The U.S. should “re-balance its support of Colombia, away from a a policy heavily invested in the military, and towards human rights,” said the Kroc Institute Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego Thursday.
Since 1998 the U.S. has supported Plan Colombia, aimed at stamping out insurgency and narco-trafficking in the South American country. The plan, conceived with the administration of former Colombian president Andres Pastrana, has cost the U.S. government more than $8 billion through military training, assistance with narco-crop destruction, and provision of military equipment including Blackhawk helicopters.
During this time violence and threats have caused nearly four million Colombians to be displaced, thousands to be murdered by both sides of the armed conflict, and illegal drug production to flourish.
“The U.S. needs to be true to its democratic values and ensure the long-term rights of the people,” said IPJ director Milburn Line, who last week published a Peace and Justice Policy Brief outlining the opportunities for the U.S. to invest in a peace agenda.
Although the U.S. are not formally involved in the upcoming peace talks between the FARC guerrilla group and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ government, according to the institute director, “they should be involved in other ways, and not necessarily in a leadership role.”
“It is easy for the combatants to come to an agreement,” said the director, “but it is imperative that we support Santos’ efforts to re-balance the State.”
Line cited the 1994 Guatemalan Peace Accord, during which the U.S. played a monitoring and supportive role, with great success without being active in the discussions. Barack Obama’s government needs to change the traditional U.S. strategy of focusing on narcotics and security through the military, and switch the focus to a more holistic and civilian approach, said Line.
Obama said in September in support of the Colombian peace process, that the U.S. “re-affirms its longstanding defense and security partnership with Colombia, and its commitment to work with Colombia to promote citizen security, respect for human rights and economic prosperity for all its people.”
But that view of security has been a “restricted view of security,” according to Line. “It is an approach to security weighted towards the military, and not with a lot of emphasis on social issues” and justice.
Line wants the U.S. Department of Justice to be involved in demobilizing and prosecuting the guerrillas. However he warns against a “fiasco” like the 2003-2006 demobilization of Colombian paramilitaries under the Justice and Peace law.
“The Department of Justice gave $20 million in a disastrous investment. Only 10 convictions were made and many of the paramilitaries responsible re-invented themselves as crime lords and drug-traffickers,” he said.
Once there is peace, however, Line says that it will be “easier to separate the issues of crime and drug-trafficking more clearly. It makes it easier to treat narco-trafficking as a crime,” rather than being mixed up with a political movement.
Santos’ efforts to re-balance the state through the Victims and Land Restitution Law aimed at providing redress for victims of the 48-year-old armed conflict, “is a tremendously good start,” according to Line, “and shows Santos’ interest in ridding the country of political, economic and social exclusion.”
USAID, the U.S. agency for international development, has announced $50 million to go towards the Victim’s Law however, echoing the concerns of other human rights groups who have complained that displaced people are being threatened with violence, and that the U.S. is just handing over the funds without supporting the program on the ground, the director says that “there is also great risk involved. The protection capabilities of the Colombian government are historically not good.”
“The U.S. government may not be aware of (the Colombian government’s) incapability. This could result in immunity that creates impunity.”
At the same time, the U.S. would “be wise to listen to Colombians with regard to amnesty issues for guerrillas and for members of Colombia’s armed forces. There has to be accommodation in a peace process, but there also has to be some accountability – which has to include the chain of command.”
“There needs to be a more rigorous involvement of the Department of Justice,” said Line. “I would like to see the U.S. more active in targeting the threatening and murder of trade unionists,” he said referring to Colombia’s position as one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to be a member of a trade union.
“The Afro-Caribbean community, the displaced people, trade unionists, women, indigenous people and other vulnerable groups who have been caught in the crossfire should be included in the process, but it is how the people are treated afterwards that will result in a peace dividend that will transcend the armed conflicts and the grievances of the attacks.”
Colombia’s current President Santos however, “is taking a refreshing approach to the way the State is run,” according to Line, “and it is imperative that the U.S. supports his efforts to re-balance away from a policy heavily weighted in the military.”