Colombia: The Victims’ Hour

Paula Gaviria leads the Unit for Victims’ Attention and Reparation within the Colombian government and has a civil society background. 1

colombia quiere la paz In September 2012 Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos Calderón announced that the national government would begin peace negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The talks could end the hemisphere’s longest-running armed conflict, which has already created at least 5.8 million victims, or 12 percent of Colombia’s population. Thanks to the Victims and Land Restitution Law, which the Colombian congress approved in 2011, victims will be at the center of the peace process.

Over six decades, the Colombian congress repeatedly granted amnesties and pardons to members of armed groups, and almost every administration initiated peace talks and negotiations with insurgent leaders. The United States, the European Union, Canada, Japan, and the Rio Group—composed of most Latin American and Caribbean countries—supported Colombian initiatives combining military strategies and regional development programs. Under Plan Colombia, which began in 1998, the country saw increased military and police counterinsurgency and counter-drug action as well as expanded social services to rural areas. International actors also supported peace conferences and the joint mission abroad of a delegation consisting of state officials and guerrilla leaders in 2000. The Justice and Peace Law of 2005 established incentives to demobilize paramilitary commanders and fighters.

The law has forced the government to revise old paradigms, overcome prejudices, and recognize victims as subjects of rights and duties.

The Victims and Land Restitution Law of 2011 provides for reparations for those who have been victims of forced displacement, forced dispossession or abandonment of land, homicide, kidnapping, torture, forced disappearance, recruitment of children, antipersonnel landmines, and sexual crimes during the conflict, starting from January 1, 1985. Implementation began in January 2012. The law stipulates that victims must receive comprehensive reparation and assistance through a national system that establishes complementary responsibilities for forty-two entities, coordinated by the government’s Unit for Victims’ Attention and Reparation under my leadership. A total of 54.9 trillion pesos—$30.1 million—have been earmarked for the ten years that the law will be in effect, and a national plan for the assistance and integral reparation of victims has been approved, including a mechanism for continuous monitoring and review.

The Colombian model that will be implemented by the Unit for Victims’ Attention and Reparation has moved from one of humanitarian support and assistance to a system of compensation, restitution, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and guarantees that victims will not be victimized again. The system is based on psychosocial intervention, which suggests that the lasting effects of victimization can be addressed by improving the circumstances of victims’ lives now, and a do-no-harm approach. The new model recognizes the potential of victims rather than only calculating the damage or losses the conflict has caused; it accounts for a victim’s gender and ethnicity, the type of victimization, and the victim’s specific situation of vulnerability; and it prioritizes the rights of children and adolescents.

The Unit for Victims’ Attention and Reparation is working with victims to create avenues for individual and collective reparation. Between January and July 2012, we resolved 55,653 administrative reparations that had been stalled for different reasons. We also created a unified registry of victims because victims had not been a category of person that was tracked centrally like internally displaced persons or refugees. By the end of this year, we will have assessed 100,000 new requests for registration and improved our single declaration form, applying differential approaches and distinguishing among different types of victimizing actions.

Time is now on the side of the victims of Colombia’s conflict. No one can stop this process.

The 2011 law has caused the government to embark on an institutional transition, forcing it to revise old paradigms, overcome prejudices, and recognize victims as subjects of rights and duties. We believe strongly that victims should engage with political decision makers, who in turn should acknowledge and respect victims’ interests and guarantee their access to information and the goods and services stated in the law. As victims begin asserting their rights, the government must adhere to higher political and ethical standards to prevent fiscal constraints, adjustment programs, and the world financial crisis from being invoked to justify denying or delaying settlement of the social debt owed to victims.

The Victims and Land Restitution Law unquestionably has paved the way for Colombia’s new peace process, and it is already a fact that protecting the rights of victims will be a priority throughout the negotiations. The entire process is certainly an encouraging development for victims, as negotiations will also include discussions of rural development, expanded protections to exercise political opposition and citizen participation, disarmament, ceasefires, and a solution to the problem of drug trafficking. With this agenda, the state resumes the search for solutions to many of the conflict’s underlying causes.

Time is now on the side of the victims to Colombia’s conflict. No one can stop this process, and the victims are watching expectantly for the full implementation of the law. It is up to us to ensure that they do not watch and wait in vain.

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