FARC: "terrorists" or "belligerents"?
In the wake of his successful negotiation of the release of two hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has launched an initiative for the FARC and its junior counterpart, the National Liberation Army (ELN), to be recognized by the international community as legitimate "belligerents"—not terrorists. Chávez says the FARC is an "insurgent" force with legitimate political aims and that the terrorist label "has just one cause: pressure from the United States."
In a near-unanimous vote Jan. 17, the Venezuelan National Assembly approved a resolution recognizing the FARC's belligerent status. The bill's sponsor, Deputy Saul Ortega, emphasized that the resolution has no legal effect, granting the FARC neither diplomatic status nor safe passage in Venezuela. He said it was merely a show of support for Chávez's proposal.
But the Colombian government protested the move as interference in its affairs, recalling French and Mexican recognition of the Sandinista National Liberation Front as a "state in formation" during the Nicaraguan revolution in 1979. Such a move would mean "giving the FARC diplomatic immunity, asylum rights, Venezuelan passports, and freedom from extradition," said former Colombian Defense Minister Rafael Pardo, now a consultant based in Bogotá. "They would be giving the FARC a legitimacy, and that's very grave."
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has arranged an emergency trip to several European capitals to make the case that the FARC is a terrorist organization (as they are currently designation by the EU).
Groups on the US State Department's list of "foreign terrorist organizations" are effectively international outlaws. Members of these organizations are subject to arrest without habeas corpus or Geneva Convention rights, and individuals who collaborate with them are designated criminals. The FARC has been on the US terrorist list since 1997.
Matthew Levitt, a former FBI analyst now a "counter-terrorism expert" with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), said the FARC fits the classic definition of a terrorist organization that targets civilians to achieve political ends. "To me there is no debate. They engage in other horrible crimes such as narco-trafficking that only makes them a worse problem," Levitt said.
To qualify for "belligerent" status under international law, experts say an armed group must control territory, have a unified command, demonstrate the capacity to carry out military operations and observe basic human rights. The FARC have been implicated in hundreds of assassinations, kidnappings and car bombs, and do not openly control territory (since the Colombian army overran their "demilitarized zone" at San Vicente del Caguan in 2002).
But Chávez said in a speech to Venezuela lawmakers Jan. 11 that the FARC and ELN are "true armies that occupy real space in their country." In the videotaped coverage of the hostages' release the day before, Venezuelan Interior Minister Ramón Rodriguez Chacín told FARC fighters: "We are with you... Be strong. We are following your cause."
Relations between Venezuela and Colombia have been tense since November, when Uribe declared that Chávez had broken protocol and abruptly terminated the Venezuelan president's mediation role with the FARC, in which he tried to arrange a comprehensive release of hostages. Ex-Colombian defense minister Pardo said that with the move to have the FARC recognized as belligerents, relations between his country and Venezuela "may be at their lowest point in history." (Los Angeles Times, Jan. 20)
See also our forthcoming feature, "Bolívar's Sword: Venezuela's Recognition of the Colombian Insurgency," by Paul Wolf