Peace at last? The prospects of return for Colombia's displaced

June 22, 2009
Samir Elhawary

The Defence Minister of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, recently stepped down in order to prepare a bid for the presidency in next years’ election. Santos has been lavished with praise for his term in charge of the Armed Forces and is credited, among other things, with successfully carrying out the government’s Democratic Security Policy – effectively giving a mortal blow to the FARC. At the heart of this policy is an attempt to defeat illegal armed groups and (re)-establish state authority. This involves demobilising right-wing paramilitaries and intensifying military incursions against the guerrillas. The end goal? To stabilise the territories under their control and consolidate the state’s presence in these areas.

The perceived success of these actions has led to an official discourse among government officials that the conflict in Colombia is now ‘over’ and that the country is moving into its post-conflict phase. Any reports of violence are dismissed as mere drug related criminality and terrorist behaviour.

Such discourse raises questions about the return of the country’s 2 to 4 million (depending on whose is counting) internally displaced people (IDPs). If Colombia is in fact transitioning into a post-conflict phase, we can legitimately start asking whether the displaced are going to be able to return to the lands and homes that were illegally appropriated during the conflict. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests otherwise. At a recent workshop on the prospects for peace without a negotiated solution to the displacement issue, several experts highlighted some of the shortcomings in the government’s discourse of peace, justice and return.

First of all, many victims – including many of the displaced, especially women, and those that have been victims of state crimes – have been excluded from reparation processes. In fact, the UN has recently called on Congress not to discriminate between victims of state violence and irregular forces. This selectivity seems to indicate that the reparation process, which includes access to people’s lands, is seen by the government as being about solidarity rather than about rights.

A second area of concern is the way in which the government has facilitated some returns. Several returnees have effectively been asked to support the government’s counter-insurgency strategy by acting as a network of informants on the presence and activities of guerrilla forces and sympathisers. This undermines their civilian status and puts them in danger of retaliation from the guerrillas. The recent massacre of the indigenous Awa people is testimony to these dangers.

The economic component of the government’s democratic security policy is a third obstacle to return. The recovery of territory from illegal armed groups is seen as a means to open up new areas for economic development, mainly in the extractive and agro-export sector. These are key areas for exploitation in the government’s development vision for 2019. So, in territories that have been successfully recovered by the government, property rights have often been given to large companies at the expense of those displaced. The peasantry that worked those lands for many years without legal tenure have also had to leave, often not for the first time. This tension between the government’s development model and the restoration of rights to IDPs is a major obstacle for sustainable return.

Perhaps most alarmingly though, is the fact that displacement figures during Alvaro Uribe’s second term have actually gone up significantly after an initial decline. Government figures show that forced displacement increased 19% in 2004, 5% in 2005, 6% in 2006 and 6.3% in 2007. That is a 36% increase from 2004 bringing the estimated total of IDPs registered in the government system to well over 2.5 million. These numbers clearly question the discourse of post-conflict recovery or peace. The failure to recognise these realities on the ground has undermined attempts at tackling the causes of conflict and displacement, which in turn has condemned many of the displaced to a cheap and arbitrary ‘peace’.

Watch out for HPN’s December 2009 issue of Humanitarian Exchange which features Colombia


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