Latin American Report
European Lawmakers Urge Redistribution of Wealth
by IPS Correspondents
BOGOTA, Feb 19 (IPS) - A group of European parliamentarians visiting Colombia said the peace process here must focus not only on talks with rebel groups, but also on a redistribution of wealth and structural measures enabling social and economic development. The delegation, comprised of German, English, Spanish, Swedish and Irish legislators, reached Colombia Monday to collect information on the real situation in the country, and to meet President Andres Pastrana and other officials.
Spanish Deputy Blanca Garcia said Thursday in Colombia that the continuous human rights abuses and displacement of people did notreceive enough attention here, as far as she was able to observe this week.
Garcia said the search for peace was not only a question of launching talks between the government and insurgent groups, but also of demanding respect for basic rights and providing assistance to the hundreds of thousands of people who have lost their homes to the violence. The non-governmental Council for Displacement reported here that in the last 10 years, around 1.5 million people, equivalent to four percent of the country's total population of 37 million, have had to flee their homes due to threats from paramilitary groups, guerrillas, the army or the police.
According to a report released in October by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, Colombia heads the world ranking in terms of numbers of displaced persons, along with Sudan, Angola and Afghanistan.
Since the end of the insurgencies in Central America during the 1980s, Colombia is considered by most human rights groups to have the worst human rights record in Latin America. With varying levels of intensity, civil war has plagued Colombia since the 1940s. During most of that period, the war has been dominated by the struggle of three leftist insurgencies against the central government and the rural elite. But over the past 15 years, the violence has been compounded by drug-traffickers and right-wing paramilitary organisations which have often enjoyed the support of senior army officers. The conflict has cost 35,000 lives in the past decade alone.
Deputy Garcia maintained that Colombia's ''grave problems'' can only be overcome with ''structural measures enabling economic and social development, and a better distribution of wealth.''
A report by Colombia's National Department of Planning indicated that 17 million Colombians live in conditions of poverty, and 12 million in extreme poverty. The vice-president of the Swedish parliament, Eva Zetteberg, said that in Colombia peace cannot even be conceived of without discussing a ''redistribution of resources,'' because any consensus will be impossible to reach against the background of the existing inequalities. Zetteberg said the presence of the state was too weak to guarantee human rights, and that there was no confidence in justice.
The statements by the European lawmakers coincided Thursday with the release of the annual People's Defender (ombudsman) report, which informed that in 1998, 194 massacres (defined as the murder of more than four people in the same place) were committed, in which 1,231 people were killed. Presenting the findings of the report, People's Defender Jose Castro pointed out that ''we must take into account that last year, an average of three people a day were murdered by the various actors in the armed conflict.''
The document stated that 49 percent of the mass killings were attributed to right-wing paramilitary groups, 21 percent to the guerrillas and eight percent to government security forces, while the rest were committed by unidentified perpetrators. Castro said on several occasions his office had warned the government of ''announced massacres,'' but the alerts were never taken into account.
Colombia's incipient peace process is presently in a state of limbo. On taking office in August, President Pastrana announced that his government's top priority was to reach peace accords with the guerrillas. The 15,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and 5,000-member National Liberation Army (ELN) currently control close to half of Colombia's national territory. The government withdrew the army from an area the size of Switzerland to pave the way for talks with FARC, which began on Jan. 7.
But two weeks later, FARC ''froze'' the dialogue until April, by which time it hopes the government will have provided ''concrete demonstrations of its fight against the right-wing paramilitary groups.'' Meetings between ELN and government representatives in Venezuela over the past two weeks, meanwhile, have failed to produce results, according to the rebel group, which suspended the talks. The ELN wants the army to be pulled out of part of the group's area of influence in northern Colombia, in order to set up a National Convention in which representatives of the insurgent group and delegates of civil society would agree on the agenda for peace talks. According to ELN military chief Antonio Garcia, during the meetings in Caracas, the government asked to participate in the National Convention.
Analyst Vicente Torrijos, former director of the Presidency's school of High Government, said the failure of the budding dialogue between the Pastrana administration and the ELN was due to a ''lack of structural definition'' of the peace process, for which the government was largely responsible. Torrijos told IPS that the government and insurgents were giving off negative signals, which had created ''disenchantment'' among public opinion with respect to the possibility of national reconciliation.
Pastrana announced this week that he had begun to seek a ''national accord'' with opposition parties and social sectors, to develop commitments to fight for respect for human rights, combat paramilitary groups and corruption, and work on crop substitution programmes to replace illegal drug crops. Pastrana said he was ''personally working on the establishment of an Accord for National Unity for which all the living forces in the country will be convened,'' and which should ''allow us to reach a broad consensus'' for moving forward on the road to peace.
Local analysts said the proposal for a national accord marked a change in the government's peace policy. Up to now, Pastrana had maintained total control over the peace talks. According to the head of the opposition Liberal Party, former presidential candidate Horacio Serpa, the peace process ''requires the broadest possible participation, which means a national accord should have been promoted by the government from the start.''
Juan Santos, director of the non-governmental Good Government foundation, told IPS that the call for a national accord was positive, because it could contribute to incorporating ''new procedures'' for the search to a solution to the conflict.
Rodrigo Pardo, former foreign minister and the director of the widely-read daily 'El Espectador', said Pastrana's call for a national accord could be interpreted as a ''shift in his political strategy.''
The president's call was welcomed by outgoing Papal Nuncio Paolo Romeo, who said this week that the Catholic Church was ready to address ''this and all calls made in favour of peace.''
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)