The Challenges of Colombia's Victims' Law

June 15, 2011

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos signs a compensation law for the victims of the armed conflict and to restore the land to displaced farmers. (EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images)

By Dana Brown, Colombia Country Specialist

Colombia recently passed the landmark Victims and Land Restitution Law (“Victims’ Law”), which President Santos sees as so important as to define his career. “If I accomplish nothing else, this will have made my presidency worthwhile,” he said.

The legislation will soon give an estimated 4 million people the right to seek reparations for the crimes they have suffered as a part of Colombia’s almost 50-year long war.

While the entactment of the law is indeed a step in the right direction, it fails to provide for true justice and reparations for many of the war’s victims. For instance, those who are victims of guerrilla or paramilitary activity will have an easier time accessing reparations than those who are victims of crimes of the State.

Another concern is whether the law will cover those who are victim to crimes committed by paramilitary successor groups called “neoparamilitaries” or “emerging criminal gangs”, which have been very active since the 2005 formal demobilization of the Self-defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), the country’s conglomerate paramilitary organization.

Many have also pointed out the difficulty of protecting those who attempt to return to their lands under the new legislation. As Rep. Iván Cepeda, longtime spokesperson for the Organization of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE), said,

“I think that without seriously getting under control ‘parapolitics’, the ‘para-economy’ and those who have cleared out lands, it will be very difficult to produce processes of restitution of land and reparations.”

This problem is highlighted by Tuesday’s assassination of Ana Fabricia Córdoba, a land restitution activist who is the latest in more than a dozen of land’s rights activists to be killed this year. There are growing concerns that the attempt to return to ancestral lands could spark a whole new wave of violence carried out by non-state actors.

In a country with the largest number of internally displaced people in the world, land rights continue to be central to Colombia’s conflict and ensuring safe return to ancestral lands will be key to the success of the implementation of the Victims’ Law.

While the Victims’ Law may be the first step in the long and important process of land restitution, critics remind us that the law does nothing to pursue the truth and does not provide victims with answers to the many questions that have piled up over the duration of the war. With over 57,000 disappearances, Colombia’s conflict has provoked an intense search for truth and justice by the thousands of affected families. As the campaign Haz lo Justo (“Make it just”) stated, the law does not address the State’s responsibility to find and identify victims of the conflict.