- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2003

The sight of weapons piling up as Colombian paramilitary fighters gave up their arms Tuesday was impressive. But success will depend on a better-defined decommissioning and negotiating effort. Witnessing the televised coverage of 800 paramilitary fighters surrendering their weapons surely had a positive psychological impact in Colombia, and represents a victory in the government’s non-military approach to stopping the four-decades-long civil war, which has claimed about 40,000 lives. The government has enhanced the likelihood the fighters will successfully reintegrate into society by enrolling them in a job-training or education program. But given the scale and ferocity of the conflict, and the abundant drug proceeds which finance it, the fighters and arms retired on Tuesday could be replaced almost instantaneously. This is made more probable by the fact that no paramilitary leaders surrendered on Tuesday.

Support for the government’s demobilization initiative has also been undermined by the ambiguity surrounding it. Given the military might of rebel and paramilitary forces in Colombia, any resolution of the civil war must entail demobilization deals which include immunity from prosecution, at least in some cases. However, demobilization should not be pursued at any price, and some sort of accountability must be established. Immunity must be at least conditioned on a full disclosure of an individual’s crimes ? in the spirit of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Fighters must detail, quite literally, where the bodies are buried, so Colombians can finally put to rest their loved ones’ remains. Also, the government should at some point set a deadline for demobilization deals. Those groups that don’t meet it should face the full force of the law.

It remains unclear what the government’s terms are for demobilization agreements. Rebel and paramilitary leaders won’t give themselves up until they know precisely what they will get in return.

The United States has played a prominent role in Colombia’s counter-terror and drug initiatives, providing $1.3 billion in aid under President Clinton and another $2 billion under President Bush. It has recently initiated free-trade talks with Colombia, which will bolster President Andres Pastrana.

The Bush administration should also soberly analyze its strategies in Colombia, and ensure that U.S.-backed measures bolster the government’s prospects for success. If coca eradication efforts, for example, are deemed to be a tactical liability, then the United States should shift its focus and aid to support better border patrol and interdiction efforts.

Tuesday’s decommissioning was a step in the right direction. Mr. Pastrana faces daunting odds in Colombia, but he has demonstrated an unwavering will to establish stability for his people, and he has their overwhelming support.


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