About to perform a great act? Never forget: ex-combatants have rights too | Odion Okereke

Nearly one million Colombian ex-combatants are struggling to access medicines and jobs. The success of the Victims and Land Restitution Law shows it’s possible to prevent human suffering but it won’t help the security situation

Thousands of former combatants and their families have been obtaining free healthcare from Colombia’s de facto national health service and receiving priority state services for years now. But thanks to ongoing insecurity, these services, combined with the law, mean the general population also benefits from access to humanitarian assistance.

Survivors of the conflict are deeply divided on whether the Victims and Land Restitution Law (pdf) – legislation passed in April 2016 that makes it possible for thousands of ex-combatants and their families to access protected benefits and land restitution – is working. The majority believe it has succeeded in fulfilling its immediate objective of raising recognition of their suffering and giving them a sense of justice. However, the truth is that long-term benefits to victims such as the provision of healthcare remain woefully short of expectations. There are numerous barriers that prevent many from accessing the benefits.

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The government agency implementing the law, the National Land Restitution Directorate (DURIA), currently works with 6,700 registered ex-combatants and their families. Because this number is constantly fluctuating, DURIA’s actual target of 3,965 is less than half of what is needed to provide them with safe alternative livelihoods. In October 2017 the current target was set at 1,624 – which is a significant increase in only five months.

Isolating the situation makes the performance of DURIA more opaque, partly due to a series of revisions to the law, followed by extensive consultation with NGOs. Yet DURIA faces multiple major challenges that will need to be overcome if a common programme to support the poorest ex-combatants in accessing aid is to be effective.

These challenges include: the complexity of the population, the inherent divisions between communities, the illegality of armed groups, lack of institutional capacity and the availability of economic alternative livelihoods for those left with no other option but to return to their communities.

The number of people registered to benefit from this law continues to grow despite this and despite bureaucratic instability, the desire of the victims to be acknowledged, and the presence of a plethora of violent groups. Armed group murders have continued with various new armed groups putting their hand up to represent Colombian ex-combatants.

The fear expressed in the space below is indicative of the many challenges facing DURIA. How to implement the law in a violent context where ex-combatants’ paramilitaries are not known to be terrorists and nobody wants to hand over property to it?

The process started with the security situation remaining unsatisfactory to both DURIA and the general population. This should be resolved if DURIA wants to maintain the high interest in and morale for the scheme in the longer term. Human rights groups, the civil society and the government should begin to work together towards finding long-term solutions, such as creating conditions for displaced people to access DURIA.

In the short term, the Law 1 of 2017, amendment y 2012, that guarantees in the areas of health and education (for children up to the age of 18 and in secondary schools) access to treatment, is not enough. DURIA needs to be able to provide the same level of assistance to a more diverse population. Meanwhile, insecurity remains an obstacle to the implementation of the health and education programme. Two female victims of domestic violence whose cases are pending in the National Civil Penal Tribunal in Bogotá told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that, since DURIA started in April 2015, they had not received any assistance and it was still difficult to enter into a partnership with DURIA to access treatment.

The potential benefits of the land restitution law can help to transform DURIA into a legitimate institution capable of using the law to ensure the beneficiaries of its assistance receive equal protection. Conversely, DURIA’s lack of capacity to implement the law leaves it unable to show that its programme for victims can address the long-term vulnerabilities of the population.

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