The British government should not support Colombia’s new paramilitary demobilisation law, which Colombian President Alvaro Uribe will promote when he meets with Tony Blair at Downing Street this week, Human Rights Watch said Monday.
‘Uribe is about to sign a law that would let Colombia’s paramilitaries off the hook for their terrorist acts,’ warned José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch said ‘During his visit to Britain, Uribe will present himself as a strong, effective leader in the international fight against terrorism.
‘Relying on this image, and perhaps counting on British sensitivities in the aftermath of the London bombings, he will ask Britain to lend its political and financial support for his own counter-terrorism policies.
‘But Britain should tread carefully.’
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch added: ‘The British government should urge Uribe to scrap this law and replace it with one that allows for a genuine demobilisation of these groups.’
Like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia’s right wing paramilitaries are considered terrorist groups by Britain, the European Union and the United States.
Human Rights Watch said: ‘Financed through drug trafficking, paramilitaries have arbitrarily executed and forced the disappearances of thousands of civilians.
‘Paramilitary leaders have illegally accumulated immense wealth, and their mafia-like organisations exert political control over various sectors of Colombia.
‘Prior to the approval of the demobilisation bill, Human Rights Watch representatives met with President Uribe to discuss their concerns with the law.
‘The European Union stated that its support for the demobilisation process would depend on the law’s compliance with international standards on truth and justice.
‘The United Nations and several US senators, Democrats and Republicans alike, expressed similar misgivings.
‘Nevertheless, the Colombian government disregarded these concerns in drafting the law.
‘The law provides enormous sentence reductions to those responsible for the most heinous atrocities ever committed in Colombia.
‘Likewise, it does not include effective mechanisms, such as full and truthful confessions, in order to fully dismantle paramilitaries’ criminal networks.
‘In recent days, senior Colombian officials have argued that the critics of the law are poorly informed.
‘They claim, for example, that the law provides for confessions.
‘This is untrue: the law states that paramilitaries shall render a “free version” – a spontaneous declaration in which the defendant has no obligation to disclose the truth.
‘In order to receive sentence reductions, they only need to “accept” the charges that are brought against them within the next 36 hours – without confessing anything.
‘Officials in Colombia have said that the law does not promote impunity because it does not provide for a complete amnesty.
‘This is true only in theory: in practice, the law will result in widespread impunity because it imposes drastic limits on the timeframe for investigations of paramilitaries’ crimes, and fails to require their cooperation.
‘These officials have also said that paramilitaries will be required to turn over their illegally acquired assets.
‘The law states that illegal assets must be turned over, but it fails to provide incentives or sanctions to ensure that they are actually forfeited.
‘If it is later discovered that paramilitaries had concealed their illegal fortunes, their sentence reductions cannot be revoked.
‘Even if many paramilitaries turn over weapons, given their almost limitless financial resources, it will be easy for commanders to recruit new combatants.
‘Even if they are convicted, paramilitary leaders will be able to fulfil their sentences in little more than two years.
‘They will then be free with their criminal records clean and their wealth, power and criminal organisations intact.’
Human Rights Watch director Vivanco said: ‘Britain should not lend its support to a process that will only help bolster the power of these terrorist organisations.
‘Nor should the British government become an accomplice to a process that undermines human rights and the already weak rule of law in Colombia.’
Human Rights Watch last June 15, raised concerns when the draft bill was first debated in the Colombian Congress, saying it would leave the underlying structures of those groups intact.
Vivanco warned then: ‘The current bill does little but serve the interests of paramilitary leaders: it doesn’t touch their mafia-like networks or the wealth that fuels their groups’ activities.’
He added: ‘It is a bad deal both for Colombians and the international community, and it sets a disastrous precedent for future negotiations with other armed groups.’
In response to requests from US senators, Uribe pledged to introduce amendments to the draft bill but did not make them public.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the amendments might be only superficial changes that fail to address the bill’s serious problems.
The organisation called on the Colombian Congress to make five essential changes to the bill:
• First, entirely eliminate provisions that (1) force prosecutors to bring all charges within 24 hours after receiving statements from demobilised individuals.
And (2) limit the time for investigation to 30 days after charges are brought. Such limitations in the time for investigation will virtually guarantee impunity, as most cases will either be closed or will result in acquittals.
• Second, in exchange for sentence reductions, paramilitary commanders should be required to give a full and truthful confession and to fully disclose their knowledge of their groups’ operational structure, sources of financing and illegally acquired assets.
Otherwise, it will be practically impossible for the government to obtain the necessary information to uncover the truth about atrocities and dismantle these groups.
l Third, the bill should provide that paramilitaries will lose all their sentencing benefits if they are found to have lied to the authorities about their crimes, operations and finances, or to have kept illegally acquired assets.
This provision is necessary to ensure that the requirements of turnover of assets, confession and disclosure of information are meaningful.
• Fourth, top paramilitary commanders should be barred from receiving sentencing benefits through ‘individual’ demobilisation until the troops they command fully demobilise and cease engaging in atrocities. This provision is essential to ensure the credibility of the process.
• Fifth, the time paramilitary leaders have spent negotiating should not be considered as time served on their sentences.