Tirofijo in The Hague

Quico says: I find the debate on FARC/ELN belligerence really very bizarre. Both the Colombian rebels and the Venezuelan government talk as though Belligerent Status were a kind of “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for guerrillas: something with the talismanic power to render them “legitimate”.

From a legal point of view, that’s nonsense. And while I realize that the politics and the international law of all this run on separate tracks, I still find it odd how little attention the latter is getting.

Belligerent status doesn’t confer some hazy “recognition” on FARC’s politics or “legitimate” its activities in some vague way. In international law, belligerence is a “term of art”: a specifically defined word with precise legal consequences. What it does, basically, is formalize the existence of a war between the government and the insurgents.

In doing so – and this is the key thing – it binds both sides to follow the international law on the legitimate conduct of war (A.K.A. “international humanitarian law” or, for the latinately inclined, jus in bello) which is set out (for the most part) in the Geneva Conventions.

Thing is, International Humanitarian Law is positively bursting at the seams with rules FARC breaks all the damn time.

Recruiting child soldiers is a war crime, as is using indiscriminate weapons like land mines. Kidnapping non-combatants is a war crime. Capturing combatants and grossly violating their human dignity is a war crime too, as is denying the Red Cross access to them. Attacking ambulances? War crime. Forced displacement of civilians? War crime. Monkey trials of captured enemies? War crime.

All of these violations (and a great many others) have been documented in detail in FARC’s sprawling, appalling human rights rap sheet. ELN, with its predilection for assassinating politicians and for mass abductions, fares little better.
Granted, Colombia’s right-wing paramilitaries have a human rights record every bit as awful…but then, they’re not the ones furiously scheming to be covered by a body of law that would surely condemn them.

In fact, FARC and ELN’s record is so brutal, it’s not even clear whether it’s lawful to recognize them as belligerents. The Hague II Convention (the treaty that first specified the concept in 1899), explicitly states in article 2 that an irregular army shall be regarded as belligerent, among other conditions, “if they respect the laws and customs of war.” But FARC and ELN clearly don’t respect even the rudiments of jus in bello. In recognizing their beligerence, Chávez is arguably in violation of Hague II.

The irony is that if Marulanda and Chávez had their way and Colombia recognized them as belligerents, Uribe’s very next move would have to be to denounce FARC’s leaders as war criminals. One day Tirofijo would be celebrating his “recognition”, the next the International Criminal Court would be handing down an indictment for him.

Chavismo’s position in all of this just makes no sense. If the call was to “regularize” the conflict by insisting all involved begin respecting international humanitarian law, you can imagine how that could pave the way for serious peace talks, which is what Chávez purports to want.

If Chávez was saying “we hereby recognize FARC and ELN as lawful belligerents and, for that very reason, we demand they fully comply with the international obligations incumbent on all lawful beligerents”, even some French philosophers would cheer.

But that’s not chavismo’s line at all. The National Assembly just passed a resolution demanding that FARC and ELN be recognized as subjects of international humanitarian law without any corresponding demand that FARC and ELN comply with international humanitarian law. Go figure.

And as they handed over to him the evidence of their own war crimes (Clara Rojas and Consuelo González – very literally the body of the crime) Chávez’s interior minister told a group of FARC rebels “in the name of President Chávez…we’re watching your struggle very closely. Keep that spirit, keep up your strength, and count on us.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that, when chavismo says belligerents, what it really means is allies.