Tag Archives: Forced Combattants

Making A Killing: Colombia and the Canadian Military Industrial Complex

John Baird

A few months ago, I wrote to the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, John Baird about Canada’s decision to allow Canadian weapons manufacturers to sell arms to Colombia. Baird had put Colombia on the Automatic Firearms Country Control List (AFCCL),  a list of now 34 countries to which Canadians can get export permits for weapons. The weapons which Canadian businesses would now be able to export to Colombia, actually aren’t even legal in Canada (see below).

In a brief and polite response, Baird informed me there had been “broad consultation” with the Canadian public and  and different government departments which had informed the decision. Apparently, the consultation touched on “multiple issues” including human rights, peace, stability, the risk of diversion, and interestingly, “commercial opportunities for Canadian business” (emphasis mine).

To Baird’s credit, he did mention that each export permit is assessed individually, with particular emphasis on what the “end-use” of the weapons will be, and if they are in accordance with Canadian foreign and  defense policy, law, and “including the potential impact of export on human rights and armed conflicts”.

At the end of his correspondence, Baird listed off a myriad of highly problematic initiatives as part of Canada’s relationship to Colombia, perhaps trying to show some sort of misguided intentions to “help” Colombia; in particular Baird lauded the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), and how Colombia has received benefits from DFAIT’s “Counter-Terrorism and Anti-Crime Capacity Building” programs.

 

Clearly all of these policies, but particularly for now the AFCCL, are very concerning and merit their own analysis. The larger point here is, despite Baird taking the time to reply, the decision of what will be a “risky” sale of weapons of mass destruction (automatic weapons)  to a country experiencing armed conflict and endemic levels of violence will be decided in Ottawa, with “commercial” interests in mind. This is all working under the militarist assumption that a country having a militarized society, or an extremely powerful military (especially with an ongoing civil war) is a desirable thing.

It goes without saying that the current Canadian government is accepting the Colombian government’s narrative that Colombia is a democratic, improving, stabilizing, and human-rights respecting country that is ready for foreign (Canadian) investment in order to “develop”. It’s important to note that, as Human Rights Watch has stated, the paramilitaries or “right-wing death squads” as others have called them, who are responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, operate like a “sixth branch of the Army”, and the Colombian army itself is often responsible for extremely egregious violations of human rights (forced disappearances, massacres, extrajudicial executions, sexual violence, etc), particularly to the civilian population it is supposedly defending. This is to whom the Canadian government thinks it is a good idea to sell guns to…..

It’s been long known that Canadian business and the Canadian government have at best been negligent to the humanitarian catastrophe of mass violence in Colombia, choosing to focus instead on promoting ‘economic growth’ through trade (which is often not unassociated). However, it now seems that, after Baird’s decision, the Canadian Military Industrial Complex will be able to directly make bank off of one of the bloodiest armed conflicts in the Western Hemisphere.

For some key points on armed violence in Colombia, check out my initial oversimplified letter below (which perhaps was a bit too charitable with the Minister). For more information on the Canadian Military Industrial Complex and how it is profiting from and exacerbating human rights violations the world over, check out this piece by Richard Sanders.

January 3, 2013

“Dear Prime Minister Harper, Minister Ablonczy, Minister Baird, and Mr. Hiebert,

I hope this message finds you all well after the holidays.

…I am an extremely concerned Canadian voter. This morning, it came to my attention that the Honourable Minister Baird, by amending the “Automatic Firearms Country Control” list, has removed the export bans on high-capacity magazines and assault weapons to my native Colombia. These same kinds of weapons are banned in Canada, as they are considered too dangerous to be on our streets. Moreover, these same kind of weapons are the ones which were used to murder over 26 innocent Americans in the Newton massacre last month.

Colombia, although much safer and less violent than in the last a decade ago, is still one of the most violent countries in the world. The homicide rate hovers at around 30-38 per 100,000, making at among the world’s 15 most violent countries. Approximately hundreds of thousands are displaced every year due to violence. Although the government is currently in promising peace talks with Colombia’s largest rebel group, the FARC, they continue to fight and terrorize local communities. This armed conflict is compounded by extremely high levels of urban violence, the ELN rebels, narcotrafficking groups, and the paramilitary successor groups or BACRIM/criminal bands which account for around a disproportionate amount of the violence in Colombia.

Colombia over the last decade has had over 200,000 murders. 75% of homicides in Colombia are committed by firearms. There are over 14,000 child soldiers in Colombia who are arguably forced to operate these kind of high-powered weapons. As per the Colombian army, it is estimated that from 2002-2006, over 3,000 young, mostly impoverished, male civilians were killed and made to look as insurgents by the Colombian army so as to increase kill counts. In Medellin a few days ago, an 11 year old girl lost her life to a stray bullet. She was only one of over 300 victims of stray bullets last year. Although Colombia is making great improvements in overcoming our violent legacy, human rights and violence are still clearly very important concerns.

I understand that in order for arms exporters to be issued a permit to export weapons under ACCFL, the government must review each case with ‘strict controls’. I also understand that Canada has been extremely generous with Colombia by making it a priority country for bilateral aid, and donating millions to support both the nascent peace process and the Land restitution law to bring growth and reconciliation to a country that has been too long plagued by violence.

However, given that Canada and Colombia’s relationship is, supposedly mutually beneficial, I fail to see the benefit that Colombia would attain from buying more arms during a peace process in which Colombian society is trying to turn away from guns. Gun bans have proven extremely effective in Colombia; earlier this year Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro banned handguns in the capital city, leading to the murder rate dropping to its lowest point in 27 years. Bogota is now safer than many American inner cities.

I am therefore extremely curious as to how exactly, beyond ‘market opportunities’ for Canadian arms dealer, your government has considered that allowing the export of extremely dangerous and deadly firearms into a very violent country like Colombia, will be consistent with your policy of creating a mutually beneficial relationship with both countries.

I would be very appreciative if I could please be informed as to your government’s rationale for adding Colombia to the AFCCL.

Please do not conflate ‘market opportunities’ for Canadians with the re-militarization of Colombian society; if this is not the case, then please inform me otherwise.”

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The historic march for Peace – its political motivations, the price of peace, and who was excluded

Foto: EFE

NB: Please check the original posted on Tuesday in Spanish for links.

Until there are no longer first and second class citizens of any nation…there will be war” – Haile Selassie, former Emperor of Ethiopia

On Tuesday on the streets of Bogota bodies million Colombians took to the streets, saying they do not want more threats to the integrity and security of the same bodies. These bodies, after 49 years of murders, massacres, injuries, landmines, forced disappearances, forced recruitment, forced displacement, rape, torture, kidnappings, bombings, and threats, they want to bring to reality the dream of peace in Colombia in instead of a war against the rebels.

The mass mobilization occurred on the symbolic date of April 9, the second annual National Day for Memory and Solidarity with Victims, and the anniversary of the 1948 assasination of populist Jorge Eliecer Gaitán Ayala. His murder unclenched the civil war from 1948-58 known as “La Violencia”.

Some in the media are talking that tens of thousands attended the mach just in the Bolivar Plaza (in front of Congress, Colombia’s version of Hyde Park). Others, especially on social media networks (and later reports in the media) report 900,000 to one and a quarter million marching just in the capital.

In a sense, Tuesday’s march can be considered historic in that it demonstrates a complete change in the political tone of mass mobilizations. Just 5 years ago on February 4th, there was also the “historic” march which Barranquillero Engineering studenet Oscar Morales organized through Facebook called “One Million Voices Against the FARC”, which mobilized for the first time in years, millions of Colombians against this armed group. Nevertheless, this march was strongly criticized for its partiality (forgetting the crimes of the paramilitaries and the Armed Froces) and for validating the anti-guerrillero and war-mongering discourse of the political establishment and its counterinsurgency. It’s worth mentioning that former President Alvaro Uribe supported officially endorsed the march.

Now what we see is a peaceful march against war and for peace, organized by some entities which are by no means non-controversial (ex Senator Cordoba and the Marcha Patriótica have been accused by the Defence Minister, Juan Carlos Pinzón of having ties to the marxist insurgency).  Nevertheless, the nation in this occasion seemed to have been unified by a diverse march, without taking much notice of the social and political differences of the participants. This contrasts the march 5 years ago against the FARC-EP which was heavily supported by the middle and upper classes, and was explicitly linked to certain political interests.

Even though the march was organized by people who still have an ambiguous and controversial position in the public imaginary, the march and its gesture for peace wre well received by many sectors of mainstream opinion – the President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos himself invited Colombians to march. The U Party was also in favour of the march (breaking away from Uribe’s opposition to it), and the Mayor of Bogotá and former M-19 guerrilla, Gustavo Petro also had passionately called on Colombians to unite in this gesture of solidarity towards the ‘victims’.

Basically, the marchers of the MP, who came from all parts of the country, many from rural areas/the Other Colombia, invited the urban and middle/upper class Colombia to temporarily forget their differences and march for a common peace. And the invitation, surprisingly, was accepted by the urbanity which only a few years ago was marching in pro of the counterinsurgency.

I think that the reflections of the editor of the popular Semana weekly (one of the most read publications in Colombia) best describes the political moment that occurred on Tuesday:

In this sense, perhaps the main lesson of April 9th is not just that the government achieved an important popular support in the street for its political negotiation [with the FARC], but that Colombians from very different sides, including oppositional ones, were able to coincide on one day in complete calm around a common objective. After the march, of course, this differences will continue. But, there are very few precedents of an alliance that goes beyond the most engrained of the establishment and the most ‘hardcore’ of the Left in favour of peace and a negotiated solution. Even the FARC and the ELN gave their support to the march.

Nevertheless, the pece march, ironically, despite its unifying character, also surfaced deep social and political divisions that the peace process has accentuated. Oponents of the march included the rare combination of the Democratic Alternative Pole (el PDA or El Polo, one of Colombia’s few progressive/left-wing parties that grew out of the demobilization of the M-19 guerillas), even though Polo congressmen and Mayor Ivan Cepeda and Gustavo Petro atended, and of course ex-President and his Puro Centro Democratico/Pure Democratic Centre, Alvaro Uribe. The Leftists, for their part, did not want to legitimize a politicization of the peace process used by the President for his re-election. The Uribistas/right-wingers, considered that negotiating with an armed group would be to legitimize it and that the President is negotiating “issues of nation” with a group of “narcoterrorists”. In particular, the Ex-President through his online commentary on Twitter said that the march was “disrespectful” to the victims of the insurgents.

The march nevertheless has many political interests behind it – first of all, it legitimized, partially, the Marcha Patriotica and the ex-Senator. Also, just because Santos did not march to the Bolivar Plaza (as the editor of Semana recounts, there was ‘no photo with the President and Piedad Cordoba’), it is easy to see how the march gave the President a big help in achieving the ‘popular mandate’ for the peace talks. Ex-President Andres Pastrana and several others had been criticizing the President for a negotiation seemingly without any popular support being carried out in secrecy in a far-off capital in the Caribbean. This march gave Santos an answer to those critics.-

In Colombia, like in any part of the world, there is no free lunch. Peace in Colombia should be created a plurality of actors, and it should be for all Colombians no matter who they are, as was the march on Tuesday. Peace should not belong to any one political party or leader, but as the Democratic Alternative Pole has argued, this is not the case.

In the same sense, we must ask ourselves, this march and this peace, its for whom, and by whom? Those who currently have a seat at the negotiating table in Havana, discussing the beginning of the end of a long and blood-soaked conflict are generals, government representatives who are almost exclusively from Bogota. They are not a broad representation of those who have the most interest in a  demobilization of the FARC-EP – those living in the communities under their control. On the other hand, it is not the thousands of forced combattants/child soldiers that are representing the FARC-EP at the table, nor their victims, but Ivan Marquez, the no. 2 in this guerrilla organization and the leader of the Caribbean Block, who is wanted for several counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity by Interpol and the Colombian justice system.

In other words, what is being negotiated in Havana is a peace between murderers. The government as much as the guerrillas claim that they are the victims and that neither has committed to recognizing their complicity or facing their victims.

This lack of recognition of their crimes (from both parties), and this discourse in PRO of peace (which was the official government line at the march) was very different to the many placards from victim’s groups marching on the streets of Bogota that demanded memory, justice, and truth.

Not to say that the good should the be the enemy of hte perfect, but it must be recognized that like everything in Colombia, this process is experiencing a centralization and a bureaucratization which is taking away power and a place to speak for the communities that continue to live in Colombia’s multiple war zones. As analysts of the CINEP have argued, a durable and legitimate peace needs to be regionalized/come from the rural areas.

The government emphasis on prudence (which the guerrillas have also respected) towards the talks makes much sense given the chaotic nature of the previous attempt in the Caguán. Some have talked of submitting the accord to a Constituent/popularly elected Assembly or putting it to a referendum as was done in Guatemala (which could be coopted and defeated by the right-wing). Nevertheless, it would be a shame if this peace, like the incomplete peace of 58 which ended the era of “La Violencia” but began the era of the FARC, would be like the war in Colombia – imposed by the powerful on ‘The Other Colombia’ without consulting nor giving space for the voices who live there.

Uribe and his ‘Pure Democratic Centre’ movement say that they are not opposed to peace per se, but that they are against ‘peace with impunity’. The diversity in the march Tuesday perhaps showed that the majority of Colombians want to put their differences aside and take advantage of this rare opportunity for a viable accord with the guerrilla force that just a few years ago was labeled ‘narcoterrorist’ and just a few decades ago was thought invincible. Nevertheless, just because the Uribistas have not gone out into the streets marching does not mean that they do not have support, nor that all victims are in favour of the process.

Peace, like everything, will come with a price. the FARC-EP have repeatedly said that they will not go to jail under any circumstances as part of an agreement. They consider themselves the victim of state and paramilitary violence; they want to do politics with guarantees of security and they do not want to address their victims, to say nothing of paying jail time for their crimes.

So, one could say that in a way, Alvaro Uribe is right. Undoubtedly, there must be a trade-off between ‘peace’ and ‘justice’. Many on the Left, with  good reason, were very critical of the demobilization process with the AUC paramilitaries. Nevertheless, it is very strange that the voice which is asking for justice for the FARC-EP for their crimes is the counterinsurgency ex-President, and that other commentators who criticized the deal with the paras are mute on this point. In any event, it has to be said that that balance between peace and justice is a very delicate and controversial issue; within the mainstream media, politicians, and the majority of analysts I have read who are in favour of the process, there is a language of forgiveness and reconciliation used which presupposes that the victims of the FARC-EP owe the guerrillas forgiveness because they all owe the country reconciliation. However, the trade-off between how much peace and how much justice is not something that can be imposed from Havana or Bogota. The peace in 58 was a peace between murderers, powerful interests, and it was imposed, leaving open and unhealed the wounds that would leave the soil of Colombia fertile for the bloodshed of the next half-century.

 

Finally, the war in Colombia in many ways is and is not against the FARC-EP. These guerrillas continue to displace, kill, threaten, forcibly recruit, and commit all kinds of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but the violence of new paramilitary groups is much more of a threat to public security than are the guerrillas, as reported by the conflict think tank Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris. This is not to say that the human suffering of the victims of the FARC-EP should be given less priority because the violence of the emerging paramilitaries is greater, but it is to say that a peace accord with the FARC-EP (and even with the ELN) will not put an end to war and violence in Colombia in a holistic way.

In fact, on Tuesday morning before the march Presidenet Santos on his Twitter account recognized the unfortunate murder of Ever Antonio Cordero Oviedo, a human rights activist working towards land restitution who was killed in Valencia, Cordoba. This man was but one of thousands of Colombians who continue to be victimized by this new manifestation of paramilitarism, for whom the government discourse that these groups are ‘merely criminal gangs’ reduces them to being outside of the ‘armed conflict’ and into the realm of ‘general delinquency’. In other words, for these thousands of victims, there was no mass march. In these thousands are also ADOM in Chocó and the women of the Enchanted Valley in Cordoba.

In Colombia, economic development of certain sectors is tied to war. The war in Colombia is a kind of institution in and of itself. Disarming this institution (literally), whose roots are have nexuses with so many other institutions such as the political and economic power of the nation, as well as the military industrial complex, will come at a high price. The war in Colombia is a very profitable business, and to end it there has to be a fundamental change in Colombian society.

This peace process must therefore be transformative for Colombian society. It can not only be reconciliation between victims and perpetrators (two identities which often intersect), but also a new social contract that begins to break down that wall which divides The Two Colombias. The peace with the FARC-EP must be a process that not only begins other peaces with the ELN and the neoparamilitary groups, but also that begins a wider conversation about the structural violences of poverty, patriarchy, racism, inequality, state violence, and above all classism which produced the guerrillas in the first place

Will the country have this conversation? Who knows. 10 years ago it was impossible to imagine a negotiation with the ‘narcoterrorists’ and now it is something which receives general support. It took a decade of counterinsurgency, displacement, murders, cooptation by the state by paramilitarism, and Total War, but at least this march showed that Colombians can change their opinion and leave aside warmongering and hate against the guerrillas in favour fo a supposedly common good (a national peace). However this change, as what will come after it, will also have its price.

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