Human Rights and Victims Groups Reject Land and Victims Law

News from Colombia | on: Sunday, 10 April 2011

Paramilitary graffiti in a destroyed school

Paramilitary graffiti in a destroyed school

Despite welcoming the important place in the Santos government’s agenda given over to the issue of victims of abuses and displacement, the National Movement of Victims (MOVICE) have stated that they cannot support President Santos’ much-vaunted Land and Victims Law as it stands. The Colombian government argues that the law will provide restitution to the millions of Colombians who have suffered human rights abuses and displacement in the past. However, according to these victims' organisations the proposed law contains “serious gaps and shortcomings” that fatally undermine it. Moreover they also state that some of its elements run counter to Colombia’s international obligations and that if these aren’t addressed they will take the issue to court.

One of several points of contention is that the law has somewhat arbitrary cut off points for claims. Victims of human rights abuses can only make claims going back to January 1st 1986 and victims of displacement to January 1st 1991. MOVICE argue that these dates miss out the founding era of paramilitarism which will mean that victims of several large-scale massacres of the early 1980s will be excluded. Furthermore, the cut off date for victims of displacement is arbitrary and does not take into account that forced displacements have been a factor in Colombia for more than 25 years.

A second important point is that the proposed law does not see the State admit responsibility for the violence and the abuses the victims have been subjected to. According to MOVICE “State crimes were not isolated actions or the responsibility of a few rotten apples in State institutions, rather they are part of a systematic strategy of extermination, designed and executed at the highest level.” Therefore, the State needs to recognise its responsibility because the abuses are the result of the State having neglected its obligations to the population.

According to MOVICE, any law governing the reparation of victims of abuses and displacement would have to begin from the fundamental ethical principles of justice, reparation and guarantees of non-repetition as part of the re-establishment of a democratic system. These principles are enshrined in international law, but MOVICE is concerned that the proposed law has structural restrictions that will prevent full reparation and exclude significant groups of victims as well as favouring the perpetrators of abuses. Moreover, the law does not include any guarantees that more victims will not be created in future since it does not adequately address the issue of justice and does not provide for the protection of those returning to their former landholdings.

Victims' groups also object to their lack of participation in the process of drawing up the law. According to the Inter-American system “there needs to be an open and transparent dialogue with prior consultation of civil society and state institutions.”

The victims’groups also reject the limitations placed on those given victim status under the proposed law. For example, it does not recognise collective victimhood and it severely limits the categories of relative that can claim victim status. Therefore each victim is seen merely as an individual case. A major concern is that Article 3 of the proposed law forbids reparation to victims of common crime. Since the government categorises many paramilitary groups as ‘Criminal Bands’ this opens the distinct possibility that many victims of paramilitary abuses will not be recognised as such and will be excluded from any reparation.

MOVICE argues that any reparation system needs to return the victim to the status quo that existed before the crime against them was committed. The proposed law violates this principle on several points. Firstly, because the restitution only covers rural cases of displacement, ignoring the many cases of forced displacement between towns. Secondly, it does not account for displacement as a result of fumigations. Therefore it misses out two major kinds of displacement. Finally, the law does not provide reparation for loss of machinery, tools or other equipment. Such limitations mean that the proposed law does not address the issue of restitution properly.

The proposed law also contains articles that have the effect of legalising the displacement of some communities since it allows for restitution to be “postponed” in cases where there are “established systems of agricultural, fishing or forestry”. This measure will undoubtedly advantage large landowners who have traditionally benefited from the displacement of small scale producers. Moreover, the law’s Article 98, exchanges the victim’s right to return for financial compensation in cases where it is deemed “in the public or social interest.” This measure, victims' groups argue, will favour the large-scale mining industry which has developed in many areas of forced displacement. Thus the law generally favours compensation over the return to the status quo as is required by international norms.

Finally, the victims' groups note that Colombia’s weak institutional capacity and the confusion over the delineation of responsibilities in defining, determining and administering the reparations will lead to much confusion and competition which will severely affect the way the law is executed, as well as seriously affecting displaced people’s access to the law.

These concerns are being echoed by the Democratic Pole opposition party, which has written to President Santos saying that it cannot support the Victims and Land law until these concerns are addressed. MOVICE are asking the government to bring the law into line with international standards, arguing that the State has a duty to investigate, judge and sanction serious human rights abuses. As part of this effort they are calling on the State to develop adequate means and methods of investigating human rights abuses, and to cleanse its institutions of those involved in abuses, as well as carrying out a true demobilisation of paramilitary forces as part of an integral effort to guarantee the rights of victims and the end of human rights abuses in Colombia.

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