Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ talk of an “armed conflict” has stirred controversy in Colombia for appearing to recognize guerrilla group the FARC as a political organization. Behind the wordplay is a key question: Is Colombia fighting terrorists, or waging a civil war?

The issue arose because of a clause in the proposed “Victims Law,” which is intended to compensate people harmed in the country’s conflict since 1985. To exclude victims of common crime, it makes reference to the internal armed conflict. Santos backed the move in comments to press, stating that “There has been an armed conflict in this country for some time.”

This was met with a furious response from his predecessor and one-time mentor, Alvaro Uribe, who insists that the country faces not an internal conflict but a terrorist threat. The former president fired off a volley of Tweets, complaining that the country’s armed groups are terrorists fighting against a legitimate state, do not deserve the status of belligerents, and should not be given political recognition. He sent an open letter to Santos, asking that the offending phrase be changed from “victims of internal armed conflict” to “victims of armed groups outside the law.”

The debate could be mystifying to the casual observer — both the Colombian and international press regularly refer an “internal armed conflict,” as did President Andres Pastrana, Uribe’s immediate predecessor.

But what is at stake here is the definition of exactly what is happening in Colombia, and hence the legitimacy of the various warring groups. It’s clear that the country does have an armed conflict, defined under International Humanitarian Law as protracted and intense fighting, carried out by organized armed groups capable of mounting sustained operations.

More controversial is the idea that Colombia is in a state of “civil war.” It is this that Uribe is so forcefully rejecting. If Colombia is in a state of civil war then both sides would be classed as belligerents, with the rights and responsibilities of sovereign states.

Santos was not, in fact, arguing this; he was careful to say that speaking of an armed conflict does not mean rebel groups are considered to be belligerents with political status. But the idea has been put forward by some commentators, and it’s worth taking a look at how far the concept of civil war applies to Colombia’s conflict.

One significant requirement for a conflict to be deemed a “civil war” is that combatants control significant amounts of land. This holds true for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the country’s oldest and most organized illegal armed group, which has at times controlled large areas of territory, and carried out the functions of the state within that area.

The idea of political aims is another important part of the definition of civil war, for some political scientists. The FARC, National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional – ELN) and right-wing group the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) all had clearly stated political goals, even if these receded with the arrival of the drug trade as a major source of funding.

Another factor in defining a civil war is intensity of fighting. Colombia’s conflict far surpasses the commonly-used benchmark of 1,000 total deaths in combat, which qualifies a conflict as a civil war in a broad sense. A tighter definition demands 1,000 combat deaths each year. By some calculations, Colombia also fulfils this requirement; the Ministry of Defense claims that more than 1,000 rebels were killed each year between 2002 and 2008, although this figure is questionable.

A key part of winning belligerent status is to be recognized as such by the state. Colombia’s government has seemed at times to grant the FARC a de facto status as belligerents, holding peace talks with them in a large area of land ceded to rebel control, and swapping jailed rebels for government hostages.

The FARC also have recognition from foreign states: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called on the international community in 2008 to recognize that the FARC are not terrorists, but have a legitimate political purpose. The group also claim the status of belligerents for themselves; they have released statements saying that, “We are a belligerent force and hope to be recognized by governments around the world.”

But there are plenty of arguments why the FARC should not be called belligerents. As some commentators have pointed out, for the most part, the guerrillas lack support from the civilian population, except for some of Colombia’s most rural and isolated areas where the FARC still act as local law enforcers and even doctors.

The FARC also fail to meet the critieria dictated by the Geneva Convention, which maintains that belligerents must respect international human rights law. Throughout their history, the FARC have engaged in indiscriminate attacks against the civilian population, including mass kidnappings for extortion (which did much to turn public opinion against them).

Crucially, the FARC’s involvement in the drug trade further serves to delegitimize them as political actors seeking to take control of the state. The FARC’s dependence on the cocaine trade makes it difficult to define the guerrillas as a group driven by ideology or driven by profit. Increasingly, analysts argue for the latter.

But the controversy over Santos’ wordplay comes at a time when Colombia’s conflict is morphing into something else, and perhaps ceasing to be an armed conflict at all. The AUC, which at least initially had political aims, has been replaced by the so-called BACRIMs (bandas criminales), quasi-paramilitary organizations that more closely fit the definition of apolitical criminal groups, lacking a centralized command structure and engaged in only sporadic combat.

The ELN is seriously weakened, while the FARC’s ability to carry out sustained military operations is ebbing. The FARC has reportedly made deals with various BACRIMs in some parts of the country. These kind of alliances with criminal groups reduce the guerrillas’ claim to be political combatants, and make them appear more similar to an opportunist criminal group.

One reason all this is so important is that without a clear definition of the situation, who the combatants are and what they are fighting for, it is hard to make a distinction between them and non-combatants, causing civilians to be sucked into the conflict. This is part of what has helped make Colombia’s history so brutal, and what makes this debate so difficult to decipher.

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