Miércoles, 7 de diciembre de 2016

| 2008/11/03 00:00

Colombia’s Human Rights challenge

Successes during the last few years show that the military war is being won. But the new battle today should be trying to win the confidence and hearts and minds of the civilian population. In the picture defense minister Juan Manuel Santos, President Álvaro Uribe and commander of the armed forces General Freddy Padilla de León

Colombia’s Human Rights challenge

The purge of 30 Army officials, among them three generals and ten colonels, is the largest ever as a result of human rights violations. The purge took place without hesitation and in full view of the country. The abuses weren’t isolated cases, or a few bad apples, or unfounded accusations by NGOs or radical ideological groups. This time, the president, his defense minister and the top commander of the armed forces had to frankly and with shame admit that Army sectors were committing such atrocious acts as murdering and making innocent civilians disappear so that they would appear as guerrilla combat casualties.

The Pandora’s Box was opened in Soacha in the south of Bogotá where 11 young men from poor neighborhoods disappeared and ended up in a mass grave in the town of Ocaña and were identified as guerilla fighters killed in combat by the Army. But Soacha was only the tip of the iceberg. The disappearances had taken place all over the country. Investigations of extrajudicial executions by the Fiscalía (the general prosecutor’s office) and the Procuraduría (the solicitor general’s office) had risen dramatically. They increased from 246 in 2004, to 458 in 2005, to 795 in 2006 and to 911 in 2007. It is a chilling tale: young men of scant resources, drug addicts, homeless people and other vulnerable citizens without strong family ties were assassinated and presented as combat deaths to high military officials.

The essence of the problem is that in every war the moral values of the combatants are distorted leading to unthinkable excesses. This happens when the conflict is measured more by the number of deaths than by peace among the population. This situation has brought our military forces to a body count culture, inspired by the Vietnam War, which brought defeat to US forces by their outrages against the civilian population. Today in Colombia, a military official’s professional rise is measured, in large part, by combat deaths. Add to that a policy of compensation (rewards) for each cadaver and it inevitably ends up with excesses such as false combat deaths.

Facing this serious situation, the government has tackled the problem head on. The decision to purge the military- in addition to being historic- was also a brave one. First, it sent a clear and blunt message that human rights violations will not be tolerated- and not only for those who committed those crimes but also for those who on occasion allowed their troops to overstep constitutional boundaries. For some officials, whose responsibility is of a political nature, it could be devastating, and somewhat unfair, especially after all they have done over several decades to defend democracy. Nevertheless, high officials not only need to answer for battlefield efficiency of their troops but also for the legitimacy of the military institution. Nobody disputes that there is no such thing as a “clean” war. But this is about safeguarding military honor.


For many it is incomprehensible that military officials, who have served the country, at times albeit with some excesses, end up in prison or socially ostracized, while guerrillas and paramilitaries who have killed and kidnapped for years are presented as heroes, receive reward money, and are offered asylum abroad.

Without a doubt these are confusing messages and could be seen as praise of bandits and of illegality. But wars have two sides. There is the side of a society that has to seek new ways to turn the page on bloodshed in its fight against illegal groups- and to be generous with enemies who surrender. That means a reduction of penalties and also compensation and benefits for those who demobilize. Then there is the side of the state that never can lose its legitimacy in its struggle against violence and terrorism. It is a state that, as was described by a British general, struggles with one arm tied behind its back because of its strict respect for human rights and humanitarian law. That means standing firm against military officials who commit crimes in uniform. That control guarantees that it is not the Army that destroys democracy when they kill in its name.
Despite the fact that the of has designed a human rights policy that has even earned praise by the United Nations, up until now it has been more of a rhetorical exercise than an establishment of real parameters to prevent the overstepping of bounds. Many of the cases against military officials for human rights violations are not going forward. Some military sectors feel solidarity with the accused or the investigations are interpreted by reactionary members of the Army as a legal maneuver by the guerrillas.

Even within the Armed Forces there has been division regarding the human rights issue. One opinion is held by General Montoya and his supporters, who are still suspicious regarding judicial proceedings. That side wants to protect its troops and claims persecution by the solicitor general’s office. Montoya’s unquestioned efficacy which transformed him into the hero of Operation “Jaque” (checkmate) the daring rescue mission that freed Ingrid Betancourt and others from FARC captivity, is commensurate with the anachronism of his vision of military forces, anchored more in the doctrine of national security than in the philosophy of modern warfare. The other side is headed by General Padilla de León, who is less of a troop commander, but has a modern and universal vision of the role of an army in a society grappling with armed conflict. For Padilla, in this stage of military confrontation, with a weakened FARC and with territorial control, the military has to put is legitimacy at the forefront, because the consolidation of the policy of democratic security depends on the confidence that the Army generates among the population.

Besides the different leadership styles of the generals, it is necessary to dismantle a military culture where the ends justify the means and where enemy casualties lead to the promised land of promotion, military decorations and time off. It is indispensible to change the paradigm and find other incentives where, as Padilla has pointed out, “it is preferable to have a demobilized guerrilla than a captured one, and a captured one is preferable to a dead one.” This should reinforce the message that respect for human rights is not incompatible with good results in military operations. That is why, changes in norms, particularly in the system of promotions and internal control, will result in a change of military culture and doctrine.

The Cold War and the doctrine of national security are policies from the past and are remembered with bitterness by nations that suffered military abuses in the name of freedom. This is particularly true given that the myth that sanctions and military scandals generate troop demoralization and social stigmatization has been debunked.


Despite these excesses, never before has the military had so many economic resources, political backing and popular support. The Colombian soldier today is seen as a hero of the fatherland. Military results from the past year, including the spectacular Operation “Jaque,” show that it is winning the war. The new battle is for the legitimacy of the Army, its capacity to connect with the civil society, to win the hearts and minds of the people, without impeding its ability to win the war. This new war is just beginning.

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