Milburn Line Interview, Part II

Milburn Line Interview, Part II

Harvard Human Rights Journal continues its conversation with Milburn Line, executive director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice. In this section, Line discusses American and international policy in Latin America, and its effects on the ground.

 Part I of the interview is available HERE.

Interviewer: James Tager, J.D. ‘13

It sounds like you have serious concerns regarding American policy in Latin America. Does that affect your work on the ground?

From 2007 to 2009, I ran a human rights project in Colombia with U.S. government funding. Our project was a $40 million, five-year effort that worked with Colombian government agencies charged with the protection of human rights, the national police,  and sixty civil society organizations all over Colombia doing human rights advocacy and local work. I thought we ran a great project, and I was pleased with that but became increasingly frustrated with U.S. policy. If your government is spending $450 million a year to support the Colombian military and not exercising due scrutiny over issues of human rights, then you’re swimming against a larger policy stream that is basically eviscerating your efforts at the local level.

[For more of the Joan B. Kroc Institute’s analysis of American policy in Colombia, see their February 2011 Policy Brief, “Retooling U.S. Policy for Peace in Colombia”.]

Plan Colombia has been a disaster in human rights terms. The Colombian military is now accused of 2,547 cases of extrajudicial killings within the Colombian court system. One example which comes to mind occurred in August ’08, when the press announced that the military had recruited 11 young men from a marginal neighborhood of Bogotá called Soacha, put them on military transports, transported them to the other side of Colombia where the conflict was raging, murdered them, dressed them up and announced them as combat kills. The current 2,547 cases may not have all those same elements but are cases of civilians allegedly being murdered and passed off as combat kills by the military.

U.S. legislation regarding aid to the Colombia military contains language for the U.S. State Department to certify progress on respect for human rights. Recruiting, transporting, murdering, and announcing as combat kills all seem to meet a definition of systematic violations of human rights. But Colombian progress on human rights has continued to be certified despite these extrajudicial killings.

There are five million displaced people in Colombia, more than any country in the world now, including Sudan and Iraq, which is quite hard to imagine. For a decade Colombia has led the world in the murder of trade unionists. There are as many as 51,000 forced disappearances in Colombia; such figures put Colombia in the range of the most egregious cases in the hemisphere, along with Guatemala at 40,000 forced disappearances and Argentina at 30,000 forced disappearances. So we have a looming human rights/humanitarian disaster in Colombia that, if you recall Secretary Gates’s visit there in 2009, we are being told is a “success story.”

 Our banner policy issues in Colombia over the last few years have been free trade and expanding American military presence on Colombian bases –  instead of an effective foreign policy that projects our democratic values and asks our allies to do the same. Colombia has been an ally of the United States since the Korean War, so I think we have the rapport with the Colombian government to be able to insist on some human rights accountability, if we choose to.

In your policy brief on Colombia, you have called for a foundational document to help catalyze a peace agenda, and you offer the Comprehensive Agreement for Human Rights in Guatemala as a model. What about this Agreement was effective, and why does it provide a good blueprint for Colombia?

I was alternately impressed and distressed with the way the UN managed the peace process in Guatemala.  By the early 1990s, people were frustrated trying to end latent cold war battles going on in places like El Salvador and Guatemala. The El Salvador mission was the first international peace process in the regional transition, and the UN was simultaneously trying to bring the parties to the negotiating table in Guatemala.

By that point, the Guatemalan army had basically won the war by any military standard. Guatemala was a “low-intensity conflict” at that point, but “low-intensity” depends on where you sit in the world. It’s an easy phrase to employ from the analyst’s chair if you are counting deaths in combat but not so apparent if you are still trapped in the middle of violent conflict. The predominant social reality within Guatemala was still an environment of fear, a fear instilled through massive human rights violations, and that was evident throughout and beyond the peace process.

The UN’s first step was to try and establish a timetable of key agreements that would lead towards an eventual peace accord, and one of these agreements was the Comprehensive Agreement on Human Rights, where the Guatemalan army and the URNG [Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca] insurgency agreed to a series of human rights standards that would be monitored by the UN and other international groups under multinational auspices. That was a real breakthrough in a sense as it was the first time the Guatemalan army and insurgency agreed on standards amenable to the international community.

This arrangement allowed for a UN monitoring mission to go in on the ground and separate the parties and document human rights violations. That presence ended up being a strong deterrent for further violations. When the guerillas blew up electrical towers in Huehuetanango in December 1994, we were there to document and object. When the military massacred a group of returned refugees in Xaman in October 1995, the UN mission was able to condemn immediately. Public visibility and official, international criticism helped further reduce human rights violations. And that’s why I argue that something similar could be done in Colombia under multilateral auspices. Unfortunately, the Colombian government is not interested in international monitoring at present and the guerrillas continue to conduct their insurgency in ways that make it hard to justify negotiations , including attacks on civilians, kidnappings and the recent murder of four Colombian officers who they had held as hostages for more than a decade. But negotiating with one consolidated insurgency may ultimately be more prudent than trying to control dozens of fragmented groups if the FARC splinters into smaller criminal groups. I think that the U.S. Government has the historical relationship and rapport with the Colombian government to be speaking about the policy benefits of peace and wish we were doing so.

Line’s interview will continue with a discussion of the Mayan indigenous legal system, and its relationship with the Constitutional legal system in Guatemala, in part III available HERE. The complete interview series is available HERE.

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