Colombian rebel group FARC on Saturday denied responsibility for war crimes against civilians. The guerrillas want to be held responsible for crimes committed in military action which could exclude numerous civilian victims of the internal conflict.
The announcement was made in Cuba by “Pablo Catatumbo,” a senior military commander of the guerrilla group, who is negotiating peace with the government and now touching an extremely thorny question: Who is responsible for the millions of victims of the war between rebels and state?
Earlier that day, the fourth of five victim representation groups had arrived on the Caribbean island to give input on the issue of victims. Seven of the twelve victims who arrived have been a victim of the FARC, some of them even of multiple armed actors.
Who’s dealing with the civilian victims?
The FARC has accepted responsibility for victimization in the conflict, and has recognized international humanitarian law over war crimes, but the group seems reluctant to recognize responsibility for the generation of millions of civilian victims during 50 years of violence.
While on Thursday it had explicitly said to respect the first three Geneva conventions, the FARC on Saturday appeared to resist the Fourth Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Civilians make up the vast majority of victims in Colombia’s armed conflict.
According to Catatumbo, “some voices have been looking to confuse the Colombian people and the international community” by presenting the group as intentional or systematic perpetrators of war crimes.
“Evidently, our responsibility will in no case be about perpetrating war crimes or [violating] humanitarian law, which is what counts when considering that in some of our military actions non-combatant victims were made,” Catatumbo said.
The FARC leader said that victims made by the guerrilla were never the target of the group’s actions and justified the military actions of the group as a legitimate means of rebellion against the state.
“The FARC-EP is an organization that grew as a response to the persecution of farmers and other poor sectors who had been persecuted historically by the oligarchy and the Colombian establishment,” said Catatumbo.
As an insurgent group — as the FARC call itself — it can not be expected to be upheld to the same standards as a professional state or military “and the United States.”
When led under former President Alvaro Uribe between 2002 and 2010, the Colombian government insisted the FARC was a group with a criminal purpose, rather than a belligerent or insurgence group. For the same reason, the FARC sought the institutional recognition of the existence of an armed conflict in order for war law to be applied instead of criminal law.
The reality regarding victims
However, the FARC commander’s comments are highly controversial as the vast majority of victims of this conflict are civilians. More than 220,000 were killed in less than 60 years and millions have fled their home since the 1980s.
The FARC have consistently stressed the immense number of victims made by state-sponsored paramilitary violence between 1995 and 2006. Additionally –the rebels have pointed out– the military executed more than 4,000 civilians in the past 15 years. What the rebels want is the state and the United States be recognized as the conflict’s primary culprits.
However, the FARC itself has become infamous for financing its military operations with civilian kidnappings, which — if war law regarding citizens is applied — would constitute a war crime. A recent report said that almost half of the FARC’s fighters entered the group as a minor — another war crime.
Additionally, the group has been widely criticized over the use of landmines and using violent criminal activities such as drug trafficking and illegal mining to finance its goals.
Purpose, not means
However, Marquez’ stressed earlier words that the FARC seeks to be judged while “always attending the political-military nature of our organization, our purposes and programmatic definitions, our military plan to assume power, our internal norms and those related to the civilian population and, since later, the norms of International Humanitarian Law.”
MORE: FARC-EP are and always have been a political organization (FARC editorial)
The rebels and the government are currently negotiating over and with victims. If agreement is reach, the rebels would eventually submit to some form of transitional justice after which they would have to respond for alleged crimes committed during the conflict.
MORE: Transition in Colombia (Speech by Peace Commissioner Sergio Jaramillo)
The talks have been ongoing since November 2012 and have divided the public opinion about the prospects of peace the majority of the population has yet to experience. The conservative opposition, led by former President Alvaro Uribe, have implied the government and rebels are seeking to exchange impunity, leaving little justice for victims.
Uribe himself brokered a peace deal with right-wing paramilitary organization AUC between 2003 and 2006. Paradoxically, Uribe has been criticized by human rights groups seeking mutual impunity himself.