Could a doctor working for a humanitarian organisation be sentenced to life imprisonment in the United States for having offered his “expert advice” to people linked to a “terrorist organisation”? That is what is feared by a number of civil rights’ organisations in the US since the Supreme Court declared on 21 June 2010 that the legislation known as the Material Support Statute was constitutional. The Supreme Court ruling recalls the Cold War era when the criminalisation of humanitarian assistance in rebel controlled areas was the norm rather than the exception. Following in the footsteps of the (primarily religious) pro-Biafran organisations in Nigeria, MSF and the “without borders” movement then decided to sidestep government prohibitions by clandestinely crossing the borders. Gaining clandestine access to populations living under the authority of “terrorist” organisations is now much more complicated than it was during the Cold War. Countering the rhetoric that criminalizs humanitarian assistance to the victims located on the “wrong side” of the front line requires new humanitarian policies.
The Colombian internal armed conflict has caused the abandonment of an estimated 5.5 million hectares, roughly 5% of Colombian territory. The Colombian legislature is currently debating a bill that aims at establishing a new land restoration policy vis-à-vis Internally Displaced People (IDP). In a context of ongoing violence, where irreconcilable interests still exist around the use of land, the implementation of the bill will necessarily face an array of hurdles. This paper analyzes how President Juan Manuel Santos’ proposal diverges from international legislation on this issue, in particular with regard to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and the United Nations Principles on Housing and Property Restitution. It proposes ways in which the proposed bill could better comply with these norms and seize the occasion to create a legal framework in which the return of IDPs to their land strengthens the peace process and increases the state’s presence in areas traditionally under the control of the armed groups.