Since 2003, paramilitary groups, responsible for the vast majority of human rights violations in Colombia for over a decade, have been involved in a government-sponsored “demobilization” process. More than 25,000 paramilitaries have supposedly demobilized under a process which has been criticized by AI and other Colombian and international human rights groups, as well as by the OHCHR and the IACHR. The process is lacking in effective mechanisms for justice and in its inability to ensure that paramilitary members actually cease violent activities.
In fact, paramilitarism has not been dismantled, it has simply been “re-engineered.” Many demobilized combatants are being encouraged to join “civilian informer networks,” to provide military intelligence to the security forces, and to become “civic guards”. Since many areas of Colombia have now been wrested from guerrilla control, and paramilitary control established in many of these areas, they no longer see a need to have large numbers of heavily-armed uniformed paramilitaries.
However, evidence suggests that many paramilitary structures remain virtually intact and that paramilitaries continue to kill. Amnesty International continues to document human rights violations committed by paramilitary groups, sometimes operating under new names, and often in collusion with the security forces.
AI would welcome a demobilization process which would lead to the effective dismantling of paramilitarism and end the links between the security forces and paramilitaries. But the current demobilization process is unlikely to guarantee the effective dismantling of such structures. In fact, it is facilitating the re-emergence of paramilitarism and undermining the right of victims to truth, justice and reparation.
Amnesty International is deeply concerned that the law governing the demobilization of armed groups in Colombia is wholly inadequate. It threatens to guarantee the impunity of those responsible for heinous and widespread human rights atrocities, not only paramilitaries, but also those who have backed the paramilitary such as wealthy landowners, and government and military officials. Furthermore, the demobilization law may not rid the country of the scourge of illegal armed activity and human rights abuses against the civilian population. In fact, it may make the situation worse by:
- Providing de facto amnesties for paramilitaries and guerrillas responsible for serious human rights abuses and violations;
- Perpetuating impunity for human rights abusers and violators thereby undermining the rule of law in Colombia;
- Failing to guarantee the effective dismantling of paramilitary structures by focusing solely on individual combatants;
- Failing to expose those Colombian security forces, government officials, and private citizens who have supported and benefited from the activities of the paramilitary;
- Failing to establish a full and independent judicial process to oversee the demobilization process;
- Neglecting to respect the rights of victims of human rights violations and abuses to truth, justice and reparation.
The legislation was approved in 2005 with the aim of facilitating the supposed demobilization of army-backed paramilitaries. Yet on May 19, 2006, Colombia’s Constitutional Court declared many of the central tenets of the Justice and Peace Law unconstitutional. Today most paramilitaries who have demobilized have benefited from Decree 128 of 2003 under which members of illegal armed groups who are not under investigation for human rights offences receive de facto amnesties. It is precisely because of the endemic problem of impunity in Colombia that most paramilitaries and guerrillas, many of whom are responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other crimes under international law, have never been investigated, let alone been brought to justice for these offences. As such, almost all members of paramilitary groups have already benefited from Decree 128.
Decree 128 grants legal and economic benefits to members of armed groups who have demobilized. These benefits include “pardons, conditional suspension of the execution of a sentence, a cessation of procedure, a resolution of preclusion of the investigation or a resolution of dismissal”.
Amnesty International is concerned that the real aim of the Justice and Peace Law is not only to guarantee the impunity of paramilitaries implicated in human rights violations–including war crimes and crimes against humanity–by failing to ensure that they are subject to full and impartial judicial investigations, but also that their security force backers and others responsible for sponsoring their illegal activities will not be identified and held accountable.
Amnesty International calls on the Colombian government to take all the necessary measures to end impunity, break the links between paramilitaries and the security forces, and guarantee the safety of civilian sectors at particular risk. The Government of Colombia must ensure full and impartial investigations into violations of human rights and that those individuals and sectors responsible for supporting paramilitarism – militarily, politically and economically – are brought to justice. The Government should also reverse proposals which drag civilians further into the conflict and “recycle” paramilitaries, such as the civilian informer network and Decree 2767, which authorizes paid collaboration with the security forces.