Colombia: Effective Transitional Justice?

By Ana Isabel Rodríguez Iglesias*

A large open square surrounded by buildings in Colombia

A view of the Colombian Congress building. / Fernando Garcia / Flicr / Creative Commons

Just hours before its “fast-track” authority for such legislation expired, the Colombian Congress in late November approved legislation establishing the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) with a weaker mandate than envisioned in the peace accord.  It covers only armed combatants – and excludes the civilians who financed the paramilitaries and other irregular forces – and falls short of enshrining the authority of the JEP magistrates.  This outcome was the result of obstructionism not only by the opposition parties led by the Centro Democrático of former President Álvaro Uribe and its Conservative Party allies; current President Juan Manuel Santos’ political partners in Cambio Radical, including leader Germán Vargas Lleras, broke with the government several months ago and made criticism of the peace agreement a centerpiece of the presidential campaign.  After much wrangling, the watered-down proposal for JEP passed on November 29.

  • The Constitutional Court still has to rule on the constitutionality of the new law, but most provisions apparently face no opposition. The Court unanimously approved the law giving Congress the authority to form the JEP and ruled on some sensitive measures.  It confirmed, for example, that members of the FARC could participate in politics without first being judged by the JEP as long as they promise to submit to the tribunal.  The Court also said that the JEP will determine on a case-by-case basis if FARC politicians’ responsibilities are compatible with fulfilment of their sentences.  It left many details, however, to the Tribunal.
  • The most controversial point in the Court’s decision that provided the framework for the Congressional vote is that civilians and state agents outside the armed forces will not be under the JEP’s jurisdiction unless they opt to be (such as when they expect more leniency than from the ordinary judicial system). That includes businessmen and politicians who financed paramilitarism – a provision that the opposition and Cambio Radical fought hard for.  (During legal proceedings involving demobilized paramilitaries under the Justice and Peace Law, former combatants mentioned their civilian sponsors more than 11,000 times.)  Victims and human rights organizations have called the decision an attack on their interests and stated it will bring only more impunity in the post-conflict era.

The Congress also took steps that, on balance, weakened the JEP’s authorities.  It excluded from JEP processes any FARC members accused of sexual crimes against minors.  The ordinary judicial system will have greater difficulty investigating and corroborating facts and, combined with delays and problems with impunity, could very well fail to satisfy the rights of either victims or perpetrators.  Another change made by Congress was to disqualify JEP magistrates who had worked as lawyers on cases involving human rights and armed conflict during the last five years.  Critics claim this article is illegal because it changes the rules of the game months after the magistrates were selected based on specific requirements such as knowledge and professional experience in human rights law.  Even though the Constitutional Court most likely will declare the provision unconstitutional, the fact that Cambio Radical proposed these disqualifications raises the prospect of more tensions in coming months and the continued stigmatization of human rights defenders at time that many face security threats in the country.

Rhetoric during the peace negotiations and subsequent political skirmishes that the victims were front and center in the formation of the JEP is proving to ring hollow.  The JEP starts its mission weakened both by the Constitutional Court and now by Congress.  The magistrates will face strong political pressures, and the exclusion from proceedings of the sponsors of paramilitary violence, which during the war at times surpassed by far that of FARC combatants, already complicates matters.  Ensuring the rights of the victims, providing justice, and determining the appropriate role for former guerrillas in politics and their reincorporation into society will be no easy task.  It will be up to the Colombian people, through popular vote in elections next March, whether a successor government will improve implementation of the peace agreement and the administration of justice, truth, and reparation to the war’s eight million victims.

December 13, 2017

* Ana Isabel Rodríguez Iglesias is a Ph.D. Candidate in International Politics and Conflict Studies at the University of Coimbra (Portugal) and a CLALS Fellow.

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