First land restitution rulings expected in September

Colombia’s government announced Wednesday that it will complete the first rulings over land-restitution claims this September, meaning victims forced from their homes by the country’s longstanding armed conflict could soon be given land as compensation.

The head of the Unit of Land Restitutions, Ricardo Sabogal, was tasked with the completion of one of President Juan Manuel Santos‘ most significant pieces of legislation, the Victims and Land Restitution Law, a bill that went into effect in January aimed at compensating Colombians who have suffered due to armed conflict since 1985. One of the bill’s primary aims is to assist in the appropriation of land to those victims who were forced to flee their homes as a result of the country’s ongoing internal conflict.

The September rulings will determine which of the estimated 16,000 claims, pertaining to approximately 3 million acres of land, are legitimate.

“Through these lawsuits the Unit of Land Restitutions is now showing that the government is following through with, in respect to said process, the expectations of those victims who today have reason to put their trust in these institutions and expect with greater certainty the favorable outcome of their petitions,” affirmed Sabogal.

Violence has plagued Colombia for decades. Armed conflict increased in the 1980s, when Colombia became the world’s largest producer and transporter of cocaine. Fighting increased with the formation of right-wing paramilitary groups that same decade, who were founded to combat the widening influence of guerrilla groups in the country, often with the backing of government officials. The UN estimated that while they were active, paramilitary groups were responsible for 80% of human rights abuses in the country, which includes forced displacement, with state forces and guerrilla rebels accounting for the rest.

As a result, the country has one of the highest levels of internally displaced peoples in the world. The government estimates the current level at around 3.9 million people, while the Observatory on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) places the number at around 5.3 million.

The government still faces a number of challenges to the appropriation of land, one of which includes the threat of violence from criminal groups seeking to prevent such restitutions. Colombian authorities revealed July 5 that a group calling itself the “Anti-Restitution Army,” issued death threats against 13 prominent land restitution activists, calling them “guerrillas hidden in the roles of human rights defenders.”

The law has received criticism for its definition of what constitutes a victim—people injured by landmines have been excluded—as well as the manner in which proof of victimization needs to be provided. Land claimants are required to prove that they were victims of armed conflict and that they will use the land efficiently, for agricultural purposes, for example.

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