Colombia: Flaws in Transitional Justice Threaten Peace Accord Implementation

By Néstor Raúl Correa*

Acuerdo de Paz Colombia Feb.15.2019 Flickr

People gather at Bogota’s Bolivar main square on September 26, 2016, to celebrate the historic peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a central part of the Colombia Peace Accord signed in 2016, continues to stumble and is seriously, if not fatally, undermining the justice component for accountability by combatants of both sides of the conflict.  In essence a scheme of transitional justice, the JEP offered a special legal framework and exceptional judicial treatment to create the necessary conditions for peace after decades of massive, systematic violations of human rights.

  • The Accord would not only produce temporary justice; it would be negotiated justice – and it would build on other positive results such as the guerrillas’ surrender of arms and subordination to the political regime it had sought to destroy. It was centered on a quid pro quo: “You give me your weapons and, in exchange, I’ll give you softer penalties and allow you to participate in politics.”  One of three institutions established to promote reconciliation, the JEP’s mandate was to guarantee the rights of the victims.

The Peace Accord in general and the JEP specifically, however, have stumbled over multiple obstacles, in particular the opposition of segments of the Colombian populace that have not forgotten the crimes of the FARC and are interfering with the implementation of the JEP.  While every political faction has constructed its own narrative surrounding the Accord, the most radical and divisive is that of the political right.  Various factors have distorted the role of the JEP to the point that it is no longer a trustworthy reference for the conflicting parties, the victims, or citizens in general.

  • Critical constitutional and legal reforms necessary for the JEP to function, which were already thought to take at least four years, were further delayed when the Legislature diluted or postponed accountability of combatants while providing them quick relief for their crimes, especially in Amnesty Law 1820 of 2016.
  • Having eight units (three courts, four sections and one prosecutorial office) and 38 judges, the JEP was practically guaranteed to have lengthy and convoluted proceedings – a Kafkaesque labyrinth. When a guerrilla defendant has previously served in the military or as paramilitary, the process plunges into chaos.  Further complicating matters, the right has been concerned about the neutrality of current judges in the JEP, arguing that it was conceived as a FARC justice mechanism.
  • JEP management and decision-making – dominated by a handful of judges since 2018 – have become burdened with inefficiencies long present in Colombia´s justice system. Budget squabbles, bloated staffs, contract disputes, and even controversy over holidays and vacation time have become distractions.

As a result, the hope of victims on both sides of the conflict that light sanctions for those responsible for major crimes would be counterbalanced by integral and sustainable protection for themselves has vanished.  Nearly 7 million Colombians were displaced by the internal conflict (out of a total of 8,794,542 registered victims).  JEP dysfunction has denied them their voice in the processes against those who victimized them.  Victims were barred, for example, from attending the hearing of an Army Reserve general accused of murdering innocent civilians he claimed were guerrilla members killed in combat (falsos positivos), while a senior FARC commander firmly rejected victim participation as inconsistent with the Accord.  Former FARC combatants have not been held rigorously accountable.  They move freely within the country, and some FARC commanders remain in hiding and have never presented themselves.  This has further undermined civil society confidence in the JEP and the Accord.

The flaws in Colombia’s transitional justice provide valuable lessons for future peace processes.  The whole process should remain simple and expeditious, with fewer sentencing judges and proceedings.  A competent management unit, independent from the judges, should take charge of administration, including core information systems.  The role of foreign judges, particularly in cases of internal conflicts that have somehow been tainted or affect a vast number of citizens, should be increased, clarified, and protected because of the credibility, legitimacy, and independence they can bring.  It is also critical to avoid creating false expectations among victims, particularly regarding their role in judicial hearings.  An efficient, transparent judicial process provides the best guarantees of justice and effective remedies to victims and civil society.

February 15, 2019

*Néstor Raúl Correa is former Executive Secretary of JEP, a former magistrate, and currently a professor at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá.

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1 Comment

  1. The Conflict Expert

     /  April 18, 2019

    I am also interested in how the peace process is addressing gender specific violence, especially against those who has experienced it most : indigenous women in rural areas of Colombia. It seems that their voices were very reluctantly being heard and those female fighters who have suffered horific sexual abuses are not even classified as victims. I am also concerned about the wherabouts of the millions of dollars earned through the cultivation of coca. This is a great opportunity for Colombia to address some of its structural problems such as the treatment of women and indigeonous, rural communities and it will be interesting to see how the process develops.

    Reply

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