Speakers on a keynote panel at the Lutheran World Federation’s (LWF) Council meeting in Bogota, Colombia from 15 to 20 June criticized the state’s role in decades of sustained conflict between the military, paramilitary and guerrilla groups.
Colombian human rights activist Ruth Sanabria, 50, said she has been personally attacked. “I was sitting at lunch with my children when suddenly they shot us through the wall … On the first day I was ordered to leave my house, otherwise they would kill my two children,” she told the Council meeting, according to a news release from Lutheran World Information (LWI).
The Council is the LWF’s governing body, meeting every 12 months between assemblies that are held every six years.
The panel included speakers from local partners with whom the LWF is working on the humanitarian crisis and armed conflict in Colombia. Sanabria, Father Sterlin Londoño, Ricardo Esquivia and Diego Perez Guzmán said the state plays a major role in the conflict, LWI reported.
Sociologist Guzmán shared his analysis, according to which the conflict had now reached a new stage. At the start, ideological motives enabled guerrilla groups to gain a footing, but, then, in the second phase, drug trafficking led to mafia structures pervading government institutions. Both levels of the conflict have not been resolved, he said.
The new stage, he explained, was the trend for the last few years, which had seen more and more international corporations penetrating the crisis-riddled regions of Colombia and imposing their interests without consideration for human rights. “They pay guerrillas, the military or the paramilitary to assert their interests,” Guzmán stated. “That is the new economic war in Colombia.”
Londoño, from the Roman Catholic diocese of Quidbó, a partner of the LWF Department for World Service program, denounced the fact that the state gave priority to economic interests over human beings: “First the Afro-Colombians were promised that they would regain the collective right to their land. But when minerals and water were discovered there, the international companies came and wanted the land.”
Out of the 70,000 hectares of land returned to the people in this region, 50,000 hectares had now been reserved for the extraction of raw materials, he said, adding that the transnationals were going ahead without any consideration for the population at all. “They lay mines in the land so that people can’t work there anymore,” he added.
Londoño and human rights lawyer Esquivia criticized the fact that regulations were not complied with, or were changed at short notice. Esquivia drew parallels with the 1970s. When the land reform decided by the state met with resistance by the big landowners, the law was simply changed and the army and police sent to the region in order to fight the protesting farmers. In this way the state itself fuelled the conflict because it drove smallholders into the arms of the paramilitary and guerrillas.
Through the ongoing conflict, the Colombian state had massively expanded its army and police forces over decades. The panelists said they saw the land militarization as a dangerous development. “We are not the biggest country in Latin America, but we have the biggest army — an army that [sometimes] violates human rights and is connected with paramilitary actions,” stated Londoño.
For Guzmán, the conflict is also fed by the United States’ “war on drugs” or the so-called Plan Colombia. “Internationally they say that millions of U.S. dollars going to foreign military [to push through its interests] is a thing of the past, but that is wrong. Today they are supporting the third phase of the conflict, consolidating the land.”
However, the panelists also underlined the need to work with the state in resolving the conflict and the willingness of civil society groups to do so. Guzmán emphasized the central role of civil society in the peace process: “We believe that we must start from below in building up a society and a country in peace. Peace cannot be decreed.” Victims and those who had suffered must be involved in the process, he said.
Concluding the panel, the participants thanked the LWF for its support. At the same time, they called on the Lutheran communion not to give up its advocacy work and political pressure on their home country. LWF President Bishop Munib A. Younan assured the partners in Colombia of the broad support and prayers of the Lutheran communion. “Wherever we are, we will be your voice — the voice of the poor and oppressed in Colombia.”
About 150 representatives from LWF member churches and partner organizations, invited guests, interpreters, media persons and LWF staff are attending the Council meeting.
The Council host church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Colombia, has 1,998 members, and has been an LWF member church since 1966. It is headed by Bishop Eduardo Martinez. The LWF is based in Geneva and includes 145 member churches in 79 countries, representing more than 70 million members.