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Questions for President Obama and Colombian President Santos Ahead of Washington Visit

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Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has arrived in Washington to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama, a visit that will mark the 15th anniversary of Plan Colombia, a multi-billion dollar military-heavy aid package with a mixed, and often troubled, record. There is some chance that both governments will announce a robust new aid package to Colombia during the visit, with adjustments to address Colombia’s needs now that its violent armed conflict appears to be nearing an end.

In their discussions, Presidents Santos and Obama will be looking back at the mixed legacy of Plan Colombia, which the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has outlined in an interactive presentation and the Latin America Working Group Education Fund (LAWGEF) has also illustrated in an infographic on the human rights impact of the aid.

Their meeting provides an opportunity for both countries to learn from Plan Colombia—its successes, its failures, and its unintended tragedies—and to ensure that future U.S. aid truly contributes to a lasting peace. Ahead of the February 4 meeting, WOLA and LAWGEF have prepared the following list of questions for members of the press to consider asking both presidents.

On Learning From the Mistakes of Plan Colombia

For many Colombians directly affected by the conflict, “Plan Colombia” is shorthand for a war without quarter that greatly harmed the civilian population through widespread extrajudicial executions by members of the armed forces, the murder of trade unionists and human rights defenders, illegal spying on and sabotage of opposition parties and civil society, and disproportionate impacts on the rural poor and Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities.

President Obama: Now that Colombia’s armed conflict appears to be winding down, how will aid to the country change to meet its post-conflict needs? Is an increase over current levels likely?

President Santos: The Plan Colombia years saw many excesses committed by the security forces: extrajudicial executions, collaboration with paramilitary groups, and illegal espionage. How will you ensure non-repetition of this behavior in the post-conflict period?

On Extrajudicial Execution Investigations and
 Transitional Justice

In mid-December, the negotiators in Havana published further details of the previously announced accord on transitional justice, in which all those responsible for serious crimes in the context of the conflict should confess the entirety of their crimes, in exchange for reduced and/or alternative sentences. Five days later, President Santos presented a document to “guarantee transitional justice” for State agents. The document is based on the presumption that all actions by the armed forces are legal and legitimate.  
 
However, the Attorney General’s office continues to investigate and prosecute the more than 4,300 extrajudicial executions allegedly committed by members of the armed forces during the 2000s – the investigation of which the U.S. Congress has firmly supported. In many of these cases, known as “false positives,” members of the armed forces lured young men with promises of jobs, killed them, and dressed them up as guerrillas killed in combat, in order to increase body counts.

President Santos: With the transitional justice accord, what will happen to the thousands of ongoing investigations of extrajudicial executions and other gross human rights violations committed by members of the armed forces? Both soldiers and ex-guerrillas who confess to war crimes will be sentenced to alternative “restriction of liberty” instead of prison. What might that look like? How austere are conditions expected to be?

On New Peace Talks

The peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is rapidly advancing.  Even if negotiations miss the deadline of March 23, they are likely to be completed soon thereafter. However, formal talks with the other major guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), have yet to be announced. Human rights groups and security analysts are concerned that if no ELN negotiation is underway by the time the FARC accord is signed, the FARC accord will be difficult to implement in areas where the ELN is present, the human rights and humanitarian situation could deteriorate in those areas, civil society leaders who have pushed for ELN talks could be stigmatized and threatened, and some demobilized FARC guerrillas could be recruited into the ELN. For a lasting peace, it is important also to reach a peace accord with the ELN.

President Santos: Is your government doing all it can to advance talks with the ELN? What remains to be agreed before formal talks can start? How can the U.S. government be helpful in this process?

President Obama: Is there a role for the United States in encouraging or facilitating talks with the ELN?

On Paramilitary Successor Groups

Even a peace agreement with the FARC and the ELN will unfortunately not bring a full end to violence in Colombia; paramilitary successor groups and drug-trafficking groups are still present and active in the country. There are reports of extensive activity by paramilitary successor groups in regions such as the Bajo Atrato, Mapiripán and the Bajo Cauca. These groups are those primarily responsible for threatening and attacking human rights defenders and community leaders. There is also concern that such groups are likely to target demobilized members of the FARC.

President Santos: What measures is your administration taking to combat these groups, to investigate and prosecute them and any state agents that may support them?

On Protection for Human Rights Defenders

Many victims who participated in delegations to the peace talks received death threats upon their return to Colombia. Threats and attacks also continue against human rights activists, trade unionists and civil society leaders, including land rights, Afro-Colombian and indigenous community leaders. Frontline Defenders registered 54 defenders killed in 2015. The National Protection Unit has been plagued with corruption scandals and by criticisms of inadequacy and inefficiency, and for insufficiently supporting in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the threats and attacks.
Human rights defenders – including community leaders and victims’ rights advocates – who lead local peacebuilding initiatives and have long advocated for a just and lasting peace in Colombia, face serious danger for this work. The courageous work of human rights defenders, which helps guarantee a vibrant democracy, is essential to the construction of a peaceful Colombia.

President Santos: How is Colombia planning to prevent and protect against attacks against human rights defenders, and how will such measures be adapted and expanded after the accord is signed?

On the Mandate of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights

Recently, the peace negotiators issued an official request to the UN Security Council for a ceasefire and demobilization monitoring mission, supported by the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), and including human rights monitoring by the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR). Human rights monitoring will continue to be necessary after the ceasefire and monitoring mission finishes its work, however, and the OHCHR’s mandate may be best served if not linked to the mission but rather renewed for an extended period, such as three years.
 
President Santos: Will the mandate of the OHCHR be renewed for several additional years?

On the Inclusion of Afro-Colombian and
Indigenous Communities

Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities suffer disproportionately from abuses, violence and displacement. Under Colombian law they enjoy collective land and other special rights, and the areas they inhabit will likely host large populations of demobilized guerrillas. Yet their territorial authorities and organized civil society groups have not been invited to the peace table to discuss how the accords will be applied in their territories.

President Santos: What is your administration doing to assure that the particular concerns of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities will be addressed in the peace accord and its implementation?

On Labor Rights

The advocacy of the U.S. Congress in favor of labor rights prior to the passage of the U.S.-Colombia FTA in October 2011 led to significant advances in labor rights in Colombia. These include a reduction in trade unionist murders, the creation of a Labor Ministry, increased number of labor inspectors and more attention paid to protection of trade unionists. While the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan has yet to be fully implemented – for example, sub-contracting that impedes labor organizing still exists and impunity in trade unionist murders remains very high – it serves as an important framework for addressing these issues and highlights sectors requiring further attention.

President Obama: What steps are being taken to guarantee that the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan is advanced and then incorporated into post-conflict efforts?

About the authors

Lisa Haugaard is the Executive Director of the Latin America Working Group, and has spearheaded advocacy on human rights and peace issues in Latin America for two decades. She directs advocacy on Colombia, Central America, development and military aid and coordinates coalition campaigns with U.S. and Latin American partners. Email: lisah@lawg.org.

Gimena Sanchez is WOLA’s leading Colombia human rights advocate. She is an expert on internally displaced persons, refugees and human rights, and her work has shed light on the situation of Colombia’s more than five million internally displaced persons—as well as help expose the links between Colombia’s government and drug-funded paramilitaries. Email: gsanchez@wola.org.

Adam Isacson leads WOLA’s Regional Security Policy program, which monitors security trends and U.S. military cooperation with the Western Hemisphere. Since the late 1990s, Mr. Isacson focused especially on Colombia, the principal destination of U.S. aid in the region. Email: aisacson@wola.org.