Columbia’s International Relations and Domestic Challenges – July 20th – Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Yesterday’s event dealt with a subject that is oftentimes overlooked by the U.S. media. The Columbian Peace Process was the topic of debate, and more specifically, the new Law for Justice and Peace. The law has been debated for two years now, and has gained the support of 70% of the Columbian population. An unprecedented law for Columbia, it seeks to dismantle the Autodefensas Unidas de Columbia (AUC), a large paramilitary force, by offering reduced sentences to those who hand over their weapons. The process has been very successful so far. However, a handful of people – particularly human rights groups – are up in arms (no pun intended) with this legislation. They feel the law doesn’t sufficiently punish those guilty of human rights violations. I witnessed this debate firsthand yesterday, which gave me an opportunity to solidify my own opinion.
First, it’s necessary to examine the history of the AUC. Initially, it was a private force sanctioned by the government to protect civilians from rebel guerillas. In certain parts of the country that lacked any government presence, locals united to form small bands as means of self-defense. After serving this purpose for nearly two decades, the paramilitary bands began changing. Wealthy individuals, particularly those with drug ties, took over existing forces and began using them to protect their own interests. Finally, in 1989, the AUC lost its government sanction.
This colorful history brings an interesting challenge to the peace process. The AUC militants can be seen as both heroes and criminals. In one sense, the government owes them thanks for noble service, but in another, the militants deserve punishment for later crimes. In light of this, the Columbian government has to examine cases on an individual bases, realizing that not all of the AUC members are hardened criminals. All of the current militants have participated in an illegal organization, but not all of them are guilty of equal crimes. Clearly, the problem is more complex than many realize.
Second, those who lobby to have AUC members punished more severely need to look at the significance of the current demobilization. Ultimately, thousands of lives are being saved. However, this demobilization will not continue unless the troops continue to get something in return. Can anyone really think that guerillas will surrender their weapons and cease hostilities if surrender will lead to lifelong incarceration? Many of the militants deserve harsher punishments than they will receive, I don’t deny that. However, in the end, this concession seems a fair price to pay for the rewards of peace throughout Columbia.
In closing, I’d like to make one final point. Before condemning the new Columbian law over technicalities, we in the United States need to take a good look in the mirror. In the U.S., we have a witness protection program that is very similar to what Columbia is trying to achieve. Yet, no human rights groups seem bothered by the fact that we release criminals in exchange for information. If Human Rights Watch doesn’t mind our own system, how can they be so critical of the Columbians? Finally, since Columbia’s violence is fueled primarily by drug trade, one could criticize the U.S. and Europe for purchasing the majority of the drugs. People in the U.S. are providing the money for the AUC’s guns. Hence, Americans should worry about solving our part of the problem, and if we’re not going to help the Columbian government, we should at least get out of its way.