Colombia: the challenges of a continuing armed conflict
After three and a half years as head of the ICRC delegation in Colombia, Christophe Beney is finishing his assignment there at the end of September 2011. In this interview, he assesses the country’s current needs.
How do you view the current situation in Colombia?
Colombia is still in the midst of a non-international armed conflict. We are concerned about the increasing consequences of armed confrontations in some of Colombia’s Pacific Coast departments, Cauca and neighbouring areas such as Arauca and the Catatumbo region. In other areas, such as the lower Cauca region of north-eastern Antioquia, southern Córdoba and Nariño department, we also see that the formation of new criminal groups, those referred to as “criminal gangs,” has increased the levels of violence and had a direct impact on the population.
We must recognize, however, that progress has been made in two areas. Today there is much more public focus on the victims, and the government has the political will to respond to their needs and make amends for the violations they suffered. This political will is embodied in the Victims and Land Restitution Law that the National Congress enacted in June 2011. We hope that people in the remote areas where this conflict is taking place can benefit in a tangible way from the implementation of this law.
What are the most serious problems today?
The phenomena we are most concerned about are murder, disappearance, infringement of the rules of international humanitarian law protecting medical teams, contamination by improvised explosive devices and explosive remnants of war, and forced displacement of entire communities. We are also still recording cases involving threats, occupation of civilian property and acts of sexual violence, among other things. Victims who live in remote areas where, in many cases, the State has no presence are still suffering from the lack of basic services ─ health, housing and education.
Is the ICRC in contact with all parties to the conflict in Colombia?
We are in a privileged position. Thanks to our neutrality, impartiality and independence, we can have an ongoing confidential dialogue with all the armed groups. This dialogue is very important in ensuring that our presence is effective and our teams on the ground are safe. It is also the greatest value that we can offer: dealing directly with the alleged perpetrators of major offences, and reminding them of their obligations to respect international humanitarian law. There remains the challenge of raising the level of dialogue with armed groups in order to have a greater influence on the hierarchy and its obligations vis-à-vis international humanitarian law.
Does this contact also extend to the new and emerging armed groups, those referred to as “criminal gangs”?
We also have a dialogue with these groups in order to ensure the safety of our operations. We are certain that their actions are affecting the population in the areas where they are present. We therefore maintain this contact in an effort to influence their behaviour and persuade them to respect the population.
Does the ICRC also provide assistance to the victims of these groups, even though they are not considered by the government to be parties to the armed conflict?
What we are concerned about, beyond the applicable legal framework, is providing timely care to all victims, including those of these armed groups. We believe that victims cannot be discriminated against based on who their victimizer is; rather, all victims of serious violations should be helped in an impartial manner. In this context, we have a dialogue with the authorities concerned.
During your assignment, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – people’s army (FARC-EP) carried out three prisoner releases. Will the ICRC continue to support operations of this type?
Our assessment of these events is very positive, because we are helping to reunite dozens of families who had been separated by the conflict. The ICRC is always ready to facilitate future releases of individuals in the hands of armed groups, provided that the parties request it and the families agree.