rights Watch representatives met with President Uribe to discuss their concerns with the law. The European Union stated that its support for the demobilization process would depend on the law’s compliance with international standards on truth and justice. The United Nations and several U.S. senators, Democrats and Republicans alike, expressed similar misgivings. Nevertheless, the Colombian government disregarded these concerns in drafting the law.
The law provides enormous sentence reductions to those responsible for the most heinous atrocities ever committed in Colombia. Likewise, it does not include effective mechanisms, such as full and truthful confessions, in order to fully dismantle paramilitaries’ criminal networks.
In recent days, senior Colombian officials have argued that the critics of the law are poorly informed. They claim, for example, that the law provides for confessions. This is untrue: the law states that paramilitaries shall render a “free version” – a spontaneous declaration in which the defendant has no obligation to disclose the truth. In order to receive sentence reductions, they only need to “accept” the charges that are brought against them within the next 36 hours—without confessing anything.
Officials in Colombia have said that the law does not promote impunity because it does not provide for a complete amnesty. This is true only in theory: in practice, the law will result in widespread impunity because it imposes drastic limits on the timeframe for investigations of paramilitaries’ crimes, and fails to require their cooperation.
These officials have also said that paramilitaries will be required to turn over their illegally acquired assets. The law states that illegal assets must be turned over, but it fails to provide incentives or sanctions to ensure that they are actually forfeited. If it is later discovered that paramilitaries had concealed their illegal fortunes, their sentence reductions cannot be revoked.
Even if many paramilitaries turn over weapons, given their almost limitless financial resources, it will be easy for commanders to recruit new combatants. Even if they are convicted, paramilitary leaders will be able to fulfill their sentences in little more than two years. They will then be free with their criminal records clean and their wealth, power and criminal organizations intact.
“Britain should not lend its support to a process that will only help bolster the power of these terrorist organizations,” Vivanco said. “Nor should the British government become an accomplice to a process that undermines human rights and the already weak rule of law in Colombia.”