Thursday, July 26, 2007

News of the Weird

Before starting this blog, I promised a friend I would update it minimally once every two weeks... In fact, I hope to do better than that. I know it's already been more than two weeks since my last update. I'm working one a more substantive piece at the moment about some of what we're up to here on the Atlantic coast. So in the meantime... here's one of those stories that despite a serious undertone brings a smile to my face.

One of the lead stories in today's press is of the latest "narco-submarine." Apparently it is of the homemade variety, had four crew-members aboard and room for up to four tons of cocaine. It was caught off the Pacific coast, headed north.

This is at least the third narco-submarine found in Colombia since 2005. As a friend said, "Imagine how many of these things must be out there if they've found three of them!"

Monday, July 23, 2007

Birth of the Citizens' Reconciliation Commission

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Psalm 85:10

Last week (July 18-19), a group of 25 Colombian civil society leaders from the provinces of Córdoba, Sucre and Bolívar gathered at the University of Cartagena to strategize on how to face the issues surrounding reconciliation on Colombia's Atlantic coast.

You might ask:
Isn't there an on-going civil war in Colombia?
Doesn't reconciliation usually happen after the fighting has stopped?
Yes, but...

Paramilitary Demobilization
Just over two years ago, President Alvaro Uribe signed the "Justice and Peace Law" (also known as Law 975) to oversee the demobilization of one of Colombia's illegal armed groups, the paramilitaries (also known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia-AUC). [Overview of Colombian armed groups] This law has been controversial from the very beginning, seen as but a slap on the wrist for the perpetrators of some of Colombia's most horrendous crimes. Check out Smoke and Mirrors for Human Rights Watch's critique of the initial Justice and Peace law.

Despite some improvements (imposed by Colombia's Constitutional Court), history is proving the law's critics to be right. The Organization of American States Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia (MAPP-OEA) published a report earlier this month which highlighted the re-arming of demobilized paramilitaries across Colombia [map/analysis]. Almost daily I learn of the latest victims of “re-armed” or “new” paramilitary violence. Just two weekends ago, here in Sincelejo - a city of about 250,000 inhabitants - there were five murders in three days, mostly attributed to demobilized paramilitaries.

Another important aspect of the Justice and Peace law is that it mandated the creation of the National Commission for Reparations and Reconciliation, to oversee the reincorporation of demobilized paramilitaries into society as well as ensure their victims' rights to reparations.

A primary concern with regards to the National Comission at this point is that after two years of an eight year mandate, not a single victim has received reparations. Of course this pales in comparison to the larger concerns that the entire demobilization process is proving itself ineffective in punishing the perpetrators and in in dismantling the paramilitary criminal structures.

This week, a process that already seemed to be moving painstakingly slow, is coming dangerously close to grinding to a halt. Today’s news has centered around a group of demobilized paramilitary leaders who are refusing to testify, essentially challenging the will the Colombian government to enforce the conditions under which they demobilized. Currently, President Uribe is facing off with the supreme court over the legal status of the paramilitaries’ crimes in a confrontation that has many here fearful the whole process could collapse.

Last Friday at the inauguration of the latest legislative session, Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez – President of the Colombian Senate, whose party is part of President Uribe’s ruling coalition and typically seen as an Uribe ally – unequivocally stated her concerns over the implementation of the Justice and Peace law:

It is worrying that in two years only sixty of the nearly 2,800 [paramilitaries] covered by the "Justice and Peace" law have [testified]. At this rate how long will it take to hear all of them? If it continues like this, there will be nobody left to give reparations, or to make peace.

Colombia has many different organizations that do amazing work for victims' rights despite facing incredible risks, too many to list here. In June of 2005, just days after the Justice and Peace Law was signed, a new coalition comprised of many of these organizations came into being, the National Victims Movement. The National Victims Movement has taken the lead in the struggle for truth, justice and reparations as the basis for reconciliation with paramilitaries in Colombia. They have also taken a clear stance rejecting the Justice and Peace law and the National Commission of Reparations and Reconciliation which it created. This is a controversial position that not all Colombian peace and human rights’ NGOs have taken. There continues to be much debate about how best to work for truth, justice, reparations and reconciliation at this time.

At this point you might ask:

Is there any way forward?
That’s what we’re trying to figure out.

The Role of the Church
Last year Fundación Social published a major survey of Colombians’ Perceptions and Opinions of Justice, Truth, Reparations and Reconciliation [75 page pdf]. On a question that asked what institutions would be most important in achieving reconciliation in Colombia, 70% said “the church,” making it by far the most common response.

Churches here on the Atlantic coast are proactively stepping up to that call. Given the complex scenario for reconciliation in Colombia outlined above, we know it won’t be easy. But we are calling on all who will respond to come together and discuss how to move forward towards reconciliation in these difficult times.

So far we have organized workshops on reconciliation facilitated by the staff of Fundación Social in Córdoba, Sucre and Bolívar, that brought together not just religious leaders (both protestant and Catholic) but also civil society leaders of all stripes, including victim’s organizations. The goal of these workshops is to build trust, strengthen the networks of organizations, communities and churches working for peace, to learn about how reconciliation has happened in places such as Guatemala, South Africa and Peru, and to begin to discuss what true reconciliation, one that is respectful of victims’ rights, might look like in Colombia.

Citizens’ Reconciliation Commission
Last week’s meeting in Cartagena brought together delegates from each of the three previous workshops to discuss next steps. We were also joined by staff of the International Center for Transitional Justice and a member of Peru’s Truth Commission. Those gathered decided that there was a need for a new movement from the grassroots and that they would call themselves the Citizens’ Reconciliation Commission. They were clear that the role of the Commission was to work for truth, justice, reparations and reconciliation, that is should lean towards making proposals more than standing in protest, and that it should be in dialogue with victims, victimizers, the state and the National Commission for Reparations and Reconciliation.

Members of the Citizens’ Reconciliation Commission are moving forward in two complimentary directions. Some are returning to their communities to replicate the workshops and deepen the discussions with their communities, while others are working to organize workshops in the other five Atlantic coast provinces.

So let the word go out that despite the difficulties Colombians are continuing to proclaim that “steadfast love and faithfulness” are still alive here, and that one day “righteousness and peace will kiss.”

Monday, July 9, 2007

FARC Murders Two Pastors in Southern Colombia...

Joel Cruz García and José Humberto Mendez, R.I.P.
This past Saturday I heard the terrible news that protestant pastors Joel Cruz García (age 27), and José Humberto Mendez (age 65) had been murdered by the FARC guerrilla in the community of La Legiosa, Huila in southern Colombia. Pastor Jorge Arturo Giraldo of the Colombian Council of Protestant Churches (CEDECOL), called on all Christians to "pray and support in any way that you can Yuvy Andrea Oyola (pastor Cruz García's widow) and their daughter of just a few months of age."

Retaliation? Religious Intolerance?
Joel and José Humberto were murdered the night of July 5th, the same day millions of Colombians marched in protest against kidnapping as a tool of war (a practice most commonly associated with the FARC). Some believe that their murders were in retaliation for protestant churches' support of the march. Others have pointed to the long-standing difficult relations between the FARC and protestant churches (as well as the Catholic Church), and feel that this is yet another case of religious intolerance.

Patterns of Violence and Displacement
Over the past four years, some 150 protestant pastors have been killed in Colombia, and some 400 churches have been shut down or displaced by violence. "Right now our number one concern is supporting the families of these two pastors and their churches. Events like this can often cause displacement," stated Ricardo Esquivia, president of the Peace Commission (CRVP) of the Colombian Council of Protestant Churches.

Yesterday, El Tiempo - Colombia's main daily newspaper - reported that Christians went to Plaza Murillo Toro, in Ibagué (capital of Huila department) to publicly protest the murders of Cruz García and Mendez. El Tiempo also reported that those present expressed fear that these murders could signal a return to the repression protestant churches suffered in that region in 1999 and 2000 when several pastors were murdered and entire churches displaced.

Please pray for the families and churches of pastors Joel Cruz García and José Humberto Mendez as well as for the courage and wisdom of all of Colombia´s leaders (Protestant, Catholic, and secular) at this time.