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Secretary of State Kerry in Colombia: His Check List for a Just and Lasting Peace

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This post first appeared as an op-ed in Colombian newspaper El Espectador on August 11, 2013, as Secretary of State John Kerry met with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has a lot of thorny matters on his mind:   who the United States should support in Egypt, should a reluctant United States get involved to any degree in Syria, how to address Russia, where relations are so frayed that the United States actually cancelled a presidential summit.

So Colombia, which is such a reliable partner of the United States, and where President Juan Manuel Santos has shown inspirational leadership in opening peace talks, may seem like an easy stop.

But Colombia is never easy.

Secretary of State Kerry comes bearing strong diplomatic support for the Colombian peace process. That’s good and important.  As long as both sides are at the negotiating table, the Obama Administration stands strongly behind this process.  Within the U.S. Congress, the voices raised concerning the peace process are in support, as an April letter from 62 members of Congress made clear.  John Kerry is a man who believes in peace; now trying again the impossible task of moving forward a Middle East peace process, he also was involved in ending Central American wars and supporting Central American peace accords.

The United States can be counted on to provide substantial support for peace accord implementation. 

We hope Secretary Kerry will also contribute to a just and lasting peace in Colombia by encouraging the negotiating teams to include the voice of victims of violence, especially as the discussion on victims approaches.  If this peace is to be sustainable, victims of violence must help to build it. 

If this peace is to be sustainable, it must have strong pillars of truth and justice.  An independent truth commission is an essential step.

We know Secretary Kerry’s message will start with support for peace negotiations, but we hope his message now and in the coming months does not end there.  In order to support a just and lasting peace, Secretary Kerry must talk about and help address the still grim human rights situation on the ground.

This means talking frankly about the constitutional reform of Colombia’s military justice system, which leaves loopholes so that “false positive” cases could return to military courts.  There must be justice for the over 3,500 extrajudicial executions attributed to members of the military.  U.S. security assistance is conditioned on respect for human rights, with the law stating that Colombia must effectively investigate and prosecute in civilian courts members of the security forces credibly alleged to have committed gross human rights violations.  Secretary Kerry, as a U.S. senator, called on the State Department not to certify Colombia due to army abuses and lack of progress in prosecuting these crimes.   

For the Obama Administration, relying on the Colombian armed forces to “export” security training to other countries seems a cost-effective solution to U.S. budget woes. This is certainly a topic of discussion during the visit. But the fact that so many abuses by the armed forces remain in impunity makes it deeply concerning that the United States is encouraging the Colombian armed forces’ role in training other nation’s military forces.

Supporting a just and lasting peace also means Secretary Kerry should talk frankly about the ongoing assassinations of human rights defenders.  Thirty-seven human rights defenders were assassinated in the first half of 2013. To stop the violence, threats and murders of defenders must be investigated and prosecuted.  To stop the violence, the Santos Administration must do more to dismantle illegal armed groups, including paramilitary, BACRIM and guerrillas, and to prosecute the members of the armed forces, companies, politicians y public officials who finance and support them.

It also means talking frankly about the Labor Action Plan that both governments signed in order to achieve passage of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.  There’s still far to go to carry out this plan. The Colombian government can highlight the decline in the numbers of murders of trade unionists as an important and positive change. Unfortunately, this has been the only positive change for a trade union movement that continues to struggle against illegal third-party subcontracting, constant harassment, and arbitrary dismissals for any degree of union activity. The Colombian government must act in favor of workers against these labor violations, implement effective inspection and sanction mechanisms to discourage the use of labor practices that restrict labor rights.

To pave the way for a just and lasting peace, the United States should encourage as well as fund the creation of meaningful protection for returned and returning communities, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities.  Effective protection plans can only be designed in careful consultation with the communities they are intended to benefit.  The United States should continue to fund the innovative Victims’ Law. But it must be done with real protection.

So no, it’s not an easy stop. But the right words and actions from Secretary Kerry could mean a lot for a just and lasting peace in Colombia.