Friday, March 11, 2011

A Talisman for Protection?

Twenty-three Colombian workers carrying out oil explorations in Vichada Department for the Canadian oil company Talisman were kidnapped by FARC Front 16. Subsequently 22 of the men were released. It is speculated that the kidnapping was meant as a warning to the company for having failed to pay protection or extortion money.

In the wake of this incident President Juan Manuel Santos announced that any multination company that is found guilty of paying protection or extortion money would be thrown out of the country.

The companies argue that the safety and security of their personnel and facilities is at risk, and that the government is not in full control in many regions. These are not new concerns. These are the same reasons that gave rise to the self-defense groups that gradually evolved into the paramilitaries. It is ironic that as the paramilitaries have demobilized, a number of their former members have resorted to forming criminal gangs that engage in extortion.

Officially no one is supposed to pay any money to illegal armed groups, for any reason. But many people who live or work in regions where security problem are ongoing will acknowledge that the practice persists.

The president's position that foreign companies should not pay protection and extortion money to illegal armed groups because this serves to perpetuate crime is logical, but it fails to contemplate the full extent of the problem. Why should this only apply to foreign companies? Shouldn't this principle apply to all companies, including Colombian companies?

The same logic of refusing to sponsor crime led to a radical shift in the policy on kidnapping during the Uribe government. Previous governments had been willing to negotiate hostage exchanges for humanitarian reasons. The Uribe government refused outright to consider negotiating hostages on the grounds that this would only encourage hostage-taking, and that it cheapens human life by making it into a negotiable commodity.

It is one thing for a government to adopt this as a policy. A family who has had a relative kidnapped might see the situation differently. Officially it is illegal to pay ransom money. A number of years ago, the first thing that the officials did when a kidnapping was reported was to freeze the family's bank accounts and assets to make sure that they did not pay. This policy has quietly slipped by the wayside. Individuals who are dealing with private tragedies are tacitly allowed to do what they need to do, even if it is technically still illegal.

The principle in both cases may be clear and logical, but the practical reality of the matter remains murky.

No comments: