Colombia needs a Contadora: a democratic proposal

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian
29 May 2006

The re-election of Álvaro Uribe Vélez as president of Colombia on 28 May 2006 is viewed by many observers as an indication of the country's political and social progress under his six-year rule. The result was indeed decisive, with Uribe winning 62% of the vote (against 22% for his nearest challenger, Carlos Gavíria) to complete the hegemony established by the victory of his allies in the March parliamentary election. But behind the headlines that proclaim Colombia's "exception" to the leftward political drift in Latin America, the unfolding calamity of Colombia's human-rights situation persists. A far-reaching initiative is required to resolve this longstanding and deep-rooted crisis involving millions of people across Colombia.

The United States government report on human rights on Colombia in 2006 indicates the scale of this crisis by listing the violations reported in the country in 2005:

"unlawful and extra-judicial killings; insubordinate military collaboration with paramilitary groups; torture and mistreatment of detainees; overcrowded, under-funded, insecure prisons; arbitrary arrest; high number of pretrial detainees; pretrial detainees held with convicted prisoners; impunity; an inefficient, significantly overburdened judiciary; harassment and intimidation of journalists; journalistic self-censorship; significant internal displacement; unhygienic conditions at internal displacement camps, with limited access to health care, education, or employment; corruption; harassment of human rights groups; violence against women that was exacerbated by the conflict and displacement, including rape; child abuse and child prostitution; trafficking in women and children for the purpose of sexual exploitation; societal discrimination against women, indigenous persons, and minorities; and illegal child labor."

The report further asserts that "despite a unilateral ceasefire declared by the AUC (the rightwing Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) … the following violations by paramilitaries were reported during the year: political killings and kidnappings; forced disappearances; torture; interference with personal privacy; forced displacement; suborning and intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses; infringement on citizens' privacy rights; restrictions on freedom of movement; attacks against human rights workers, journalists, and labor union members; recruitment and employment of child soldiers; and harassment, intimidation, and killings of teachers and union leaders."

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is professor at Universidad de San Andrés in Argentina. He earned a doctorate in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University school of advanced international studies, and lived, researched and taught in Colombia from 1981-98. Among his recent articles is "Militarising the Andes" (Daily Times [Pakistan], 16 May 2006)

Also in openDemocracy on Colombia's politics and internal violence:

Isabel Hilton, "Álvaro Uribe's gift: Colombia's mafia goes legit"
(25 October 2005)

Sue Branford, "Colombia's other war" (14 November 2005)

Ana Carrigan, "Colombia's elections: the regional exception" (10 March 2006)

Ana Carrigan, "Colombia's testing times" (29 March 2006)

The accumulated facts on Colombia's human-rights situation are staggering. Since the 1980s alone the armed conflict has cost around 100,000 deaths; over the last twenty years violent crime has seen more than 300,000 people murdered; in the last fifteen years as many as 2.8 million people have been forcibly displaced; between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s there were several hundred massacres (in Colombia that means the killing of four or more defenceless people) carried out by different armed groups, as well as approximately 3,000 kidnappings per year; and between 1995 and 2005 Colombia has the highest rate in the world of assassinations of human-rights monitors, journalists and trade-union leaders.

Those figures make it evident that Colombia's violent conflict is no longer merely a domestic issue: it is a matter of international concern. Colombia's internal war and future peace are conditioned by external factors, among them the high levels of drug consumption and money-laundering in the industrialised countries and offshore paradises; the globalisation of drug networks; the unconstrained growth of the light-weapons market; the costly economic imposition in the hemisphere of neo-liberal economic dogma; Washington's anti-narcotics, security and foreign policies towards Bogota; the expansion of transnational organised crime throughout the continent; and the escalating institutional instability in the Andean region.

A pact of imagination

But to recognise the magnitude of Colombia's drama is not to justify direct military intervention; rather it should prompt a search for moderate and positive forms of external political intervention into Colombian affairs with the purpose of ameliorating the ongoing tragedy – whose principal victims are unarmed civilians – unfolding in that country.

What Colombia really needs, independently of the re-election of its president, is a new Contadora-style solution to its crisis: that is, a consensual agreement as a result of negotiation and compromise by major parties with a stake in ameliorating and repairing the social breakdown. A key to its success would be the confident participation of Colombia's Latin American neighbours and a genuine effort on the part of the United States to contribute to resolving – rather than exacerbating – Colombia's troubles.

A Contadora for Colombia should offer a realistic diagnosis of the country's situation and provide an accurate picture of existing threats. In contrast to several partial and biased recent studies on Colombia emanating from the United States, an up-to-date, objective and honest inquiry into conditions in the country is imperative. Here, the most appropriate precedent is the experience of central America at the end of the 1980s, while the bitter armed conflicts and years of severe military repression in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Honduras were still continuing.

Before central America's Contadora was created, the United States unilaterally promoted and produced the report of the national bipartisan commission on central America (the "Kissinger report" 0f 1983-84) on the region; today, Latin America must call for a consensual report on Colombia and gain the support of Washington for its efforts. For example, a group of distinguished former presidents – Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), Raúl Alfonsin (Argentina), and Ricardo Lagos (Chile) – could jointly head a group of experts to present a thorough document by the end of 2006 charting a path to a solution of Colombia's forty-year armed conflict.

What is a Contadora?

Contadora is the name given to the diplomatic initiative begun by a group of four states, meeting on the Pacific coast island of Contadora, Panama in January 1983 – Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and Venezuela. Their attempt to mediate and contain the regional conflicts threatening to engulf the central American states of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica led to a draft treaty, the Contadora Acta, in September 1984. This was accepted by Nicaragua's then Sandinista government but rejected by the other four states.

A fresh Contadora support group was created by the governments of Peru, Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil in 1985 in an effort to revive the central American peace process. This was aborted in June 1986 when the region's governments refused to sign a revised Contadora Acta.

The Contadora for central America tried in the midst of the cold war to preserve a political and diplomatic space so that Nicaragua and El Salvador in particular were not lost to the west. Similarly, the new post-cold-war Contadora should avoid a potential destruction of Colombia's fragile and limited but operative democracy. The defence and improvement of this democracy should be the central concern of any proposal to deal with its prolonged conflict. Moreover, just as the original Contadora defined procedures and policies to avoid a region-wide, low-intensity conflict in central America, the Contadora for Colombia must establish rules and processes to prevent an Andean explosion: no party inside or outside Colombia can be allowed to promote a destabilising international "domino effect".

A plan for Colombia

However, the Contadora for Colombia should also transcend the one for central America in four respects.

First, it should not target the United States; on the contrary, it must include Washington in its efforts. A Contadora for Colombia should be understood both as a forum where the United States can participate and as an alternative to the uncontrolled militarisation inherent in Washington's policies towards Bogota.

Second, a new Contadora for Colombia must help resolve a different kind of domestic war, one intensified by the drug issue. In this sense, this Contadora should broaden the agenda of interest: for example, by proposing and debating a serious, innovative approach to drugs production and use. In the first instance, the transfer of the narcotics problem from Colombia to other Latin American countries can and must be stopped.

Third, the Contadora for Colombia should contemplate the use of a variety of legitimate instruments in the search for peace: diplomatic persuasion alone will not change the current level of war in Colombia.

Fourth, the Contadora will have to guarantee real power-sharing in Colombia. The country needs an authentic democratic pact and that means putting an end to political violence as well as to elitist rule.

In conclusion, Colombians alone will not be able to solve their social and human-rights catastrophe – a catastrophe that is basically national but which has many international dimensions and influences. Colombia needs help and understanding, not intervention or more war. The re-election of its president notwithstanding, Colombia needs a new Contadora. To achieve it, Colombia needs the hemispheric solidarity that a generation ago proved an asset in helping to overcome central America's crisis.

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