WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
29 Sep 2010 | Commentary | News

Criminalizing the Construction of Peace in Colombia

On Monday, in what appears to be a blatant political move, Colombia's Inspector General removed long time peace activist Senator Piedad Córdoba, with whom WOLA has worked for years, from office for allegedly aiding the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group. Senator Córdoba is banned from holding public office for eighteen years.

Though she got the third highest vote total among her Liberal Party's 17 senators during March 2010 elections, Senator Córdoba is a controversial figure in Colombia. She has a notoriously undiplomatic manner, speaks fondly of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and has been an outspoken critic of former President Alvaro Uribe and other figures on Colombia's political right.  She is one of the most leftist figures in Colombian political life, and Inspector-General Alejandro Ordóñez is one of the furthest to the right. Nonetheless, the IG's message to Colombians is clear—try to push for a negotiated solution to the conflict and we will ruin you.

While many in Colombia hold conferences and write reports about the pursuit of a politically negotiated peace or a possible deal to free guerrilla hostages, Córdoba has delivered results. In 2007, President Uribe agreed to allow her, along with Venezuelan President Chávez, to serve as government sanctioned facilitators of talks with the FARC to secure the release of Colombian, US and French hostages. Despite Uribe's abrupt removal of this role after a few months, their efforts convinced the FARC to liberate hostages Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez, whom the guerrillas had held in captivity for six torturous years. Since then, Senator Córdoba and a group of concerned prominent citizens, Colombians for Peace, continued to advocate for a politically negotiated solution to the conflict and more releases. The FARC released more hostages due to these efforts.

Perhaps less known are Senator Córdoba's efforts to guarantee truth, justice and reparations to the victims of the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitaries extradited to the United States. Currently, the U.S. has in its custody a total of thirty former paramilitaries, including fourteen of the AUC's top leaders that are being charged solely with drug crimes. These men, however, are also responsible for the worst atrocities in the country's recent history. Their actions include the killing of thousand civilians, human rights defenders, Afro-Colombian, Indigenous and trade union leaders. Prior to their extradition to the U.S. in 2008, demobilized paramilitaries were participating in Colombia's justice and peace process where they were beginning to reveal key information as to how, why and with which politicians' consent they committed such atrocities. Much of the truth telling on the part of these men was cut short due to their extradition, leaving many victims families unable to heal from the hurt they suffered and not fully enabling the society to know the political, economic and other links that enable these horrific operations to take place.

Teaming up with pro-Uribe Senator Rodrigo Lara, Senator Córdoba established a Senate Comission on the Extradited. The Comission has traveled to the United States several times to guarantee that the former Commanders of the AUC provide information that countless victims' families need to learn the truth behind their relatives' murders, disappearances and displacements. Key information is needed in order to guarantee that repetition of such atrocious crimes will not take place and for Colombians to reconcile. For Piedad, who was kidnapped by the AUC in 1999, spent several weeks in exile in Canada, and suffered multiple assassination attempts; this engagement with the AUC's leadership for the sake of Colombian victims can only be described as admirable.

Efforts to discredit Piedad Córdoba's political reputation are not new. She is possibly the political opposition figure who received the most vocal criticism under the Uribe Administration, given her fierce critique of the government's policies. Documents obtained in a 2009 raid on the Colombian presidential intelligence agency (DAS) offices by the Attorney General revealed that a special unit within this agency was seeking to "neutralize and restrict" the activities of human rights groups and any voices critical of the Uribe administration. Known as the DAS-scandal, it came to light that the DAS was systematically and without warrants tapping the phones and emails of Colombia's human rights groups, journalists, Supreme Court magistrates, opposition politicians, Afro-Colombian leaders, and labor groups. Actions often went further, to include what presidential intelligence documents called "political warfare": generating false links between such persons and the illegal armed groups. Senator Piedad Córdoba was among the members of the opposition victimized by the DAS's actions.

While the Inspector General has the authority to fire Piedad Córdoba from her Senate seat, and while all allegations of support for illegal armed groups should be investigated, it certainly appears that this move was motivated by a political vendetta against the Senator. This decision does not only affect Piedad and her movement, Colombians for Peace, it also raises huge obstacles for future efforts of brave Colombians willing to fight the often unpopular fight for peace.

It shows a dangerous arbitrariness regarding what constitutes contact with armed groups to achieve peaceful or humanitarian goals, and what constitutes support for that armed group. Where is the line between giving advice to a "terrorist" group that might steer them toward negotiations, and giving advice to a "terrorist" group that someone like the Inspector-General might construe as support for terrorism?

This lack of clarity is a strong disincentive to future "track two" or citizen peacemaking efforts, even those that have explicit government authorization. It sends a very negative message to the countless victims, displaced persons and FARC-held hostages who saw hope in Piedad's message that peace through dialogue is possible. In the words of longtime victims' advocate and Member of Congress Ivan Cepeda, "This is a blow to democracy and an obstacle for the work towards peace in Colombia."

Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, Adam Isacson and Anthony Dest, Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)