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Should we talk to rebel groups?
Some argue dialogue with violent groups is the only way forward.

What's the issue?

In Colombia, right-wing paramilitaries, left-wing guerrilla groups and drug-rich criminals have waged unrelentingly brutal assaults on the civilian population. They claim thousands of lives every year. In situations of political instability, where human rights are violated by 'non-state actors', is dialogue with these violent groups the only way forward?

What people think

  • "Communication is the single most essential part of any conflict resolution...It is therefore essential that dialogue never be cut off with any group, no matter how hostile."
    Jonathan C. Allen, Massachusetts, USA
    (Read this comment in full)



This programme in the 'I have a right to...' initiative was first broadcast on 27 October 2000. It was presented by BBC World Affairs Correspondent Rageh Omar and produced by Charu Shahane.

"I always pray to God to give me the strength to continue - because I will never, ever stop looking for my daughter. I appreciate the attention I've got from the local press because here in Colombia, what usually happens is that a case is put into a file and they never look at it again. But my case is taking on a new life because the press has been covering it. So I don't feel alone whilst looking for my daughter. But it makes me really angry that there is so much injustice in Colombia".

Florinda Farfan whose 11-year-old daughter Juanita was abducted nearly five years ago from the street in front of her school. According to her schoolmates, two men drove up to the girls, bundled Juanita into a red car and sped off. Neither her friends nor her mother seen have Juanita since then.
This is a peace meeting in a wealthy residential area in the Colombian capital Bogotá. It's been organised by a group of women whose husbands, brothers or and children have been kidnapped. Colombia is said to be the kidnap capital of the world - an estimated 3,000 people were abducted last year alone for ransom. Most of the organisers of this peace meeting know somebody who has been taken away and then released after a few weeks, a few months or even a few years depending on when they can pay the ransom demanded. But one of Florinda's greatest difficulties is that she has never been able to establish who kidnapped her daughter.

"I really don't. I don't know who took her. The truth is I don't have a lot of money and I haven't had a lot of help to find out. Since my daughter was abducted five other children have disappeared from the same neighbourhood and we don't know what's happened to them. Police have suggested these are criminal rings which nab young women to sell them into prostitution, or Satanic groups. Or it could be the guerrillas or the rebels - but the truth is, I don't know - it could be any of those".

Florinda's problem - and that of the whole of Colombia - is that there are so many armed groups, each with their own agenda, and all out of control. The conflict has killed 35,000 people since 1990 and made nearly 2 million homeless in a country of 40 million people. In this programme I'll be focusing on the powerful rebel groups who have formed a state-within-a state - or non-state actors as they're sometimes called. How can guerrilla groups be held to account for THEIR human rights abuses when the government itself seems to be powerless to stop them? It's an issue the international community has been forced to confront as it seeks to resolve conflicts around the world. Human Rights lawyer Professor Christine Chinkin outlines the difficulties:

"Guerrilla groups by definition are fighting against governmental authority. The dilemma for the government is both how to maintain its own protection of human rights and at the same time to minimise those that are committed by guerrilla groups. And just to further complicate issues there are in fact two separate legal regimes applicable to the guerrilla groups - there's the so-called international humanitarian law which is the law that is applicable in forms of armed conflict. But then there are also basic human rights norms".

The experience of countries like Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cambodia and the UK with Northern Ireland has brought into sharp focus the issue of human rights abuses by guerrilla groups. In some of those countries, political wings of rebel groups have eventually became part of the government - and the abuses they committed whilst in opposition remain a source of anguish with many people. While there's no doubt that they are covered by international law, the harsh reality is that the law is hard to apply - especially in countries like Colombia.

For nearly forty years the Colombian army and police have been involved in a bitter struggle for power with left-wing guerrilla groups, the biggest of which is the FARC - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. In more recent years, this has become a multi-pronged fight - between the army, two big left-wing guerrilla groups and forces of RIGHT-wing PARAMILITARIES set up to combat left-wing rebels. Add to these well-trained forces, a smaller but ruthless number of drugs lords and criminals - and you have a hotbed of brutality and lawlessness - the backdrop to the lives of ordinary Colombians.

This is the province of Urbana in north-western Colombia on the border with Panama. This region is also a battle ground of Colombia's guerrillas and paramilitaries. Over the years the fighting has killed hundreds of civilians and several thousand have been forced from their homes and farms.

"The first thing they do when the arrive at a place is to murder the families of the peasants. Many relatives are assassinated by the paramilitaries and the guerrillas. That's what they do when they want to gain control of a community".

Father Leonidas Moreno Gallego, the director of the parish in the town of Apartado in Urbana. The left-wing FARC once controlled this area - but NOW its the paramilitaries who are in charge:

"This fear, these clashes, this war creates a spectre of horror that drives people away from their homes. That's one of the worst things - because you're denying people the right to live on their land. They polarise the communities by pointing fingers at individuals and accusing them of supporting the enemy".

The beleaguered civilian population has been trying to find a way of persuading the armed groups to leave them in peace. They have formed what they call communities of peace - in which the local families pledge to be neutral in the conflict, refuse to carry arms, and then negotiate with all the armed groups to be left in peace. But it doesn't always work. It certainly didn't at the San Jose peace community:

"I was here with my husband sitting on the bed. Our children had gone to chapel and we were waiting for them to come back. We heard some people outside and I told my old man if we don't open the door they will kick it in. So I got up and opened it and they ordered me to switch on the light. They killed my husband".

Maria Alma Delfa Himinez - whose husband was shot dead last February - as far as she knows by right-wing paramilitaries. San Jose was the most established of the peace communities -started in March 1996 by church groups, non-governmental organisations and farmers. They had hoped the moral authority of the church and the community would keep all the armed groups out. It didn't.

"The man who came to my house to get my husband - I had seen him in the area before. He had come here with the army".

This is the first time Maria Alma has spoken to anyone about her husband's murder. She makes a common accusation - that the paramilitaries work with the active support of the Colombian army - it's an allegation that human rights groups say they have verified. The London-based charity Christian Aid supports a number of local organisations in Colombia. It's programme officer for Colombia is Fran Witt:

"Evidence from the Human Rights Watch report that was published earlier this year suggested links between ten of Colombia's army brigades and paramilitary groups. And also testimonial evidence from our partners and the communities that Christian Aid supports has suggested that there is collusion between the military and the paramilitaries and this continues today".

The government has in fact taken action against some officers including two generals with proven links with the paramilitaries. But with elements of the Colombian military accused of collusion with some armed groups and apparently unable to contain others - and with civilian efforts ineffective, how can the violence be curtailed? The President of Colombia Andres Pastrana's surprising solution has been to accommodate the rebels - at least some of the left-wing ones.

A check-point en route to Caquetta in south eastern Colombia. It gets you to what's know as the demilitarised zone. This is an area effectively controlled by the biggest of the left-wing groups the FARC. And that means the group also controls the cattle ranchers and coca farmers who live here.

Preparations are underway - yet again - for celebrations marking the launch of the FARC's political party - the Bolivarian Movement.

"Our guerrilla organisation, the FARC started 36 years ago as a political fight against a repressive oligarchic regime. Our fight has always been a political one".

A feared commander of the FARC - Jorge Briceno, nicknamed Mono Hohoy. FARC's leaders call themselves revolutionaries, saying their war against the government is a just fight on behalf of millions of poor and disenfranchised people. But their battles with Bogotá have resulted in thousands of deaths and kidnappings, torture and large-scale displacement. Two years ago Andres Pastrana controversially decided to open a dialogue with the FARC - and to foster conditions for peace talks, he withdrew the army from Caquetta, creating a safe haven for the guerrillas.

"Before the safe haven was granted - around the beginning of 1998, we started to see a real increase in violent deaths. And then immediately after the safe haven was introduced there were fewer deaths".

Dr Maria Emelia Failia, the Director of the San Raphael hospital in San Vicente del Caguan, the capital - as it were - of the demilitarised zone.

"Before the safe haven was created, the two sides were involved in a war with each other. The civilian population was caught in the crossfire between the guerrillas and the army.Then when this zone was demilitarised people were terrified because we didn't know what would happen - but what's really happened is that there's been a drop in tension".

There's an uneasy peace now but also a sense that the government can't be seen to fail in this endeavour to calm the country. Dr Failia certainly notices the difference in the government's approach to the region.

"Well, I certainly feel more at ease now about the security situation as a civilian. And as a doctor,with regard to health, the government is giving us much more money and support than it did earlier - because San Vicente del Caguan is under the spotlight now. We get more resources for the hospital, staff and medicines so, ironically, things have improved for us in that way as well".

For years the government refused to talk to the FARC, calling it a terrorist organisation, and insisting that a military solution would be sufficient to tackle the group. It was wrong - the FARC only gained strength, becoming the de-facto government in areas it managed to wrest from the authorities. The demilitarised zone from which the army has withdrawn is an area the size of Switzerland - and the FARC is its effective master.

"The FARC are looking for a new Colombia - to build a new democratic state. Colombia has a constitution, it has laws, but they are only on paper, they're not being fulfilled and this system caters to a minority".

Ivan Riyos, a member of the FARC's Central Council. We met him in a concrete office block - the only building for miles in the hills around San Vicente. It's just been built and is well supplied with phones and faxes and e-mail - all the trappings of a business-like set-up. The FARC argues that it should be treated as a legitimate alternative to the Colombian government. The group casts doubts on the validity of Colombia's democracy which has led to two parties dominating government right through the country's history.

"We don't believe that we are saviours. That's not the job of the FARC. We are here to fight on behalf of the majority of people and to act as leaders for the people in order to achieve deep rooted change - so that we can all live in a just state and in peace".

So are they romantic revolutionaries or brutal terrorists? Servants of the people or ruthless warlords? Either way, the FARC is desperate to be seen as a political opposition. They've been trying - but the last time a left-wing guerrilla group tried to contest elections, 2000 members of its associated political party were murdered - allegedly by government-backed hit squads determined to wreck its chances during the elections. But now there's little doubt that the FARC's political standing has risen - both within the country and internationally.

"We do have international recognition. We've had invitations to visit many European countries. We also have a diplomatic presence in many Latin American and European countries. We recently completed a tour of Europe as a combined delegation with the government. So our organisation does have national and international recognition".

In a sense he's right. Although many non-governmental groups like Christian Aid are forbidden by their charter to have anything to do with armed groups, the FARC's new found confidence stems from its growing legitimacy outside Colombia. Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, says international organisations have increasingly begun to feel that they must create a dialogue with rebel groups in order to stop the violence in a region.

"Yes, we do, and have to, talk to groups like the FARC and it has to be done on the language of human rights. I am going very shortly to the Democratic Republic of Congo, _ I will be meeting both government and rebel forces in the context of a war involving more than seven countries in Africa. And I will be urging the need to comply with international human rights norms and standards and international humanitarian law".

But within countries there's often considerable opposition to negotiating with people perceived as terrorists. Colombia was bitterly divided over President Pastrana's efforts to bring the FARC into the fold. So does talking to guerrilla groups only legitimise their activities? Mary Robinson again:

"That was the view in the past. But in fact, it is so important to not only address the killings, murder, the extra-judicial killings, the activities...there is a link with the responsibility of government. It is still the primary responsibility of governments to protect their citizens. So part of the dialogue is to get governments to take action against armed groups".

The trouble is, there is a further complication for which Colombia is only too well known - the drugs trade. What started off in the 1960s as an ideological war between the left and the right has assumed a new form now - its a territorial war to control coca farms and drug trafficking routes. With the aim of dealing with all these problems - the drugs trade, left-wing groups, right-wing paramilitaries, general criminality and the contributing factor of poverty, President Pastrana initiated a package that has come to be known as Plan Colombia. Jamie Ruis is his special advisor:

"Plan Colombia is really a commitment of both Europe, the US, Japan because this is a problem that is not only of Colombia. When somebody uses drugs in Europe they don't really think they're financing a conflict somewhere else.
More and more we're finding out that the diamond trade is financing the war in Africa and the drug trade is financing wars here. Plan Colombia's really telling both Europe and the US: 'this is also your problem'. So we need to solve it - not only with a military force to help lower the amount of drugs but also with social and economic development for those peasants that have no other alternative".

Plan Colombia is a military, social and economic programme worth seven and a half billion dollars. The part that's really dominating the headlines is a one-point-three billion dollar package from the United States. Most of which is aimed at tackling drugs production by boosting the military's capacity to combat armed groups which control the coca growing regions. Critics say pouring money into arms and training for government troops was always going to lead to an escalation of the conflict.

"The military aid package essentially has contributed to militarising the conflict in Colombia on all sides. The military and paramilitary are feeling stronger than ever, the paramilitary are committing more massacres, more violations of human rights than ever before and at the same time the FARC is less interested in negotiating with the government on the peace process because they feel that there's been such a vast military escalation and also they've been consolidating their positions as well".

And what's more, this aid has come to the Colombian government without the usual strings. The Colombian government, on this occasion, does not have to abide by human rights conditions which are normally attached to US aid - because the US President Bill Clinton waived those conditions. Mary Robinson thinks even the waiver could be used to good effect:

"My approach now is to say, the waiver having been given, that lever must be used to say we are monitoring you month by month and we will not give another waiver. If you give somebody a waiver which means that you accept that they are unacceptably below human rights standards, that must be very strictly monitored and it must be a way of trying to ensure compliance".

The European Union, for its part, is still negotiating with Colombia over the nature of its contribution. It says it will fund a series of social and judicial reform packages meant to strengthen democracy and build the conditions for peace - but not necessarily as part of Plan Colombia. Fran Witt of Christian Aid thinks it's vital that European governments have nothing to do with the Plan.

"We are hoping as NGOs that the European Community will support Colombia in building the conditions for peace, but we're concerned that it shouldn't be part of Plan Colombia - that it should be a separate aid package which isn't seen to be part of the military package of the United States - because if it is part of the military aid package it will be difficult to implement it within Colombia because people are very very sceptical about that".

At issue really is the focus on drugs. The Colombian government says the conflict will never be resolved if the problem of drugs production is not tackled. The guerrilla groups and, indeed, some non-governmental organisations - say much of the conflict in Colombia has nothing to do with drugs and some of it certainly could be solved by negotiation - or giving armed groups political space. Jamie Ruis has his doubts:

"This is not any more a conflict where people go to the guerrilla or go to the paramilitaries because they are identified ideologically with them - people now go because they're hired with money. So they are afraid because if we really hit the drug production we're going to lower the amount of money feeding the violence. Now they would prefer only to have one strategy, the strategy of peace with them - obviously this is a political position of the guerrilla."

Whatever the merits of having an all-in-one drugs eradication, military and peace package - in San Vicente at least, Dr Maria Emelia Failia suggests its the negotiations and the withdrawal of the army that have brought some measure of stability to the region:

"We really hope that we can achieve lasting peace with this peace process. We're lucky to be in the de-militarised zone because there's no fighting here as there is in other parts of the country. We have to have security not only here but outside Caquetta as well".

Outside the demilitarised zone, the political fight certainly continues. Recently the FARC massacred up to 20 people in the south west of Colombia - apparently in revenge against people who had helped the paramilitaries launch an attack on them. Speaking to us before these killings, Ivan Riyos said the group has a strict code of conduct:

"Of course we have humanitarian rules. We have documents approved by our national conferences. One of those is the statute, another is a document called disciplinary rules and the third is called the norms of leadership. Our internal rules of engagement go further than international humanitarian law".

The FARC's claims of respecting human rights might come as a surprise to these people here. This is a radio station in the capital Bogotá - and the messages being aired are from the families of people who have been kidnapped - to their relations in the jungle.

"My name is Maria del Pilar, I've come because my father is captured by the FARC and I want to speak to him, to tell him about my family and I want him to hear me".

Maria del Pilar, a 19-year-old whose father was abducted two months before we met her. She says she's confident her father can hear her - wherever he is:

"I'm going to tell him that I'm okay. That my mother and brother are okay, that my studies at the university are excellent and that I want to see him come back and that I love him".

The radio programme is a poignant reminder that the conflict touches every corner of Colombia - from the countryside to the cities. Kidnappings for ransom and extortion from businesses have been a feature of the FARC's activities for years. They just call it a legitimate way to levy taxes.
When Ivan Riyos was asked how the FARC was financed this was his answer:

"We charge taxes like the government does. The government charges the community, it charges Colombians and uses that money to fight Colombians. We charge taxes only to fight against the government. We have a legitimate right to also charge taxes because we are the opposition to the government".

Taxation is an interesting word for a mixture of kidnapping and protection rackets. Although these grim activities continue, some people say FARC's ambition to be considered an important political player might help to dampen its more flagrant violations of human rights. Fran Witt of Christian Aid:

"If the guerrilla want to be considered as legitimate actors within the peace process, I think they'll have to show real commitment to improving their record in terms of international humanitarian law".

So while the FARC remain terrorists in many people's eyes - much of the world has dared to think the unthinkable and has tried to accommodate them.
Some people say this might be the only way to stop the violence - but in that case, the peace process must go hand in hand with making rebel groups legally accountable for their human rights violations. Professor Christine Chinkin of the London School of Economics:

"I think that where there is a political process it is needed that reference to the legal norms of behaviour and accountability is required. I think Sierra Leone is a very good example where that wasn't done, where in fact the political process incorporated the rebels into the government and the whole thing collapsed and of course led to great anger on the part of the civilian population that had been abused by the rebel group. Where accountability is completely ignored, there is very little hope at all for any durability of the peace process".

In Colombia, the exhausted and war-weary population waits in hope for the day any plan or process works. Back in Urbana Father Leonidas was determined not to lose sight of the local communities who bear the brunt of the war:

"Well, as is the always the case in such violence, the only labels we can attach to these groups are the bad, the very bad and the worst. There can be nothing good in this conflict. It's destroying the country and if it continues we will have no future".

Colombia might be under the spotlight now - but tomorrow it will be some other country. And so, the international community is making tentative moves towards introducing a single legal regime that will try large-scale human rights abuses wherever they take place. Next week, we'll look at the first efforts to make this a reality so that war criminals will truly have no place to hide.


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