June 10 marked an important step forward in Colombia’s efforts to build enduring democratic security and pursue justice: Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, signed the Victims’ and Land Restitution Law.
In the past, violence perpetrated primarily by paramilitary groups and guerrillas displaced 4 million Colombians, forcing them off as much as 16 million acres of land. The Victims’ Law has the potential to provide aid to those who have lost relatives or a significant amount of land as a result of violence in the past. The reparations will vary depending upon circumstances, but the land restitution law will enable people to file a petition to recover lost land. Since roughly 10 percent of the Colombian population may potentially claim victim status, estimates suggest the cost for meeting the new commitment could reach $20 billion.
The U.S. State Department recognized this new law as a sign of Colombia’s increased awareness of human rights. On April 8, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “We have seen improvements in the human rights situations in a number of countries… In Colombia, the government began consulting with human rights defenders. It is supporting efforts to stop violence. It has passed a law to restore land and pay reparations to the victims of the very long civil conflict that occurred in Colombia.” Although certain to generate resistance, the Victims’ Law is a positive step toward a more stable, accountable, and safe Colombia.
The Victims’ Law appears consistent with other efforts to improve the human rights record in Colombia, including the agreement hammered out between the U.S. and Colombia on necessary steps to protect labor activists. In fact, the Victims’ Law goes over and above the requirements of the action plan that President Barack Obama and Colombian President Santos established when they enacted the labor rights agreement. When combined with the passage of the labor rights agreement, the Victims’ Law bolsters the case for passage of the U.S.–Colombian Free Trade Agreement (FTA).
According to Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ replacement and outgoing director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the ratification of the U.S.–Colombia FTA would be beneficial to national security. Panetta noted that Colombia has proven successful in significantly deterring narcotics trafficking and said he believes that greater development of the Colombian economy would increase security in the region. Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg agreed and observed that “Colombia has gone from being a consumer of security to a provider of security and support for others who face even greater challenges.”
Steinberg endorsed swift passage of the U.S.–Colombia FTA and said he believes it would provide a new level of cooperation between the two nations by opening up new markets and promoting increased economic development.
After more than two years in office, the Obama Administration has been long on promises and short on delivery in the Americas. Colombia’s readiness to deal with its internal challenges in a just and reasonable manner is an additional reason for prompt passage of the pending Free Trade Agreement.
Co-authored by Olivia Snow, a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm