More than any of his predecessors, President Alvaro Uribe has made combating the insurgents the overriding priority and defining objective of the Colombian government. Through modest achievements on the ground a sense of public security has begun to be re-established. However, Uribe’s “Democratic Security Policy” (DSP), the long-term strategy promised to lend coherence to the security effort, has been stalled for nearly a year by political infighting and fundamental arguments over how best to bring the 40-year conflict to a close. Without some serious modifications, it is doubtful that it will achieve its goal.
Under the DSP, Uribe has sought to regain control of the country by increasing the numbers and capacity of troops and police units and by deploying them across the country to challenge the guerrillas. This has been accompanied by a major increase in the eradication of illicit crops, aimed as much at denying revenues to the guerrillas and paramilitary groups as at reducing coca and opium poppy production. At the same time, the government has bolstered protection of oil and natural gas pipelines to safeguard that source of income and deny funds to the illegal armed groups, who had become accustomed to extorting payoffs by threatening attacks against those facilities.
While strengthening Colombia’s formal security structure, Uribe unveiled three other, less formal mechanisms to boost security which have generated widespread controversy. First, he initiated a network of more than one million civilian collaborators and informants who are paid to provide information about the insurgents. This has raised concerns that the collaborators may use their power to pursue personal vendettas and that such a system undermines community trust. Secondly, he organised a semi-trained peasant militia force whose members operate in their own home communities. Their isolation and generally poor training, however, have left them vulnerable to targeted attacks by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). Thirdly, initially through executive decree and subsequently through anti-terrorist and other proposed legislation, Uribe has begun to grant the military a range of police powers, with neither judicial approval nor oversight, limiting individual civil liberties in the process.
These policies create the potential for arbitrary action by the security forces that would diminish the credibility of the government’s appeal for international support and regional cooperation and threaten to cloud somewhat the legitimacy of its actions against the illegal armed groups. Sending a message that the security forces would be more successful if less constrained by the state’s human rights obligations is dangerous and, as history has often shown, counterproductive.
The bulk of the conflict, including the increased number of clashes resulting from Uribe’s more aggressive security policy, has taken place in rural Colombia. The absence of any coherent rural development policy constitutes perhaps the most serious threat to the potential effectiveness of the DSP. Making lasting gains against the insurgents will be difficult, if not impossible, unless rural communities see clear and immediate benefits in the government campaign. A comprehensive policy aimed at reducing poverty in the countryside, investing in social programs, and establishing the rule of law is a necessary complement to the military components of the DSP; its absence makes the military task more difficult.
The surprising failure of Uribe’s referendum on political and economical issues on 25 October 2003 may force a change in the way his government formulates its policies, particularly the DSP. It would certainly be wise, in this context, to launch a rural development initiative that would assist coca farmers, slow the flow of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), and provide a reason for the rural population to be more enthusiastic about the DSP.
The government should also keep up the pressure on the paramilitaries, especially those not participating in the present talks, and ensure that any settlement with paramilitaries does not allow serious offenders against human rights to escape prison. Finally, it needs to make clear that, while its goal is to defeat the insurgents, the DSP does not close the door on the possibility of negotiated settlements. In fact, the realistic objective of a modified DSP should be to push the insurgent groups, as well as all paramilitaries, into serious negotiations.
To the Government of Colombia:
1. Amend the Democratic Security Policy (DSP) to incorporate both a strategy to reinforce the judiciary and the rule of law and a high priority development initiative that includes a sustainable land reform program to reduce rural poverty.
2. Revise pending legislation to:
(a) End impunity in the paramilitary demobilisation process by incorporating prison sentence provisions in the “near pardon” or “veiled amnesty” bill, particularly for those who have ordered or committed crimes against humanity;
(b) Withdraw the legislative proposals to restrict the competence of the constitutional court and the right of citizens to legal protection if their fundamental rights are threatened; and
(c) conform the proposed anti-terrorist legislation with Colombia’s obligations under international law.
3. Introduce civilian control and Congressional oversight of the informants program and establish the National Defence Council to guarantee effective civilian-military cooperation in security policy.
4. Direct law enforcement units and armed forces commanders to bring to justice as a matter of highest priority those paramilitaries who do not adhere to the ceasefire and who continue to be involved in kidnappings and drug trafficking.
5. Continue to improve the capabilities and professionalism of the armed forces and conduct military operations aimed at denying territorial control and sanctuary to illegal forces.
6. Strengthen fundamental rights by putting an end to arbitrary detentions and house arrests based on evidence “provided by informants”.
7. Broaden security cooperation with Colombia’s neighbours.
8. Underscore the President’s continuing willingness to negotiate settlements if the insurgents and paramilitaries meet the ceasefire conditions and end kidnapping and humanitarian law violations.
To Colombia’s Neighbours:
9. Provide the necessary humanitarian and legal assistance and protection to the increasing number of Colombian refugees.
10. Share intelligence and military information with the Colombian military to stem the movement of illegal forces, weapons and drugs across common borders.
To the U.S. and Other Donors:
11. Insist that any security assistance be conditioned on respect for human rights, measures to end impunity, and the severing of remaining linkages between security forces and the paramilitaries.
12. Insist that demobilisation of the paramilitaries and the insurgents adhere to international human rights standards, ensuring that those who were responsible for crimes against humanity neither escape jail nor are permitted to retain land or other assets obtained through murder, intimidation or other illegal action.
13. Provide technical, financial and communication aid to the Colombian government and civil society to design, fund and implement a comprehensive national rural development strategy to reduce rural poverty, which should be the centrepiece of the next international donors meeting, be implemented incrementally as security conditions permit, and become a model for similar action in other Andean countries.
Bogotá/Brussels, 13 November 2003