Interview with Msgr Hector Fabio Henao, Director of Caritas Colombia
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Have there been any recent improvements in the situation Colombia is going through?
Many things have changed in Colombia’s political climate since we got to know the name of the next president of the republic. In addition to the normal shifting of bureaucratic structures that occurs during a handover of power, and aware of the fact that regarding key issues the new government faithfully follows the line of the previous one, the new situation has undoubtedly brought significant improvements in various areas.
The new president has shown his willingness to ease Colombia’s tense relations with its neighbours Ecuador and Venezuela. This is a pressing issue in terms of improving the quality of life of people from border areas, and regarding the sectors of the Colombian economy that rely on exports to these countries. In the same spirit of reconciliation, Santos has announced he will seek to end the debilitating power clash between the executive and the judiciary.
The process of applying the Justice and Peace Law has led to disengagement of 31,671 paramilitaries, arising from collective demobilisation of members of these groups, of whom only 3,635 were nominated to enter judicial proceedings under this law. However, only 621 expressed their willingness to do so. The remaining 28,005 demobilised paramilitaries benefited from a de facto pardon granted via application of Decree no.128 of 2003 – amongst other laws – which allows amnesties to be granted to persons who are not subject to ongoing investigation, or who have been condemned for “non-pardonable” crimes.
As a result of individual demobilisation procedures, 20,732 people, including former paramilitaries and guerrillas, handed in their weapons between 2002 and 2010.
However, inefficient disengagement of other members of these groups and dismantlement of the drug trafficking networks, organised crime and institutional infiltration they managed, has led to the persistence of paramilitary regional structures, sporting such names as Weeds and Black Eagles, whom the government call emerging criminal gangs or BACRIM.
The Congress of the Republic shelved the initiative that aimed to extend the period of application of the Justice and Peace Law so that crimes committed since 2005 could be covered up. Application of this law enabled reporting of more than 1,200 massacres, whilst only two of those accused received the maximum eight-year sentence. The Congress’s rejection of extension of the above-mentioned initiative is good news for the victims of rape committed by the emerging criminal gangs since the official demobilisation of paramilitary groups, especially taking into account the high levels of impunity that application of Law no. 975 has entailed.
The lower courts have issued very important sentences in terms of the fight against impunity. Particularly noteworthy are the sentencing of Colonel Plazas Vega for his responsibility in the forced disappearance of people during the courthouse incidents in 1985, and the first judgement handed down by the Justice and Peace judges who sentenced the paramilitary leaders known as “Diego Venino” and “Juancho Dique” for the massacre of 11 farm workers in Mampuján, a rural area of the municipality of Maria la Baja, in the department of Bolívar, and ordered compensation for the victims. The victims’ families were awarded damages of 40 million pesos per person, and 20 million pesos was awarded to each person displaced as a result of the crime. Despite this, the Director of the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation, Eduardo Pizarro Leóngomez, proposed a 20-million-peso cap on damages per person (US$ 10,000).
Could you talk about some of the recent successes Caritas Colombia has achieved in helping the victims of violence and promoting peace in the country?
Peace-building in Colombia necessarily entails restoration of the social fabric affected by the armed conflict. National reconciliation and building a peaceful social situation must be linked to reconciliation, the building of historical memory and reparation of victims. Initiatives aimed at making amends, serving and giving back dignity to victims via processes and efforts directed at peace building are also useful in this context.
Given this state of affairs, the following actions Caritas has embarked on to achieve these objectives may be highlighted:
Raising the visibility of the victims’ situation, which goes beyond mere figures, in order to put the need to tackle processes from the victims’ standpoint on the public agenda, so that they are taken into account and considered as real players in obtaining respect for their rights.
This has been achieved thanks to various campaigns and initiatives instigated by the victims themselves, which are accompanied by Caritas, includng the days of prayer for victims at the traditional Night of Candles on 7 December, over the last six years. Plus the Human Rights Campaign, especially the one conducted last year in 2009 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which Caritas Colombia included the victims of forced disappearance – an issue that wasn’t discussed in Colombia – and managed to establish an inter-institutional round table that is helping efforts to get at the truth and accompany the families of victims of this scourge.
The advocacy work that Caritas Colombia carries out, including monitoring legislative developments; supporting public policy initiatives, such as the process concluded together with other organisations to get the Victims’ Law dealt with and approved by Congress; and also via participation in the monitoring and application of various Constitutional Court sentences that grant victims access to rights.
Spaces for accompaniment and training, paths for demanding and gaining access to rights; organisation and capacity building; community integration and comprehensive reparation that are provided for by Caritas projects, such as peace building (CONPAZ), social inclusion with a psychosocial focus (ISEP); and care of anti-personnel mine victims and unexploded ordnance prevention (MINAS MUSE).
Spaces for recovering memory via local initiatives that are being carried out in various parts of the country based on people’s actual experiences, including symbolic and collective acts of reparation. Promoted by the Church, this has made a vital contribution to healing the wounds between victims and their families, and those with their communities.
An important research project is underway aimed at identifying conditions in Colombia that might lead to humanitarian dialogues between the various actors in the conflict. This would enable regulation of the dynamics of the war via respect for international humanitarian law in which, amongst others, prisoners of war would be respected and a distinction made regarding the civilian population.
Do you think Caritas member organisations are really aware of the difficulties that Colombia is going through?
First of all, it should be made clear that Colombia is part of what have been called “forgotten conflicts”. Such conflicts have specific underlying structural causes in each of the countries experiencing them, which means they are not resolved at a given moment, resulting in prolongation of these crises. Whilst these confrontations have nothing to do with the new conflicts initiated on behalf of the global war on terror, undoubtedly part of the global agenda against terrorism has been used as an excuse by parties involved in such conflicts.
The position of the international community towards these conflicts has been ambiguous. In some cases they have adopted a low profile, and in others they have opted to intervene and destabilise situations even further, without really trying to help resolve them.
Therefore, Colombia shares very serious situations, such as displacement with Congo, the anti-personnel mines crisis with some countries in Asia, and insecurity with Haiti, amongst others. However, there is no awareness of the seriousness of our crisis, which is the worst in the Western world. Namely, the international media do not show the same degree of interest in Colombia.
On the other hand, regarding this situation, neighbouring countries and their respective Churches are highly aware of the problems facing Colombia, as they also have first-hand experience of the consequences of the conflict, in such forms as displacement and drug trafficking. On another level, most of the other Latin American countries and their Caritas organisations closely follow the Colombian conflict. For example, one of the priorities set out in the Caritas Regional Plan is to support the Colombian Church.
Finally, a part is played by European Caritas, some of which, such as Cafod, Trocaire, Secours Catholique, Caritas Spain, Caritas Switzerland, Caritas Norway and Caritas Germany, are members of the Colombia Working Group together with CRS, SELACC and Caritas Internationalis.
Together with the General Secretariat of Caritas Internationalis, the Colombia Working Group gives permanent and resolute support to the “Peace in Colombia is possible” campaign, which aims to promote the dignity and rights of the victims of armed conflict by mobilising their active participation in the reconciliation process.
The third phase of the Peace in Colombia is possible campaign, which is currently in progress, aims to respond to the situation of the victims by raising the visibility of their processes, granting them recognition and building their capacities.
The campaign breaks down into three areas of action: opinion and public ethics; truth and historical memory; and access to victims’ rights.
How do the Caritas member organisations help Colombia?
The Caritas international network is one of the world’s largest humanitarian organisations, working for integrated development in more than 200 countries, providing emergency aid, and promoting peace building, respect for human rights and protection for the environment and natural resources. Whilst suffering from a severe humanitarian crisis that has led to higher levels of inequality and poverty, Colombia has also been subjected to a long-term conflict with serious consequences, especially for the most vulnerable sectors of the population. The Caritas Internationalis network has appeared as a light of hope for thousands of men, women and children who have lost everything, and have found an opportunity in Caritas organisations to help Colombia with its problems. It has proved to be preferential and supportive help manifested via various actions aimed at overcoming the humanitarian crisis, promoting a political solution to the armed conflict, strengthening democracy, building peace, recognising victims’ rights, and cooperating to achieve social justice and human development.
This commitment has been ratified by the creation of the Caritas Internationalis Colombia Working Group, which primarily aims to strengthen the Colombian Church’s engagement in striving for peace and in vanquishing the armed conflict via common strategies and practices amongst is members.
Development of joint practice and commitment by member organisations to fulfil this objective has resulted from joint efforts that are not merely limited to a relationship between donors and beneficiaries, but rather comprise a horizontally constructed relationship based on partnership principles. This means equality between partners and adoption of criteria – such as respect for differences, transparency, trust and joint responsibility – which enables establishment of guidelines for joint learning via sharing of experiences in order to help in a more effective way. This entails a rethink of the traditional cooperation approach that goes beyond mere fundraising for humanitarian aid, in order to gain the power to contribute towards changing conditions of injustice and inequality and transforming conflicts.
Member organisations in Colombia are supporting Caritas Colombia’s efforts regarding two key strategies. Support for the first – regarding peace-building and protection of human rights – has enabled an ongoing process of human rights training with social organisations, community leaders and vulnerable groups. Likewise, in various regions progress has been made in strengthening a culture of peace, based on dialogue, respect for human rights and peaceful transformation of conflicts. The second strategy supported by member organisations regards political advocacy and public opinion. This has enabled creation of a process of political and democratic culture in the people who have supported Caritas Colombia. It has enabled bridge building and promotion of dialogue towards creating consensus between civil society and government institutions regarding formulation of public policies and seeking alternative solutions to social problems.
These efforts constantly rely on support from and monitoring by member organisations. This work is part of an international campaign that member organisations call “Peace in Colombia is possible”, which constantly appeals to Colombian society, the government and international community to support the process towards a just and negotiated peace. In this way, the advocacy efforts that are progressing not only in Colombia but also via various member organisations at international level seek to provide diplomacy in support of a negotiated cessation of the Colombian conflict, and generate development cooperation policies that facilitate negotiations, contribute to social justice and respond to the effects of displacement and its causes.
In addition to these strategies, each organisation gives various kinds of help in accordance with the needs and particularities of each region. This support aims to strengthen local communities; promote programmes regarding food security and accompaniment and protection of indigenous and Afro-descendant communities; prevent accidents caused by anti-personnel mines; take care of displaced people; promote pre natural disaster and armed action risk management and prevention programmes; as well as other social and economic initiatives.
This means that help is given not only in terms of financial support, but rather via the joint efforts of member organisations striving to raise the awareness of public opinion and governments in their respective countries regarding Colombia’s problems, in an attempt to find alternatives and multilateral commitments in order to achieve possible and lasting peace in Colombia. These efforts take the form of various actions, such as ongoing dialogue with their governments in order to view the situation in Colombia in terms of human rights and the humanitarian crisis. This entails raising awareness in Europe and the United States – so that society may obtain a close insight into the effects of armed conflict in Colombia – by promoting participatory spaces in the international arenas of civil society organisations, such as trade unions, organisations for the protection of human rights and organisations concerned with victims and ethnic minorities, as well as by creating support, solidarity and accompaniment networks on behalf of Colombia.
What would Caritas Colombia like the other Caritas member organisations to do during the Peace Week?
Participation by some Caritas representatives in the Peace Week activities would be of great value, as would publicising in all the mass media – Church and general alike – the message that Colombia wishes to broadcast to the world: let’s share with the victims of violence.
It is suggested that fora be organised on Colombia in each country, perhaps using materials sent by Caritas Colombia.
We believe this would be a good opportunity for raising awareness of the humanitarian crisis in Colombia by disseminating information that has been prepared for Peace Week via your websites.
We would be delighted to send you our slogan, educational material and all the promotional material that is prepared every year for the Peace Week, so that you can carry out awareness-raising initiatives in parishes and schools, above all during the day of prayer. We believe that the Church in the various countries could join us in prayer for the Peace Week and suggest that all Holy Masses celebrated on 5 September – the day on which the Inaugural Mass for the Colombia Peace Week is held – jointly focus their wishes for peace-building and complete reparation of victims.
Finally, during this week we would like to ask the Caritas network to focus special attention on the “Peace in Colombia is possible” campaign, whose third phase is fully underway, as mentioned in the answer to question 3
What does the solidarity of the Caritas network mean for Caritas Colombia and the Colombian people?
Caritas Colombia sees the solidarity and support of the Caritas network as an opportunity, but at the same time as a responsibility that leads us to strengthen our commitment to the neediest on the path to building the civilisation of love. We appreciate the fact that the network’s global efforts on behalf of the suffering, Colombia and its humanitarian crisis are given priority.
First and foremost, the network’s support is a source of hope for the people who are experiencing the impact of armed conflict. Each time the cooperation of the Caritas network is manifested in a remote farmhouse or a rural area, the commitment to build peace and a fairer world is strengthened.
The cooperation of the Caritas network makes us feel the presence and closeness of the international community and the Universal Church. In the midst of a conflict like ours communities often feel abandoned and isolated from the rest of the world. Therefore, the impact of cooperation is enormous, as it makes us feel like members of a single human family and realise that our brothers and sisters from other parts of the world are not indifferent to the pain we are undergoing.
Likewise, the solidarity of the Caritas network makes us feel that the love of God, which manifests itself amidst the difficulties of our history, inspires us to quicken our pace in seeking a world at peace in which the universal destination of goods is recognised.