Armed Conflicts, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

Q&A: Land and Victims Law Crucial for Millions of Displaced Farmers in Colombia

Helda Martínez interviews Liberal Party lawmaker GUILLERMO RIVERA

BOGOTÁ, Jun 10 2011 (IPS) - The Victims and Land Restitution Law, signed Friday by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, “is an important message for reconciliation in the country,” said lawmaker Guillermo Rivera, one of the sponsors of the law.

Liberal Party legislator Guillermo Rivera.  Credit: Helda Martínez/IPS

Liberal Party legislator Guillermo Rivera. Credit: Helda Martínez/IPS

After four years of hurdles and delays, including the public opposition of former president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), the 76-page bill was finally signed into law by Santos in the presence of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

One of the other personalities present was Yolandé Mukagasana, a Nobel Peace Prize candidate who lost her family in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and now works to support victims in different parts of the world.

The new law shows that Colombian society “is finally paying attention to the five million people who live in destitution and humiliation,” the Liberal Party member of the lower house of Congress, who was a staunch opponent of Uribe, said in this interview with IPS.

Rivera and Liberal Parry Senator Juan Fernando Cristo were responsible for the first version of the bill in 2007. They are both from regions involved in the civil war between state security forces, leftwing guerrillas and far-right paramilitaries.

Q: What is the key feature of the Victims and Land Restitution Law? A: The message it sends out. I think it basically expresses the will of Colombian society and its representatives in Congress, because it enshrines a state policy and grants recognition to the victims.

Laws have material and symbolic effects. In this case, the material effect will be the restitution of the land, the payment of reparations to the victims and their access to the law’s judicial guarantees.

The symbolic message is reconciliation, with Colombian society finally paying attention to the five million people who live in destitution and humiliation.

Q: The law was passed in a context of ongoing violence. Social organisations and leaders have denounced the murder of 49 rural activists since 2002, and 12 more since August 2010, when Santos took office, including Ana Fabricia Córdoba, the cousin of former senator Piedad Córdoba. A: We are concerned about the murders of social leaders and we believe government policies to protect them are urgently needed. But it is a mistake to mix up this law with murders committed by common criminals, because that would endorse the arguments of the right.

Q: Can this law be effective in the midst of such violence? A: To answer that we must reflect deeply: should victims have to wait until the end of the conflict, which began in the 1960s, for reparations? I don’t think so.

The conflict that has lasted so many decades, and has intensified in the last two decades, is crying out for the state to respond now. In the face of the violence, effective solutions need to be found urgently, in line with obligations under the constitution.

A strategy to combat the “bacrim” (“bandas criminales”, criminal gangs that were formed after the demobilisation of the paramilitary militias) is already in place, but we cannot afford more failures or delay an effective response. I recognise the government’s effort in passing this law, but the vacuums must be filled as soon as possible.

I would emphasise that the violence will not be overcome by a law that provides for assistance, reparations and humanitarian aid.

Q: Will the law influence the search for peace? A: There are many challenges. In my view, it will be very important to closely scrutinise the individuals who make up the institutions responsible for implementing the law.

But the biggest challenge will be to form a victims’ federation, with spokespersons in local organisations, with dialogue and communication with the media and academic circles, which would have the political muscle to contribute to the fight against all the organised crime groups embedded in the armed forces and even politics.

Absalón Machado (an expert on agrarian and economic issues) pointed out that former president Carlos Lleras (1966-1970) strengthened his agrarian reform programme by helping to create ANUC, the national association of campesinos (small farmers).

At this moment in history, we have to make a similar effort, and very quickly. That is our real commitment.

Q: Another major concern is the overlap between the areas of land restitution, and the areas where the “bacrim” and multinational mining companies operate. A: All the enclave economies are a cause for concern: drug trafficking, the “bacrim” or “demobilised” paramilitaries – “demobilised” in quotation marks because they are still operating; and those who want to corner the entire income of territorial entities (municipalities, indigenous territories, etc.) and other phenomena that urgently require policies so the law can be enforced.

The law is reasonably well-designed, although it is true it has flaws that require corrective measures, as well as a huge campaign to provide information for citizens that will lead to the election of governments and politicians with absolutely no connections with any of those groups.

Q: The Colombian Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has made recommendations about the law. Do you agree with them? A: I agree with most of them. I proposed many of these ideas myself, but they were defeated at the time in Congress. For instance, I believe it should never have been said that a member of an illegal group, who as well as committing crimes was also a victim, should be recognised as a victim by the law. I could mention many examples that have been underscored by the High Commissioner and other officials.

This is why it is very important that all the media enthusiasm should not fizzle out this Friday, with the signing of the law.

I hope we will carry out the symbolic reparations creatively, so that together with organisations of human rights defenders, young people, academics and large numbers of other citizens, we may affirm that we live in a society that has a memory, where reconciliation is possible.

That’s why, when people congratulate me, I say that this is only the beginning and there is still much to be done.

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