At a critical juncture for the Colombian peace process, 245 lawmakers from the U.S. Congress, the Irish and UK Parliaments, and the Northern Irish Assembly have sent a letter of support to the Colombian government and FARC peace negotiators.
In this letter, the legislators state:
"[w]e would like to congratulate both the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC] for having entered into negotiations and initiating a process that we hope reaches a successful conclusion of peace with justice leading to the end of Colombia's almost 50 year armed conflict."
The letter goes on to assert that "the only route to bring an effective and long-lasting peace to Colombia is through dialogue and compromise and we urge both parties to continue in this momentous endeavor regardless of the future difficulties that may arise."
This letter, which came about as a result of the joint efforts of Justice for Colombia, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and key members of legislatures on both sides of the Atlantic, could not have come at a more important time. Colombian President Manuel Santos, the Colombian government leader who initiated these talks with the FARC, is fighting for his political life in a close re-election bid against right-wing candidate, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga. Zuluaga is openly critical of the peace talks, and the presidential election to be held on May 25 could decide whether these peace talks continue.
The letter should be a big boost to Santos and the peace talks, especially as it appears to have prompted the U.S. State Department to put out its own statement in support of these talks.
In addition to supporting the peace talks, the letter from the international legislators also urges both sides "to consider the possibility of a cease-fire and to take the necessary measures to minimize the humanitarian cost of the conflict and guarantee the safety of civil society." In truth, the FARC has been clear for some time that it supports such a bilateral ceasefire, and has in fact honored a unilateral cease-fire at times during the peace process. And, in response to the letter, the FARC has now reiterated its support for a bi-lateral cease-fire. It is now up to the Colombian government to accept this olive branch.
As the legislators note in their letter, a cease-fire is critical to "the safety of civil society" which continues to bear the brunt of the 50-year armed conflict. As Gimena Sanchez, senior associate at the WOLA, stated:
"Afro-Colombian and indigenous civilians continue to suffer daily due to the armed combat activities that generate humanitarian emergencies and displacements. It is vital that the parties to the conflict heed our legislators' call to end the conflict, and, by doing so, diminish its effects on civilians."
Marino Cordoba, the founder and president of the Afro-Colombian advocacy group AFRODHES, agrees. As he explained at a peace conference I attended earlier this year, Afro-Colombians have been "marginalized and forgotten" in the course of the armed conflict. He noted that while Afro-Colombians only make up 10 percent of the total Colombian population, they make up 30 percent of the over 5 million internally displaced Colombians. He related that Afro-Colombians have been especially hurt in the past three years by economic and military actors which have forcibly displaced Afro-Colombians, with the complicity of the Colombian state, in order to use their land for the growing of both legal and illicit crops. Cordoba expressed concern that, in the absence of a cease-fire, Afro-Colombians and "anyone defending human rights are at risk" of violence by armed actors.
Indeed, in the absence of a cease-fire, human rights abuses in Colombia continue to mount on a daily basis. For example, over the weekend, I received word that the Colombian military murdered four civilians, including a child of 15-years old, in a peasant town in the Department of Nariño. The military now appears to be trying to pass these civilians off as FARC guerillas in a continuation of the "false positive" scandal -- a phenomenon in which nearly 6,000 civilians have been murdered by the Colombian military which has then falsely claimed that they were guerillas killed in combat.
A recent, and quite damning report by the Fellowship of Reconciliation shows a correlation between such "false positive" killings and U.S. military aid and training. This report demonstrates but again the critical need of the U.S. to actively support the Colombian peace process, an immediate cease fire and the improvement of human rights in Colombia. The letter by the 245 legislators, including 50 from the U.S., is a good step in this direction.