by Sebastián Albuja
Sebastián Albuja is the country analyst for Colombia for the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC). He previously guest-posted on earlier drafts of the current Colombian restitution legislation here. In light of the possibility that further changes to the legislation may come about as a result of a possible conciliation process between the two houses of the Colombian legislature, Sebastián has kindly offered to provide further updates if necessary. A pdf version of the current draft will also shortly be available at the IDMC Colombia page.
The Colombian Congress recently passed a law to provide reparations to the victims of conflict and set up a property restitution plan. The so-called ‘Victim’s Law,’ which has been in the making since September 2010, has been much awaited by hundreds of thousands of victims of violence and human rights abuses in Colombia’s ongoing armed conflict.
The law has been hailed as an important accomplishment for the victims of conflict and land dispossession, and IDMC, whose 2010 report supported the initiative and commented on the bill’s text, joins in welcoming the adoption of the Victim’s Law. In a highly charged political environment, and trailing on a path of similar failed initiatives, the political deal brokered by the majority is no minor accomplishment. With this law, the Colombian Government has taken a step in the right direction to redress the victims of a conflict they did not seek, and to discharge its obligations under Colombian and International Law.
This is a law that will “change the country’s history in many ways” and will “divide Colombia’s history in two parts,” as President Juan Manuel Santos and Minister of Agriculture Juan Camilo Restrepo have declared, harnessing the significance of the moment.
But how exactly will such deeds be accomplished? After all, anyone vaguely familiar with the enormous distance between the law in the books and the law on the ground in Colombia may reasonably suspect that placing such hefty aspirations on any one piece of legislation is either naivety or political maneuvering.
For the victims’ sake, it is hopefully neither. One positive indication is the first-ever acknowledgment by the Government – contained in the law – that Colombia confronts an armed conflict, which is both symbolically, politically, and legally significant. Further, beyond the creation of a system to provide financial reparations for victims of violations dating back to 1985, the incorporation in the Victims’ Law of a property restitution mechanism that aims at giving back land to up to half a million IDP families who lost it since 1991 will also be momentous if successful.
Success will not be trouble-free. The same interests and actors that have been responsible for land dispossession are still at large, if under new structures and names, and the war is not over. Also, swiftly managing the hundreds of thousands of claims, distinguishing genuine from spurious applications, compensating legitimate occupants of land and evicting illegitimate ones, would be an enormous challenge for even the strongest of States.
The restitution plan sets up mechanisms that aim to overcome these challenges. It establishes priority areas for restitution, creates a special administrative agency and a special jurisdiction, and provides opportunities for appeal. But victims fear, with good reason, that more institutions and procedures will mean more red tape and more opportunities for corruption and undue influence. It will therefore be fundamental to the success of the plan—which will be spread out over a period of 10 years—that enough resources, technical capacity, and commitment are mustered as soon as the it is initiated.
Finally, mechanisms still have to be set up for those whose reliance on land for their survival is fundamental, namely indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians. The law gives the President special powers to legislate through decree to adopt such measures following consultation with the affected communities. The international community will continue to monitor until and as such measures are put in place.