October 21, 2010
As the country’s presidency changes hands, DARA’s HRI 2010 mission to Colombia finds that government efforts to deny the existence of an armed conflict have condemned millions of victims to invisibility and produced resignation within the donor and humanitarian community. Interview with Philip Tamminga, HRI Outreach Manager and Team Leader in Colombia.
Question: With no apparent end in sight to the Colombian conflict, last year’s HRI mission noted increasing donor fatigue. Is there a change in that?
Philip Tamminga: What we saw this year was not only donor fatigue but also a sense of resignation that the current political context makes it impossible to engage with the Colombian government in a meaningful dialogue on humanitarian issues. But it’s not just donor agencies. Many humanitarian actors we spoke with also seemed resigned to accept the situation, and try to maintain their programming as best they could in the current context. Donors and humanitarian organizations should look for common strategies to make the crisis visible to the world and find a shared platform to engage with the government to resolve important issues around access and protection of civilians.
Q: Colombia is one of the places in the world where militarization of humanitarian aid has become the norm. What can donors do to disengage humanitarian aid from the Colombian government’s military strategies and actions?
PT: The Colombian government is moving forward with implementation of its “Plan de Consolidación” aimed at recovering territory from FARC and re-instituting state control. In addition, Presidential decree 001 requires humanitarian actors to “coordinate” activities through the military and the state agency for IDP issues. But the policy is putting civilian populations at risk of reprisals from armed groups, and is seriously jeopardizing humanitarian space by compromising the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian actors. Donors should engage in dialogue with the incoming government and review its strategy of using the military and government agencies to coordinate humanitarian action.
Q: What sort of pressure and/or threats do humanitarian actors face in Colombia?
PT: Some paramilitary organisations have released communiqués specifically naming individuals working with humanitarian organisations, including local and international NGOs and UN agencies, and threatening them with reprisals if they continue to work on behalf of the people affected by the conflict. The HRI team also heard that sensitive information on programme beneficiaries had been stolen, and that work permits and visas for personnel of some organisations have been denied. Donor governments could do much more to advocate for safe humanitarian access and protection, but this would require finding a common voice and strategy amongst donors that don’t exist at the moment.
Q: How can donors be more effective in providing protection to Colombian civil society?
PT: Most donors have been supportive of efforts to ensure protection for victims of the armed conflict by funding the ICRC and UNHCR, for example. But very few are actively advocating on these issues. Donor governments have other agendas in Colombia. For example, the EU just signed a free-trade agreement with Colombia. The US has significant military and anti-drug interests in Colombia. So, humanitarian assistance and advocacy by donor governments on humanitarian issues don’t seem much of a priority.
Q: Looking at the Colombian crisis as one of the longest lasting in the world, do you see any reason for hope?
PT: The new government has publically stated that it will continue the Uribe government’s approach to the conflict. For their part, the FARC have been able to regroup and in fact may be growing in strength. So, in the short-term, it doesn’t appear that a solution is in sight. However, the change in administration may create new opportunities to re-examine the conflict and look for some kind of settlement.