Colombia agrees to compensate victims of violence


In this handout picture released by the Colombian presidency, President Juan Manuel Santos gives the document of title to a peasant displaced by violence in Tibu, Norte de Santander department, on May 25, 2011. (CESAR CARRION/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
June 10, 2011

President Juan Manuel Santos signed a sweeping law Friday that aims to compensate 4 million Colombians who have been victims of a long, brutal civil conflict.

Although political violence in Colombia is still simmering, the law’s proponents say the Victims’ and Land Restitution Law is a historic gesture of reconciliation toward families whose relatives have been killed or who have lost land over the past generation. Government officials cautiously say it could be a step toward creating a framework for peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a leftist rebel group that has been at war with the state since 1964.

“I’ve always said the door is not closed for a dialogue with the FARC,” Santos told The Washington Post on Friday. “But they need to cease all terrorist activities and come into a dialogue in good faith.”

Santos signed the law in the company of U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, whose presence underscored the international support for the government’s effort to compensate war victims. The United Nations, which has a significant presence in Colombia, called the law a “new horizon of hope in the search for peace and reconciliation.”

“What Santos is doing is creating the architecture so that in Colombia there can be peace one day,” said Aldo Civico, director of the International Institute for Peace at Rutgers University and an expert on Colombia’s conflict. “The Victims’ Law is an important part of that architecture.”

The law calls for the state to compensate not just those victimized by guerrillas or right-wing death squads, but also those who suffered at the hands of the state security apparatus.

The numbers of dead from the murky conflict could easily reach 200,000, human-rights groups said, noting that in special judicial proceedings, former paramilitary commanders have freely admitted to nearly 50,000 slayings.

The law calls for monetary compensation to people victimized between 1985 and 2021 — the end date an acknowledgment that people will continue to suffer in the ongoing dispute. The law’s broader ambition is to deal with the root cause of political violence by returning thousands of square miles of land to poor farmers forced off it by armed groups and corrupt regional bosses since 1991.

Cynthia Arnson, a scholar on Colombia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said the government’s efforts stand in contrast to those of Santos’s predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, who said there was no armed conflict and opposed the Victims’ Law on the grounds that it unfairly accused the army and police of war crimes.

“Acknowledging government responsibility for creating victims of the armed conflict fundamentally changes the equation,”Arnson said.

The FARC, an organization of 8,000 fighters, did not immediately comment on the law.

But in January, the group’s supreme commander, Guillermo Saenz Vargas — better known by the alias Alfonso Cano — expressed doubt that Colombia’s congress would ever approve a law to compensate victims. Such reparations, he said, were “essential to a future of reconciliation.”

In a rural swath of Bolivar state, in northern Colombia, that has been hard hit by violence, Andres Gil, who represents peasant farmers, said the law “for the first time recognizes the victims.”

Gil is part of a national organization of farmers that is lobbying the government to use the political space created by the law to engage the FARC in talks. He said the law may prod the FARC, which is influential in Bolivar, to take “important steps” that could lead to negotiations.

“It is an important step forward to politicize the debate so victims can have voice,” Gil said.

Santos said an important goal of the law is to generate the right conditions for peace and prosperity in rural communities, blunting the appeal of the rebel forces that have taken advantage of the violence and chaos.

“What [the FARC] must understand is that we’re not talking about peace, we’re reconstructing the peace in Colombia, especially in rural areas where the violence has been concentrated,” Santos said. “And if they don’t understand that, the train of history will leave them behind forever.”

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