Colombia debates eliminating obligatory military service

Colombia's National Police

Within the framework of President Gustavo Petro’s public order objective, known as “Paz Total” – Total Peace – and that includes a return to the negotiating table of the ELN guerrilla, as well as amnesty for FARC dissident combatants, Congressional lawmakers are debating the possibility of eliminating obligatory military service for all young men who have finished high school.

In what would be a landmark decision, Colombia’s former chief peace negotiator with FARC and current Senator, Humberto de la Calle, alongside house representative Daniel Carvalho, are looking to replace the year-long obligation with the option that young men from low-income households could opt for “social service for peace.” The so-called “social service for peace” means that instead of recruits being sent to conflict areas, they could volunteer for the same amount of time in rural communities implementing post-conflict projects and acting a peace-keepers.

Humberto de la Calle emphasized that by reducing the numbers of young men from the lowest social levels – estratos 1,2 and 3 – obligated to do military service, Colombia’s armed forces would become more professional. “Compulsory military service, in practice, only covers young people from the poorest families. Only 2 per cent of all conscripts correspond to higher income strata: 4, 5 and 6. This is an extraordinarily inequitable structure,” highlighted the Senator.

Despite opposition from the right-wing Centro Democrático party, the Senate narrowly approved the article in a second debate. The process of scrapping obligatory military service would be gradual until complete abolition in 2030. Should the initiative be approved in four more debates, article 216 of the country’s Constitution would be modified to read:  “The Public Armed Forces will be made up exclusively of the Military and National Police. Compulsory military service will only be allowed in cases of foreign war or internal commotion.”

“It is time to allow young Colombians to find a way to serve this country from different vantage points. It is a process to bridge inequality among young people.” Comment echoed by the hard-leftist Senator of Colombia Humana, Gustavo Bolívar, who claims that having young men from peasant families in regions where the internal conflict continues is “slaughter.”

Young men from affluent families who have been accepted at a private University, can pay their way out of obligatory military service. However, many opt for a “gap year” in which they form life-long bonds with persons from different social standings. There is also the option of serving in the Colombia Batallion in the Sinai peninsula, which offers young men the possibility of living one-year in both Egypt and Israel.

Right-wing Senators María Fernanda Cabal, Miguel Uribe Turbay, and Paloma Valencia called to postpone the debate so that the military’s high command and Defense Minister Iván Velásquez could be present inside Congress. The head of the country’s defense portfolio stated that he was “very pleased” with the decision, and shows that lawmakers are “committed to total peace.”

Congress has yet to determine whether the new Public Order Law (Ley418) would allow the national government to start peace talks with FARC dissident commander, alias “Iván Márquez,” of the Second Marquetalia. Márquez is currently in Venezuela recovering from severe wounds sustained during an ambush by a rival dissident front, earlier this year.