As Colombia’s long civil war appears to be headed toward a hard-sought peaceful settlement, the government may be ready to send soldiers from its huge, well-financed military to participate in peacekeeping missions of the United Nations. Colombian forces’ work in fighting terrorism was presented as a selling point by its defense ministry, but the military’s human-rights record could require extensive due diligence for submission to the UN.
The indefinite cease-fire declared by the FARC guerrillas in Colombia, whose insurgency began in 1964 with a leftist socialist agenda that segued over 50 years into such activities as transnational crime, has pushed the peace talks closer to a positive resolution, but outstanding issues, like a bilateral cease-fire, still must be negotiated. The peace agreement has involved more than two years of talks in Havana between Colombia’s government and the guerrillas, whose formal name, in English, is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Juan Carlos Pinzón Bueno, Colombia’s minister of defense, visited the UN in New York recently to broach the possibility of contributing components of the country’s military — numbering about 440,000 strong across disciplines — to participate in “international peace scenarios,” the ministry’s website said.
Pinzón and his entourage met with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to discuss “the significant progress and modernization of the Armed Forces of Colombia,” the website noted, in Spanish. The object of Pinzón’s tour to the United States, which included meeting with senior American government officials in Washington, D.C., as well as UN officials, was meant to clarify Colombia’s human-rights record in its military. UN peacekeepers must meet certain standards in that regard, although those rules sometimes get overridden for expediency’s sake, such as Chad’s participation in the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, even though Chad had a history of using child soldiers.
That blight seems to have been wiped clean by the UN, as Chad is no longer part of the “name and shame” list as a country with child soldiers in its ranks. Some nongovernment organizations dispute that position.
Pinzón met with the UN peacekeeping chief, Hervé Ladsous, who signed what the UN calls a “pre-agreement” with Colombia on contributions. The UN said that it “looks forward to reaching a full and formal agreement that will include all relevant UN policies and practices; including in relation to human rights screening of Colombian soldiers and officers to be deployed in peacekeeping missions.”
By signing the agreement, Colombia indicates that its military forces are committed to adhering to human-rights rules and international humanitarian law “in all its operations,” the ministry said.
Colombia’s military is one of Latin America’s biggest and best-equipped forces, having been financed for decades by the US under Plan Colombia, a controversial campaign to fight drug production and trafficking and the rebel movement. Human-rights groups have repeatedly highlighted the Colombian military’s human-rights abuses, many of which have been tied to its alliance with paramilitaries.
As of 2007, Colombia spent 6.1 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. FARC’s own finances receded partly after the deaths of its major patrons: Hugo Chávez, the president of Venezuela, and Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan leader. Drug trafficking and production of cocaine has also been a large source of money for the FARC.
Colombia’s agreement with the UN, however, does not create any obligation to send troops but opens the door when Colombia is ready. The UN’s peacekeeping mission in Haiti, dominated by Latin American troops, could be the first destination for Colombian contingents. As one UN official said, new peacekeepers often get sent to “soft” destinations.
The UN Security Council visited Haiti in January to assess the chances of reducing the peacekeepers there to redeploy troops elsewhere — probably in Africa. But the council found that the mission in Haiti, called Minustah, is not prepared to be slimmed down yet.
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.