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Columbia too quick to absolve itself

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A report released Wednesday by the Colombian government confirmed what many in that country already knew: The decades-long civil war has claimed too many lives, forced too many people from their homes and left too many civilians unaccounted for.

The report, compiled over six years by a government truth commission known as the National Center of Historic Memory, found that at least 220,000 Colombians have been killed since the armed conflict began more than 50 years ago. Those responsible for the violence include paramilitary groups, which the report blames for 59 per cent of the nearly 2,000 massacres that have taken place since 1980. (A massacre is defined as the killing of more than four people.) Rebel groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, were responsible for more than 90 percent of all kidnappings. The military and police are blamed for 42 percent of the country’s 25,000 disappearances.

The commission’s grim statistics were released less than a week after President Juan Manuel Santos said he hopes to close the Colombian office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights because it is no longer needed. That would be a serious mistake. Although Colombia has made significant gains in addressing the violence and curbing human rights abuses in recent years, problems persist, and so does the need for UN monitoring.

Take, for example, the role of the UN High Commissioner in raising the first alarm in Colombia’s "false positive" scandal in 2008, which involved allegations that government security forces had killed hundreds of civilians, many of them from poor neighbourhoods outside Bogota, and dressed the corpses as rebels to help boost the body count used to measure the military’s counterinsurgency effort.

Or consider that the violence continues in areas such as Buenaventura, a western port city that has been described by some human rights groups as a war zone, where small paramilitary groups carry out disappearances, displacements and dismemberments. And surely the United Nations could play an important role in verifying that any peace agreement that might be reached in the current negotiations between the government and the FARC is implemented without any further bloodshed.

Those negotiations are taking place amid continued fighting. Last week, 19 soldiers were killed in clashes with rebels, and civilians continue to die too. Until the conflict is truly concluded and Colombia’s long history of human rights abuses is adequately addressed, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is needed there.

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