Colombia's quiet catastrophe

Imagine a place where death squads have destroyed towns and villages, killing innocent victims. Refugees, who have left their homes but can't flee the country, search for havens, often stripped of identification and most of their possessions. Many are women whose husbands were tortured, murdered, or "disappeared." This is not Kosovo. It's Colombia. It's been this way for the last 30 years - and it's getting worse.

Despite President Andres Pastrana's best efforts, the peace process aimed at ending the long-running Colombian civil war has stalled. There are no easy resolutions to this complex conflict, whose players include the government, the Army, paramilitaries, and several guerrilla groups. A recent spate of guerrilla-coordinated kidnappings, an increase in massacres led by paramilitary forces, the resignation of several top Cabinet ministers, and now a refugee problem spilling into Venezuela have pushed Colombia to the brink of disaster.

The internal displacement of Colombians is a longstanding and underreported problem. Paramilitary and guerrilla attacks displaced 300,000 Colombians in 1998 alone, according to the US Department of State. Colombia's estimated 1 million internal refugee population in 1997 ranked only below Sudan, Angola, and Afghanistan.

Internally displaced Colombians face harrowing conditions. Most are forced to seek haven in already overburdened urban areas where unemployment is high, education for children is not possible, and housing conditions are unsanitary. Many of the displaced have resisted government pressure to return home because there's no assurance of safety.

Because they cross no international borders, the plight of internal refugees receives little media or international attention. Consequently, external assistance and protection is exceedingly difficult. Even as he heartily pledged to initiate the peace process in his visit to the US last year, President Pastrana failed to address the internal refugee crisis.

Recently, Colombians have begun seeking shelter in Venezuela. In the last three weeks, 2,600 Colombians have been repatriated by Venezuelan authorities. The return of the refugees to a situation where they face persecution violated international law. If nothing else, Venezuela's response has drawn attention to the deteriorating refugee conditions in Colombia.

As paramilitary and guerrilla violence escalates, Colombia and its Latin American neighbors may soon find themselves with a massive refugee crisis on their hands.

In the short run, the US, Colombia, and other countries should push Venezuela to comply with UN Refugee Convention and Protocol obligations by providing threatened Colombians with temporary asylum. Colombia should also take steps to reduce the paramilitary violence.

Colombia's long-term plans must include greater efforts to sever all connections between the military and paramilitary, the latter of which often receives logistical and strategic support from the former. Pastrana must work to improve civil infrastructure, particularly in areas where guerrilla groups have become the de facto government. He must also promote legislation which upholds global standards of human rights protections and punishes those responsible for atrocities, including government and military officials.

US policy toward Colombia, focused mainly on counter-narcotics efforts, has all too often ignored the human price of the drug war. In past efforts to help the Colombian government fight drug lords, the US directly and indirectly supplied the deadly paramilitary organizations responsible for much of the terror with arms and combat training. The Leahy amendment to the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act ensured that military units that committed human rights abuses would be ineligible for US aid. The amendment, which curtailed the flow of funds to paramilitary groups and reaffirmed the importance of human rights to bilateral relations, should be aggressively enforced and also expanded to include monitoring of military units that already receive aid.

Though Kosovo helped focus the world's attention on human rights and refugee issues, Colombia's quiet refugee catastrophe seems ignored. As the only Latin American country still caught in the throes of a civil war, Colombia should stand out glaringly in a region now characterized by peaceful democracies and growing economies.

Instead, this interminable war has received scant attention, and it may be too late by the time its full impact is finally acknowledged.

* Margalit Edelman is the Latin America research fellow at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a public policy research organization based in Arlington, Va.

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