There are two competing plans for the demobilization of paramilitaries in Colombia. In its recent report, Human Rights Watch states a strong preference for the proposal that presents the best hope for an end to paramilitary violence, and sends the right message to other illegal armed groups such as the FARC. U.S. Ambassador William Wood’s request that Human Rights Watch reconsider its position on demobilization could be perceived as implying that the U.S. government may be prepared to ignore the fundamental differences between these two plans, and even support the Colombian government’s much less effective proposal.
On behalf of Human Rights Watch, I write to convey our appreciation for your public statement of January 19, in which you expressed disagreement with the comments that Colombian Minister of the Interior and Justice Sabas Pretelt recently made concerning our organization.
Human Rights Watch has a long history of documenting and unequivocally condemning atrocities committed by all parties to Colombia’s armed conflict, including the many horrific abuses committed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (“Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia” or “FARC”). Minister Pretelt’s comparison of our organization with groups that support the FARC is therefore outrageous and utterly false. We are very grateful for your willingness to publicly reject that comparison.
We were equally pleased to note that both you and Vice-President of Colombia Francisco Santos agree with us regarding the importance of a continuing and open dialogue between the government of Colombia and human rights groups, particularly on an issue as significant as the demobilization of paramilitary groups.
At the same time, we would like to make a few clarifications with respect to the second part of your public statement, in which you ask Human Rights Watch to reconsider its criticism of the current demobilization process.
As a first clarification, we would like to make it absolutely clear that we strongly support the international community’s engagement with efforts to bring peace to Colombia, including through negotiations for the demobilization of paramilitary groups. A genuine demobilization that effectively dismantled these complex and powerful groups would be a real contribution to peace and justice in Colombia.
Yet, as we are sure you will agree, international engagement with Colombia should not take the form of a blank check. The international community should not support a façade of a demobilization process that serves primarily the interests of paramilitary leaders.
Just as we have never opposed U.S. military aid to Colombia so long as it is subject to human rights conditions, we consider that international assistance for demobilization should be subject to prior conditions to ensure the effectiveness and justice of the process. This is why we have called on the donors meeting in Cartagena to condition their support on Colombia’s passage of a law containing the minimum requirements necessary to investigate and dismantle these criminal groups.
Under the Colombian government’s current demobilization plan, paramilitaries can receive substantial benefits for demobilization without taking any meaningful action to dismantle their networks. There is no requirement that paramilitaries first confess their crimes; disclose information about their structure or sources of financing; turn over land and other assets taken by force or extortion; or make reparation to their victims (as opposed to merely promising to do these things). And the government’s proposals insist on allowing paramilitary leaders like Salvatore Mancuso and Don Berna to receive benefits even if their group continues to engage in attacks on civilians or other criminal activities such as drug trafficking.
The government’s plan would most likely leave paramilitary power intact in important respects. Given paramilitary groups’ wealth and active involvement in the drug trade, they would easily be able to replenish their ranks and continue to exert territorial control through violence.
Taking into account the U.S. government’s stated commitment to human rights, is this really a plan that the United States, or other countries such as the European Union, should support?
In contrast, the proposal sponsored by Senators Rafael Pardo and Andrés González, Congresswoman Gina Parody, and others would correct most of these problems. Like the government’s proposal, it would offer very generous benefits, including substantial sentence reductions, to paramilitaries. But unlike the government’s proposal, in exchange for those benefits it would require paramilitaries to first satisfy some basic conditions such as confession and the turnover of illegal assets. This proposal would also require paramilitary leaders to ensure that their groups in fact cease hostilities before they can receive sentence reductions. It is perplexing to us that the Colombian government has been unwilling to include such effective provisions in its own proposals.
To sum up, there are two competing plans for the demobilization of paramilitaries in Colombia. Our report clearly lays out the fundamental differences between these two plans and states a strong preference for the proposal that presents the best hope for an end to paramilitary violence, and sends the right message to other illegal armed groups such as the FARC. Your request that we reconsider our position could be perceived as implying that the U.S. government may be prepared to ignore the differences between these two plans, and even support the Colombian government’s much less effective proposal. If that is so, it would appear inconsistent with the strong statements in favor of accountability made by Secretary of State Powell and other senior U.S. officials, as well as the U.S. national interest in seeing members of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” and drug traffickers brought to justice. In this context, we do not see any reason for us to change our critical views.
Finally, you mentioned in your public statement that recently “new procedures were put into place to improve accountability.” If reforms aimed at addressing the serious problems in the Colombian government’s implementation of demobilization are in fact under consideration, we would welcome them. We look forward to assessing and discussing with you and the Colombian government any improvements that the government may have made or may propose in the near future. Nonetheless, as far as we know, the government has not put in place any reforms that would correct the fundamental flaws we identified in our report.
José Miguel Vivanco
Cc: Ambassador Marc Grossman, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs
Ambassador Roger F. Noriega, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs
Ambassador Michael G. Kozak, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor