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An Early Christmas Present? The Decreto Ley Becomes Law in Colombia.

December 21, 2011

For those of you who have worked internationally, I will dare to say especially with NGOS, I have little doubt that you would agree that there are great days and there are incredibly frustrating days, and not necessarily much in between.  It’s not like most jobs I’ve had in Canada where there were some great days and some difficult days, but most days fell somewhere in between. It’s been my experience that when working internationally, most days will fall on one end of the spectrum.

Yesterday was one of the great days.

It was the official signing of the Decreto Ley. After months of hard work by people all across the country, the Decreto Ley is now officially law in Colombia.  For those of you who have been following my blog, you will remember that this is the law I have been working on since arriving in Colombia (for those who haven’t been following the blog check out previous posts; What Am I doing here Anyway? and Experiences with the Duty to Consult Part One and Two for background).

The Decreto Ley is now officially Decreto Ley 4633 de Diciembre 09 de 2011 (See also Semana newspaper editorial on Decreto 4633). It provides for various forms of reparation including restitution of lands, compensation, and satisfaction, to indigenous communities and persons who have been victims of the Non-International Armed Conflict here in Colombia.  One of the most important aspects of the law is that it also provides guarantees of non-repetition, meaning the State guarantees it will not let these people become victims again. Obviously a tall order, the implementation of which will no doubt be challenging given that the conflict is ongoing.

Some of the main points of contention during the consultations of the law remain in the final document.  One of the most contentious issues during the consultations was the dates that would be used for how far back to provide reparation and restitution of lands. The dates in the final version remain those proposed by the government (1985 for reparation and 1991 for restitution of lands), although indigenous communities had proposed dates as far back as the arrival of Europeans in Colombia.

However, the most important thing is that this law is now in place and victims of the armed conflict now have an important tool to seek reparation for their damages.  Two sister decrees were signed yesterday as well, one providing reparation to victims of the communities known as “Afros” here in Colombia.  These communities are descendants of slave populations and benefit from collective rights, similar, but not identical to the rights of indigenous communities (Afro-Colombians).  The third decree provides reparation to victims from the Roma (Rrom) community (formerly known as “gypsy”) (The Roma) (Spanish Article explaining history of Roma (Rrom) people in Colombia).

My colleague Roman and I with two Roma women after the presentation.

The event itself was very exciting.  It was held on the grounds of Congress and security was very tight. When we arrived the line was a block long.  We had to be on a list and show identification, and be searched, before we were allowed in.  When we walked through the gates we saw about 50 media people already set up to cover the event.

People lined up to enter the Palacio de Narino, the seat of the Colombian Congress

As people filed in, the significance of this law became more and more palpable; representatives were there from many of the various indigenous groups, Afro, and Roma communities, many in their regional clothing. Personally, it was touching to see so many people I had met in their own communities again here in Bogota.  It was a real demonstration of multiculturalism. I couldn’t help think about the article I’d seen last week in the Globe and Mail about an Ontario school cancelling its Christmas concert for fear of offending people of different backgrounds (Canadian Schools Struggle with Christmas), or the never-ending discussion of spending for French Immersion programs in our schools. Canada is known for its multiculturalism but then I come to other countries and see demonstrations like this, it makes one wonder if we still deserve our reputation. I often thought about this topic when I was a Rotary Exchange Student as a teenager and  my host country of South Africa has 11 official languages, yet we can’t seem to get it together with 2.

Anticipation before the event, Casa de Narino, Bogota

Our ONIC crew, waiting for the presentation.

Not that I’m saying Colombia is a model of peace and harmony, but it was an impressive show of multiculturalism. As I was sitting there I kept thinking, these questions of whether to have a Christmas concert or whether it’s politically correct to wish people a Merry Christmas, I just wished I had a platform to say to my fellow Canadians; A. Look at this, all of these cultures and languages being celebrated, look how beautiful it is and B. This shouldn’t even be a question people, seriously, can we not organize ourselves and get onto questions that actually need to be dealt with (Like this for example, Attawapiskat’s Christmas List, published the same day as the above article)?

The whole basis of Canadian multi-culturalism and what distinguishes it from other ideas of multi-culturalism, American multi-culturalism for example, is the salad-bowl idea, that we welcome all cultures and people are not expected to just become the “same” but that every ingredient (people) contributes in its own way. That is what makes it so great, but that acceptance of different cultures includes appreciating the “mainstream” culture and people from that tradition should not feel bad about celebrating their traditions openly any more than a new Canadian should feel bad about sharing theirs. There is absolutely nothing wrong with celebrating one culture as long as you include and are open to others. The idea is supposed to be that Canada welcomes everyone and brings people together, and the Christmas and holiday season is the time of the year when this is most apparent and to avoid celebrating and to do away with events that bring people together is completely short-sighted.  Multiculturalism does not mean shying away from anyone’s traditions, it means celebrating all of them.

So on that note, Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noel, Feliz Navidad, Happy Chanukah, Happy New Year, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Everything.  Enjoy the holidays and I hope you will all join me for more adventures in international law in 2012!

ONIC Consejero Mayor (the boss), Colombian President Santos, and other VIPs look on as the official signing begins.

Colombian President Santos signs the Decreto, Bogota, December 20, 2011.

With my officemates at the presentation of the new law.

My colleagues Jose Luis and Roman and I with one of the representatives from Amazonas.

Happy to be reunited with my Bari friend Fidel, who was featured in my blog on the consultations in Cucuta (re: oratorical skills)

Roma, Afro, and indigenous representatives after the signing of the law.

Final parting shot, in front of Casa de Narino.

The main square in Bogota, Plaza de Bolivar, decorated for Christmas.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. al thomas permalink
    December 22, 2011 10:53 am

    I like your blog.

  2. Pauline Sullivan permalink
    December 27, 2011 10:17 pm

    I am enjoying each of your updates on your adventures. The signing
    of the new law must have been a very memorable day for you all who
    are working there. Hope your Christmas was “Merry” and all the best for 2012. I have been sharing your blog with friends here in Windsor and they are enjoying it. Also, sent it along to Scott Brison and told
    Max about where you are. After mentioning to your Mum that I was talking to them at the Gyro brunch – she said to mention that Kevin worked on Scotts campaign. I presume he has not read it yet, as I have not heard from him, but did give him your telephone # in Bogota, as he is travelling there in Jan. 2012. It would be great if he gave you a call. Look forward to hearing more. Pauline

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