Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos enacted Friday a landmark “Victims’ Law” aimed at redressing the estimated 4 million victims of the country’s long-running internal conflict.
It marks the first attempt by a country beset for more than a half century by class-based conflict to reckon with the magnitude of its social costs.
The law creates mechanisms for compensating survivors of the tens of thousands, mostly civilians, killed since 1985 in Colombia’s dirty war. Stolen land is to be returned to hundreds of thousands of displaced.
Santos signed the law in the presence of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.
“Today is a historic day,” Santos said of the law he has made the centerpiece of his 10-month-old administration, speaking to a crowd of 600 guests including the military brass, the nation’s most senior judges and representatives of Colombia’s more than 2 million internally displaced.
“Our country is not condemned to 100 years of solitude,” Santos added, invoking the title of the novel by Colombia’s literature Nobel-winner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which depicts the nation fatalistically as one that can’t seem to escape endless cycles of violence.
Authorities say the law will take a decade to implement and cost at least $20 billion. The challenges are immense. The conflict is anything but over, and the CODHES human rights group say 49 people have been killed since 2002 seeking to reclaim stolen land, eight of them in this year alone.
In a brief speech, Ban’s praised the law but said the work has just begun and it must produce results.
After all, the number of victims, arrived at by a public registration process, accounts for nearly one in 10 Colombians. And the country remains beset by conflict, though leftist rebels and right-wing bands hold sway over far less territory than they did a decade ago.
Many victims, though applauding the law, also expressed concern.
“I think that without seriously getting under control ‘parapolitics,’ ‘the ‘para economy’ and those who have cleared out lands it will be very difficult to produce processes of restitution of land and reparations,” said Rep. Ivan Cepeda, longtime head of Colombia’s organization of victims of crimes of the state.
He was referring to Colombia’s so-called paramilitaries, privately funded far-right militias that emerged in the 1980s to counter kidnapping and extortion by leftist rebels.
The paramilitaries devolved into drug-trafficking gangs, however, who wealthy landowners used to extend their holdings at the expense of poor peasants, indigenous groups and Afro-Colombians.
The paramilitaries continue to exert a powerful, violent and corrupting influence in rural Colombia, where the central government remains relatively weak and local politicians and military officials sometimes aid and abet them.
Jailed paramilitary warlords who surrendered in exchange for promises of relative leniency have admitted to ordering more than 50,000 murders. Human rights activists say the death toll could be triple that amount.