Peace, Displacement and Mobilisation in Colombia

Justice For Colombia News | on: Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Source: Oriel Segon Torra

Source: Oriel Segon Torra

This article appeared in the July 2017 issue of Liberation Journal, Volume 60 No.2, pp.8-9.

By Cherilyn Elston, Programme Assistant, Justice for Colombia.

Despite the historic advances towards peace in Colombia, thousands of people continue to be displaced by violence. On World Refugee Day the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) revealed that between January and May 2017 there were 42 mass displacements in the country, totalling 7,371 people. Worryingly, this figure indicates that the 2017 figures will be higher than those registered in 2016, when 13, 864 Colombians were newly displaced from their homes.

Over 7 million people have been displaced in Colombia during its long-running armed conflict. Although the country has the highest number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the world - more than Syria and Iraq - this aspect of the conflict has failed to receive much international attention. The UNHCR have called this "Colombia's invisible crisis". Millions have been forced to flee their lands as part of a war strategy adopted by armed groups, large landowners, and drug traffickers to take control of valuable territory and geostrategic corridors. This has been termed by some as a "reverse agrarian reform", concentrating an estimated 20 million hectares of land in the hands of only one percent of the population.

According to the UNHCR the recent displacement since the signing of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC-EP in December 2016 is due to the territorial struggle between armed groups for areas previously controlled by the FARC. At the start of this year the FARC moved their approximately 7,000 troops to 26 transition zones, where they are laying down arms. 60% of the FARC's weapons are now in the hands of the UN and complete disarmament is expected to be finalised by the end of June. By 1st August the UN will have removed all arms from the transition zones and these areas will become zones to train and reincorporate FARC members into civilian society.

Whilst the disarmament process has suffered logistical delays, reaching full disarmament will be huge step towards consolidating a lasting and stable peace in the country. Pablo Catatumbo, a member of the FARC secretariat, affirmed that this demonstrated the FARC's commitment to peace: "With this act, the FARC-EP wishes to show Colombia and the rest of the world that we leave war behind to begin writing a new chapter of peace".

Notwithstanding these historic advances, continued displacement is not the only issue challenging the consolidation of peace in Colombia. In May the peace process was thrown into crisis when the Colombian Constitutional Court decided to partially retract its approval of the "fast track". This was a special legislative mechanism that allowed the Colombian Congress to quickly pass the necessary laws to implement the peace deal.

Although the Court had approved the mechanism last December, in a shock decision on 17th May, the magistrates ruled that fast track was unconstitutional as it allowed Congress to vote on the laws to implement the accords in blocks. Stating that this contravened the separation of powers, the Court ruled that Congress will now have to vote on the laws article by article. This will considerably slow the implementation of the peace deal, which has already suffered major delays, and permit possible amendments to the peace agreements.

Whilst the ruling will not affect laws already passed through the fast track process, such as the amnesty bill, it will have a huge impact on the considerable amount of legislation that still needs to be passed. This includes complex issues relating to rural and electoral reform and security guarantees, amongst others. The special peace justice system, which has already been passed by Congress, still needs a statutory law to be fully legalised. Even with the fast track Congress has been painfully slow at passing the necessary laws to implement the agreements.

The ruling, which took many by surprise, came as a result of a suit filed by the opposition senator Iván Duque who has been one of the main critics of the peace process alongside his colleagues in the right-wing Democratic Centre party, led by former president Alvaro Uribe. As the implementation of the peace accords has progressed, its right-wing opponents have ramped up their attacks against the process and the FARC. With presidential elections in 2018 and therefore the end of the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos, there are huge questions over who will make up the next government, especially as it is unlikely the peace accords will be fully implemented by 2018.

For the FARC the minimum that must be achieved before that date include complete amnesty, electoral and political reform, the implementation of the special unit to investigate criminal organisations and the rehabilitation of marginalised territories that have been historically abandoned by the state. This last point, with the implementation of the agreement on comprehensive rural reform, will be key to preventing the continued displacement mentioned above. The peace agreement promises to distribute 3 million hectares of land to landless peasant farmers as well as create mechanisms to resolve conflicts over land rights.

A further key point to prevent the rise in IDPs and violence against communities is the implementation of security guarantees. The Colombian government has begun to pass laws to create a comprehensive security system. On 16th June an elite squad of the Colombian police, agreed in the final peace deal, was created to tackle the presence of paramilitary groups in the country and FARC members have begun to be trained by the National Protection Unit to become bodyguards. Whilst this is a step forward, there is real fear amongst social and political activists about the continued attacks by paramilitary organisations and the failure of the Colombian state to take effective action against them. At least 30 political activists, trade unionists and social leaders have been assassinated so far this year; in addition four members of the FARC have been killed, some of whom had just been pardoned under the Amnesty Law. As the FARC begin the process of establishing a political party after disarmament, the systematic rise in killings has created extreme concerns about the possibility of another political genocide in the country: in the 1980s and 1990s 4,000 members of the Patriotic Union, which was created after a previous peace process, were assassinated.

Justice for Colombia, the British trade union campaign on Colombia, has been campaigning on these issues and raising human rights concerns to both the Colombian and British governments. Of particular concern is the safety of the trade union leader Huber Ballesteros, who was only released from prison in January 2017 after serving 40 months in jail without being convicted of any crime. Since his release he has received seven death threats from paramilitary groups, including threats against his partner and daughter, warning him to stop his trade union and peace activism. It is crucial that the international community does all it can to call for the protection of social leaders in Colombia, who are crucial to the success of the peace deal.

This is not to say that there has been no good news from Colombia. On 20th June David Ravelo, the prominent human rights defender who had campaigned for years against paramilitary violence, was finally released from prison after seven years behind bars. Based on the false testimony of an ex-paramilitary he had been condemned to 18 years in jail for a crime he didn't commit. Justice for Colombia has formed part of an international campaign demanding his release over the last seven years. His case will now be reviewed in the new transitional justice courts, which will be set up as part of the peace process; demonstrating the significance of the peace accords for social and political activists who have suffered gross injustices at the hands of the Colombian state.

The peace process provides an historic opportunity to lay the foundations for a truly democratic Colombia, in which the rights to political opposition are respected. In the last few months we have a seen huge social mobilisations in Colombia, with half a million public sector workers taking to the streets to protest for better pay and working conditions, teachers across the country participating in a month-long strike calling for greater investment in public schools, and a mass civic strike across Colombia's pacific coast over the state's historic neglect of this predominantly Afro-Colombian region. Despite the typically vicious and violent repression of these strikes by the government, these mobilisations represent the power of ordinary Colombians calling for a just and more equitable society, and for peace with social justice.

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