The EU and Colombia: Betraying Responsibility

  • The European Union (EU) is on the verge of sending financial support to implement the atrocious Colombian “Justice and Peace Law” to demobilize that country’s paramilitary groups.
  • The law brings neither justice nor peace to a country which has suffered for decades, while granting impunity to paramilitary human rights abusers and assuring that massive crimes will be minimally punished.
  • Despite widespread international denouncements of the law, the EU, under Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero’s distressing leadership, decided to go ahead and shamelessly pass a resolution in favor of the law.
  • The move is just another example of the EU’s lack of relevance when dealing with the problems of Latin America, as evidenced in the past year with the cases of Haiti and Cuba.
  • In a deeply disturbing move for local and international human rights monitors, both the European Union (EU) and Iberoamerican Community have passed declarations backing a controversial Colombian law that creates a legal framework for the partial peace process now fitfully being seen in the war-ravaged Andean nation. This event has afforded legitimacy, and even the proposal of considerable financial aid, on the part of the EU, for a law which otherwise has been widely viewed as granting impunity to criminals and human rights abusers, while doing little to secure a lasting peace. The declarations follow a summer of feverish lobbying by Colombian authorities, during which they managed to convince an international community which desperately wanted to find a basis for hope, to put their support behind a peace process that to date has produced only spotty results and fails to bring even a semblance of justice to the innocent victims of years of right-wing atrocities.

    A Series of Errors
    The most momentous by far of the new developments was the EU resolution underwriting the new legislation, which is also reflective of other misfit policies that the institution maintains towards Latin America. In the past year, the EU has proven to be completely unable to present a progressive policy for the region and instead has passively aped several of the Bush administration’s most retrogressive issues, including allowing the rabidly anti-Havana policies of the Czech Republic to win out, and backing Washington’s concoction that Haiti was a failed regime that required Prime Minister Jean-Bertrand Aristide be pressed into exile.

    The Colombian case is compounded by the EU’s misguided response to the atrocities taking place in Haiti, where EU Development Commissioner Luis Michel had the effrontery to applaud the performance of the Haitian interim government of Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, which is at best appalling and at worst an insult to even minimal standards of lawful behavior. Michel claimed that “important efforts have been made [in Haiti] with courage and determination.” Though he overlooks the glaring abuses being committed by the Brazilian-led UN peacekeeping mission to that country that has been more well-known for an ability to thoughtlessly kill innocent Haitians than to actually protect and promote peace in a situation that one UN official described as “catastrophic.” All this comes at a time when EU policy towards Latin America has been hijacked by one of its newest members, the Czech Republic. The Czechs, who joined the EU in 2004, have pushed for an even harsher policy towards Cuba and have extensively supported subversive activities in the island nation through various NGOs and in collaboration with the U.S. government rather than promoting progressive dialogue.

    These contrasting episodes are prime examples of how Europe characteristically has displayed selective indignation over hemispheric issues. When it comes down to such concepts as human rights, justice, and peace, the EU tends to just lolly along with whatever plan or proposal regarding Latin America that the White House sends its way. As the self-appointed head of global enlightenment, the EU has turned in a very lackluster performance in condoning the new Bogotá measure which exonerates heinous criminals of their barbarous crimes, including repeated instances of rape and throat-slitting in a series of unspeakably brutal massacres of innocent civilians in a decades-old conflict that has witnessed almost unparalleled violence in Colombia’s entire modern history.

    Failing to Legislate Peace
    The legislation in contention is the “Ley de Justicia y Paz” (Justice and Peace Law) that the Colombian congress passed in June and which took effect after President Álvaro Uribe signed the measure in July. The new law establishes a legal framework for the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a notoriously violent paramilitary organization that even Bogotá officials acknowledge was the worst human rights offender of any armed group in the country. The AUC’s roots are found in the efforts of wealthy landowners who, during the 1960s, looked to these vigilantes to protect their lands from extortion from armed left-wing guerrilla groups. While originally intended to protect large privately owned ranches and plantations, AUC paramilitaries often assumed a far more violent role. They also have been a dominant factor in the drug trade and are guilty of committing almost daily horrific human rights abuses. The United Nations claims (and Bogotá acknowledges) that the group was responsible for 80% of the human rights abuses occurring in Colombia and, in recent years, various AUC leaders have been extradited to the United States for prosecution on drug trafficking charges.

    The law, which has been described by its critics as being “fatally flawed,” seeks to entice the right-wing paramilitaries into demobilizing by practically overlooking their ghastly past crimes, which rivaled those of the Bosnian Serbs. Yet Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero didn’t tout the degree of butchery of innocent Colombian victims with the same indignation that he expressed over comparable events in the former Yugoslavia.

    Prison sentences that even the worst AUC offenders could be exposed to would be limited to a maximum of eight years under country club conditions, and prosecutors are given a relatively narrow window to present their charges. Notorious criminals are protected from extradition to the United States by means of the law’s legalese, which defines paramilitary group membership as an act of “sedition,” which is a crime specifically exempt from extradition under prior Colombian law. In exchange for such drastically reduced exposure to legal retribution, the paramilitaries will be required to turn in their arms but will not be compelled to reveal information about the structure and financing of their gangs nor be detained for long periods of time.

    No Viable Future for Paramilitary Thugs
    By so grievously betraying true justice, it is no wonder that those who find this justice-lite recipe personally repugnant, have denounced it as only guaranteeing impunity for criminals, while doing very little to establish any sort of lasting peace. The New York Times reported in June that “commanders do not have to guarantee that all their fighters will disarm, or that those fighters adhere to a cease-fire.” Furthermore, ex-paramilitaries will likely become increasingly involved in the illegal drug trade after the demobilization is completed, as the law does nothing to prevent them from continuing to utilize the trade as a form of income from an alleged agricultural pursuit. Even The Washington Post, which guardedly supported the law, pointed out flaws in the legislation while explaining, “the risk is that…paramilitary leaders will return to the business of trafficking drugs, terrorizing rural communities and penetrating the Colombian government.” Not only is such a situation possible, but considering the lack of rehabilitation for these career criminals, it is a slam dunk that ex-paramilitaries will increasingly revert to the illegal drug trade for income and a source of power that they could never hope to duplicate legally.

    Furthermore, the law glaringly overlooks the need to find productive ways to incorporate the fighters back into society. Instead, it actually encourages that ex-paramilitaries be given hiring priority at private security firms and within the national police. In fact, the national police has already hired scores of ex-paras, and while the government claims they will not be armed with weapons, there are no guarantees that this will not happen in a society with Colombia’s legacy of corruption, cronyism and violence.

    Shaking Hands with the Devil
    If all these objections weren’t enough to scare off members of the international community, the shaky ground that the law stands on should have been. Bogotá has found it tremendously difficult to simply ensure that the AUC will participate in the demobilization process in which they have promised to take part. The fragility of the process was publicly displayed on October 6, when the AUC abruptly halted demobilizations after powerful AUC leader Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano (a.k.a. Don Berna or Adolfo Paz) was transferred from house arrest to prison. The AUC claimed the government’s actions were part of a greater plan to extradite Berna to the U.S., where he is wanted on drug-trafficking charges. Only further complicating the process are allegations that AUC members have repeatedly violated the ceasefire that was signed in December 2002, which ostensibly established a foundation for the impending demobilizations.

    Recently, the Colombian government was forced to acknowledge some of the inherent deficiencies in its plan, when a neighbor of President Uribe was kidnapped and murdered by a group of demobilized paramilitaries. Following the killing, the government announced it would reward fellow paramilitaries who provided information to the government of any illegal activities in which other ex-fighters might be involved. One has to wonder why such a common-sense measure wasn’t a key part of the peace legislation in the first place, and its absence highlights the basic inadequacy of the Peace and Justice Law. Despite its blatant shortcomings, the Uribe government moved ahead with a public relations campaign for the AUC’s demobilization schedule in an effort to promote international backing for it last summer.

    Global Outrage
    The EU and Ibero-American Community motions to support the legislation came despite an overwhelmingly negative response from much of the international community. Human rights organizations and other NGOs around the world have been steadfast in their denunciations of the Justice and Peace Law. Just days before the September 6 meeting of the EU Committee for Latin America (COLAT), where that indisputably lame body decided to back the law, 155 civic organizations sent an open letter to the EU, attempting to dissuade it from backing the legislation. Amnesty International, which has helped spearhead the international criticism of the law, claimed that it “will guarantee impunity for human rights abusers,” and has waged a worldwide campaign by writing numerous letters to governments urging them to refrain from supporting it, right up to the October 3 EU vote.

    In addition to the international NGO response, the OAS’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has voiced concern over the law, while the UN repeatedly has denounced the measure by saying that it will fail to bring peace and does not go far enough in punishing human rights abusers. Shortly after the Colombian legislature passed the controversial law on June 22, the Bogotá office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OACNUDH) released a statement, asserting that it “offers very generous judicial benefits…to those who have committed grave crimes, without an effective contribution to the clarification of the truth and reparation.”

    With their ears apparently closed to the protestations around the world, the EU and the Ibero-American Community went ahead with plans to back the law. EU support for the measure is especially troubling, as it will most likely lead to later financial support for Colombia’s flawed peace accord. The EU’s decision can be traced back to last year, when, with reservations, the body informed Bogotá that it would provide financial assistance for the demobilization if the Colombians were able to present a legal framework for the process. After passing the law last spring, the Uribe government sought a formal EU resolution in favor of the legislation. To reach that end, President Uribe looked to cash in on his favorable relationship with socialist Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero.

    As Colombia’s main ally in Europe, the support of Spain’s socialist government was imperative if Bogotá was going to convince the EU to offer its backing. Arguing for EU support was on the top of Uribe’s agenda on a July visit to Madrid, where he met with the Spanish leader. Colombia’s request put Zapatero in a tricky position: he repeatedly has declared that protecting and promoting human rights would be a central factor in his foreign policy, but has also made it very clear that he would like Spain to be a conduit through which Latin America can reach the EU. If Zapatero were to coldly reject Uribe’s petition it would surely damage his relationship with Bogotá and could possibly derail his overall foreign policy goals, including the importance of the Iberoamerican Summit mechanism. Zapatero then proceeded to make his true priorities clear when, after the meeting with Uribe, he said his country would back an EU resolution in favor of the Colombian law.

    Colombia Campaigns for Support
    In preparation for the October EU Council vote, Uribe sent his vice president, Francisco Santos Calderón in September, to meet with the European Commission to speak with high-ranking officials. While in Strasbourg, Santos observed a session of European Parliament and met with EU Commissioner for External Affairs Benita Ferrero-Waldner (who does not participate directly in the Council of Ministers). During their meeting, the Colombian official requested “urgent help” from the EU in implementing the Justice and Peace measure. Uribe was also buoyed in his search for an EU resolution by the ongoing support of other European nations for the Colombian peace process. Ireland recently pledged almost €400,000 to the Organization of American States’ (OAS) peace and verification mission in the country, while other countries such as the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Sweden openly back the law. Such strong in-house support undoubtedly helped the Colombian president win official EU support and indicates a generalized approval for any form of resolution to the Colombian conflict, be it just or not. Indeed, it came as no surprise when the EU Council of Ministers passed a resolution in favor of the law on October 3.

    The European Union Council’s Conclusions on Colombia expresses the EU’s “total solidarity with the Colombian people, and its full support for the Colombian Government in its search for a negotiated solution to the internal armed conflict.” While the Council claims it “noted” the UN High Commissioner on Human Right’s analysis of the law, it still “confirmed the readiness of the EU and its Member States to assist the Colombian government and civil society in providing support.” This declaration was, in essence, the first step towards EU financial assistance for Colombian demobilization efforts, even though such an action would breach the fair and humane policies the international community is supposed to enforce, and of which Europe has so proudly proclaimed itself as being their champion.

    Responsibility Betrayed
    As one of the largest, most influential political blocs in the world, when it comes to justice in Colombia, the EU has grossly failed in its task of acting as a monitor of the fundamentals of international justice. As a major source of international aid, the EU must press the Colombian government to adopt a peace process that will effectively bring justice to the victims of the thousands of violent crimes that have occurred over decades of war, rather than uncritically sign off on a flawed measure like the Justice and Peace Law, which is unlikely to achieve even its minimal ends. By capitulating to Uribe’s lobbying, the EU ensures that an ineffective and incomplete demobilization process will continue to take place in Colombia, while justice is trampled underfoot.