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COLOMBIA: UN Lashes Out at Paramilitary Demobilisation Law

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Sep 23 2005 (IPS) - The United Nations once again reiterated its criticism of the “peace and justice law” adopted by Colombia, which sets out the rules for the demobilisation of the right-wing paramilitary groups.

According to Amerigo Incalcaterra, the head of the Colombian office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights – known by its Spanish acronym OACNUDH – the law that went into effect two months ago does not provide the essential elements for bringing peace to this South American country, which has been caught in the grip of civil war for over four decades.

Incalcaterra was speaking at a conference on “Paramilitarism, Demobilisation and Politics” held Wednesday in Bogotá.

The law offers procedural benefits, including significantly reduced prison sentences, to paramilitary fighters who lay down their weapons.

It also sets strict time limits for prosecutors to bring charges against and investigate paramilitaries implicated in human rights abuses.

A group of 20 prosecutors has just 36 hours to file charges against demobilised paramilitaries, and only 60 days to investigate cases, even ones involving crimes against humanity.

The London-based rights watchdog Amnesty International warned in a press release this month that “This could, in effect, grant many demobilised guerrillas or paramilitaries de facto amnesties.”

The peace and justice law is also applicable to members of guerrilla groups who are willing to lay down their arms.

In Incalcaterra’s view, the law does not “offer incentives for the illegal armed groups to completely disband and cease their hostilities.” Nor does it “provide adequate guarantees for the rights of the victims of the atrocious crimes committed by the members of these groups,” he added.

Furthermore, the U.N. official argued, the law does not encourage a definitive end to paramilitary attacks or the “effective dismantling” of the groups.

It also extends the same treatment to collective demobilisation by entire groups or “blocs” of paramilitaries, as agreed in the negotiations with the government, as it gives to individuals who decide to lay down their arms outside the context of a prior agreement or ceasefire.

According to OACNUDH, this gives perpetrators of human rights crimes the opportunity to receive broad procedural benefits as individuals, without making any concessions in exchange.

After he took office in 2002, right-wing President Alvaro Uribe opened the door to negotiations with the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) – the umbrella group that links the regional blocs of paramilitaries, which often have close ties to drug traffickers, large landowners, members of the business community and local politicians.

Leading rights watchdogs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented abundant and compelling evidence of the close ties and constant coordination between paramilitaries and government security forces in Colombia.

The negotiations between the Uribe administration and the paramilitaries, which have been held behind closed doors, were preceded by the declaration of a unilateral ceasefire by AUC in December 2002.

Juan B. Pérez, an adviser to the government’s High Commissioner for Peace Luis Carlos Restrepo, who has been involved in the negotiations with AUC, said that since the ceasefire was declared, “massacres have practically come to an end, homicides are down by more than 300 percent, kidnappings have all but disappeared, and no more minors have been recruited.”

But although the number of crimes committed by the paramilitaries has dropped, the Colombian Commission of Jurists, a highly respected human rights group, reports that AUC killed 2,000 people since the ceasefire began.

The United Nations and global human rights group hold AUC responsible for 80 percent of the human rights crimes committed in Colombia’s armed conflict.

European Union donor countries had made the adoption of a law addressing the questions of peace, justice and reparations and laying out the rules for the demobilisation a condition for providing funds for the disarmament process.

The EU Council’s Committee for Latin America (COLAT) postponed until Oct. 3 a meeting to decide whether the European bloc will help finance the process, which has so far received financial support from the United States and smaller contributions from the Netherlands, Sweden and Ireland.

Next week, a COLAT delegation will meet in Bogotá with representatives of Colombian human rights groups and other civil society organisations, in search of input for reaching a decision.

The peace and justice law was vehemently defended Wednesday by prosecutor Mario Iguarán, who was serving as deputy minister of justice until a few weeks ago.

As of August, 11,414 paramilitaries had demobilised. Of that total, 8,789 did so collectively, and the rest on an individual basis. In addition, 5,004 guerrillas have laid down their arms, said Alirio Uribe, director of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective, based on a report that his human rights group had requested from the public prosecutor’s office.

But the peace and justice law will apply to only 55 of the paramilitaries and guerrillas who have taken part in the demobilisation process so far.

“The other 16,363 have already been pardoned, and will not face charges or be investigated,” because they surrendered under previous laws, said Uribe (no relation to the president).

The human rights lawyer warned that when the disarmament process comes to an end in December, “the scenario we are going to be facing is that of the 22,000 fighters who have demobilised, the peace and justice law will apply to perhaps 200, or one percent.”

With respect to the collective demobilisations, a report by the local daily El Tiempo revealed Tuesday that 30 percent of the weapons turned in by the paramilitaries are unusable, and that only 65 percent of the demobilised members of AUC have actually handed in any weapon at all.

And while 6,636 guns have been handed over, AUC chief Carlos Castaño had admitted – before he disappeared in 2004 – that the group had smuggled in 13,000 AK-47 rifles.

In collective paramilitary demobilisation ceremonies, authorities were handed 4,476 rifles, 805 revolvers, 702 pistols, 340 shotguns and a number of homemade firearms.

But AUC’s best weapons apparently remain hidden, and there have been reports that the paramilitaries are selling weapons to gang members and other criminals.

Concern about an “arms race” in the criminal underworld was expressed at the conference on paramilitarism.

Jairo Libreros, an expert in security and defence, estimated that “nearly 70 percent of the grenades are not being handed in. We are going to have 12,000 rifles on the market, as well as 3,000 pistols, 30,000 grenades and even missiles.”

Under the peace and justice law, drug barons could also become beneficiaries of reduced sentences, according to OACNUDH.

In fact, many of the AUC leaders taking part in the talks with the government are known drug traffickers, and several of them are wanted by the courts in the United States, which has requested their extradition.

According to statistics from the U.S. government, Colombia produces 80 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States, the world’s biggest market for illegal drugs.

Drugs serve as a source of financing for all of the illegal groups involved in the armed conflict. In fact, Castaño himself admitted in 2000 that drug trafficking provided 70 percent of AUC’s total financial resources.

Incalcaterra remarked that “the law remains completely silent with regard to the prosecution of public officials who took part as co-participants, planners or accomplices in the crimes committed by members of the paramilitary groups.”

And since the law “does not require a full confession” of the crimes committed by the demobilised paramilitaries, it “fails to guarantee that the right to truth will be respected,” he added.

Under these conditions, the state will not be able to “assume the task of dismantling these illegal structures that have built up over many years in a wide variety of spheres in Colombia,” said Incalcaterra.

“A new law should be drafted,” argued Senator Rafael Pardo, a former defence minister, who said the new law should put an emphasis on providing reparations for victims and survivors of paramilitary abuses.

The state should confiscate the millions of hectares of land that the paramilitaries have seized after forcibly displacing the owners, and set up a reparations fund, he added.

Experts say 4.5 million hectares of Colombia’s best land have changed hands violently as a result of the terror spread by the paramilitaries. But under the disarmament process, many paramilitaries will keep their illegally acquired property.

The number of people forcibly displaced from rural areas, who have swollen the ranks of the urban poor, has climbed over the past 20 years to 3.2 million in this country of 42 million, according to the Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES).

A ripple of laughter ran through the audience at the conference on paramilitarism when Uribe, the human rights lawyer, quoted the response from the public prosecutor’s office with respect to the property that has been returned by the demobilised paramilitaries in different regions.

“The Meta Bloc has handed in three vehicles; the Libertadores Bloc four vehicles, five motorcycles, two speedboats and four engines; and the Montes de María Bloc four vehicles. The Catatumbo Bloc has handed over the largest amount of property: 105 farms, 56 houses, two speedboats, 15 motors and 10 vehicles,” he said.

According to Uribe, the public prosecutors office informed him that of the “11,414 paramilitaries who have demobilised, 13 are commanders, and of these, 10 are facing drug trafficking charges.”

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