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Fatal politics

by Peter Strack
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon considers the problem of internal displacement as the major humanitarian challenge of our times. According to UN statistics, roughly 77 million people, about one percent of the world population, had to leave their home regions and take refuge in other parts of their own country: one third of these fleeing from armed conflicts, the other two thirds from natural catastrophes and large-scale projects. By way of comparison: only 16 million people fled to other countries. Colombia, a country rarely hitting the headlines in current international crises, serves as an example of the problem of internal displacement. [ By Peter Strack ]

Colombia has an estimated number of four million IDPs (internally displaced persons), thus ranking second in the list of countries affected by this problem. Government programmes have quantitatively improved these people’s conditions: 79 % now have access to primary health care, eight out of ten children attend school. However, only two percent of the Colombian IDPs live above the poverty line and only a quarter above the minimum subsistence level.

Many IDPs do not appear in the public register, which in part is due to their fear of armed groups. Several have fled in order to protect their children from guerrilla recruitment. Then again, the allegedly dissolved paramilitary troops have established new structures in different places. Again and again, governmental authorities are known to cooperate with paramilitary death squads. Only in the first half of 2008, 255 IDP spokesmen were threatened and seven of them were killed as a result of their appearance in court to appeal for their rights.

During her state visit in Colombia, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was full of praise, saying that German investments were quite safe in Colombia. IDPs, on the other hand, do not enjoy legal security in their own country. On the contrary: in 1997, paramilitary troops and the national army drove away 3000 African-Colombian farmers from the tributaries of the Atrato river. On their former land you now find banana and palm oil plantations controlled by either military or paramilitary troops. Due to the high demand for biofuel, Colombia was able to obtain a ninefold increase in the export of vegetable oil and fat.

The farmers appealed to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights; but as soon as the Colombian judiciary reopened the proceedings against the responsible general Rito Alejo del Rio, they were once again threatened and attacked. Of all the displacement cases only one percent actually lead to legal proceedings. 73 % have left behind their land and belongings, 82 % don’t even know they are entitled to comprehensive reparations. It is also due to the extensive impunity that in the first six months of last year, another 271,000 people in Colombia have been forcefully chased from their homes, i.e. 41 % more than in 2007.

According to Swiss law professor Walter Kälin who assists Ban Ki-moon as a special representative for IDPs, also in the Colombian case the German government’s commitment for displaced persons is called for: humanitarian help for displacement victims is to be acclaimed. Yet an intensified political engagement is equally necessary, for instance the consolidation of the IDPs’ rights on an international level. The USA has demonstrated that this is possible: a law court convicted Chiquita of armament supply and financial support of the paramilitary forces. One year later, the Del Monte Group cancelled their supply contracts with companies that were proven to have close contacts with the paramilitary.

Yet, in Colombia the rights of farmers are not consolidated but diminished – in favour of large-scale investors. The European Union has only just decided to negotiate over an isolated free trade agreement with Colombia, instead of integrating both social and political questions in the context of the Andean Pact, as demanded by Bolivia and Ecuador. This is not only a wrong signal. In terms of human rights, this is fatal politics.