- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2004

The Colombian government’s efforts to disarm paramilitary groups got a legitimacy boost last week, when the Organization of American States (OAS) said it would monitor the process. The move by the OAS introduces a new dynamic and momentum to an initiative that has been criticized by both human-rights groups and right-wing Colombian legislators. OAS Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria took a personal risk by agreeing to have the OAS monitor the process, since he agreed to do so without consulting the 35 OAS member states. Mr. Gaviria should be commended for making himself, rather than the OAS, the lightning rod for controversy.

Demobilization initiatives are a valid strategy for ending bloody conflict, but invariably entail some kind of forbearance for individuals who have committed horrible acts. In Colombia, these acts have been atrocious, including the torture and massacre of villagers who allegedly sympathized (yes, sympathized) with the wrong side. The paramilitary group formally involved in the disarmament effort — United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, otherwise known as AUC — has been identified by the United States as a terrorist group, and its leaders are wanted in the United States on drug-trafficking charges. U.S. officials have said that they won’t be dropping their claims on these individuals, regardless of developments in Colombia. Still, the United States has tacitly endorsed the demobilization effort with financial support. A State Department official said officials are waiting to see how the process is formalized in Colombian law, but that, generally, the United States supports disarmament.

For Mr. Gaviria and others involved, demobilization is a difficult and messy process. Colombians want an end to the killing that is devastating the country. Many countries that have been wracked with civil conflict resort to demobilization. Mr. Gaviria has likened the current effort in Colombia to the disarmament of 22,000 U.S.-backed Contra insurgents in the 1990s, and he tapped Sergio Caramagna, who helped to supervise the Contra disarmament, to monitor the process.

The disarmament endeavor is still a work in progress, and the Colombian Congress is currently debating a demobilization law. It should consider giving all the armed groups of Colombia the same disarmament terms. It should also require, at the very least, that participants divulge their crimes. Finally, armed groups must face some deadline for disarmament. Those that fail to meet the deadline or return to the conflict must face the full weight of the law.

Mr. Gaviria has made the right move in endorsing the Colombia’s effort, though he will continue to face bitter criticism.

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