Rescuing Colombia’s Post-Conflict Transitional Justice System

It will be up to Colombia’s Top Court—and Perhaps the International Criminal Court—to Undo Damage Wrought by the Congress

“What to do with the worst human rights abusers” was the most controversial part of the peace accord that Colombia’s government reached with the FARC guerrillas a year ago, in November 2017. It was unrealistic to expect the FARC’s members, who weren’t defeated on the battlefield, to turn in their weapons only to report to long prison terms for their thousands of war crimes. It was also unrealistic to expect the peace accord to dishonor the conflict’s millions of victims with a blanket amnesty. It took the accord’s negotiators 19 months to come up with a formula that balanced these two extremes.

Still, the compromises within the peace accord’s language satisfied nobody. It was vague on issues like the conditions of confinement for individuals found guilty of serious human rights violations; how guerrilla and military commanders might be held accountable for their subordinates’ actions; how ex-guerrillas might serve penalties while also being able to participate in politics; and how to hold accountable civilians who, for instance, funded paramilitary groups that went on to kill tens of thousands.

Conservative critics argued that the transitional justice system’s formula is too lenient on ex-guerrilla war criminals, as it specifies five to eight years’ “restriction of liberty” in non-prison conditions. Human rights defenders fear that even this standard might not be rigorously applied to military personnel and third-party accomplices to human rights crimes.

This vague language was improved little by a constitutional amendment that Colombia’s Congress approved in March to green-light the accords’ transitional justice system. As WOLA pointed out at the time, this amendment violated the accords’ spirit in several ways: a weak interpretation of “command responsibility,” the insertion of language that makes it much harder to prosecute third-party civilians, and continued vagueness on other questions.

During the week of November 13, Colombia’s Constitutional Court and Senate took further steps that may pacify conservative critics, but that are alarming human rights advocates and victims’ groups. On November 14, the Court handed down a unanimous ruling upholding most of the constitutional amendment that passed in March. On November 16, Colombia’s Senate—following months of procedural delays—passed its version of a law to implement the new transitional justice system, known in the accord as the Special Peace Jurisdiction (JEP, by its Spanish initials). On November 27, Colombia’s House of Representatives passed its version of the law that would implement the JEP, which in most respects is similar to the Senate’s, and a day later the two chambers reconciled their versions into a single piece of legislation.

WOLA, along with most of our partners in Colombia’s human rights and victims’ rights communities, welcomes the long-delayed approval of the JEP, which is the backbone of the peace accord. Expectations are high: as of November 17, 3,491 ex-guerrillas and 1,714 current and former security-force personnel had signaled their intention to be tried within this new system.

However, we are deeply troubled by the Constitutional Court’s and the legislature’s actions. They deform some of the key tenets of the peace accord. They risk allowing too many top human rights violators to avoid accountability, and denying too many conflict victims their right to truth and dignity. And they may set Colombia on a collision course with the International Criminal Court.

The process is not over yet. The Constitutional Court must review this law’s constitutionality. The International Criminal Court may act if it appears that the JEP will allow war criminals to avoid punishment. So might the Inter-American human rights system.

WOLA urges these bodies to act to address the following concerns about the transitional justice system.

  1. The choices of judges and magistrates for the JEP were excellent. But the bill would undo these by disqualifying anybody who has done human rights work or accompanied victims during the past five years.

As mandated by the peace accord, an independent five-member panel of Colombian and international jurists selected the judges who will preside over JEP tribunals. They fulfilled this task efficiently and transparently. As Notre Dame University’s Kroc Institute noted in a November monitoring report, the panel “established an important balance between interests in academia, the international community and social sectors.” Of the 38 magistrates and 13 alternates chosen, more than half (28) are women and 8 are Afro-Colombian or indigenous. Both proportions resemble those of Colombia’s overall population, the first time that has been true of any Colombian body with real decision-making power.

The implementing law, however, would summarily disqualify at least 15 of the chosen judges. Language would ban any magistrates who, in the past five years, have brought cases against the government, participated in peace negotiations, or taken part in any case related to the armed conflict.

This new requirement—not at all foreseen in the peace accord—was promoted by legislators from Cambio Radical, a party in President Santos’s ruling coalition tied to many regional political bosses and large landholders. Led by former vice-president and leading presidential candidate Germán Vargas Lleras, Cambio Radical has broken with Santos and mostly withdrawn its support for the FARC accord.

The proposed disqualification of judges is “serious and concerning because it is a discrimination against the legitimate practice of law, and against people who claim reparations in relation to human rights violations,” said Gustavo Gallón, the president of the Colombian Commission of Jurists and member of the accords’ Security Guarantees Commission.

It will be up to Colombia’s Constitutional Court to delete this language when it reviews the law, as it is required to do, in coming months.  “We believe that the Constitutional Court would throw it out,” Interior Minister Guillermo Rivera said. Rodrigo Uprimny of the legal think-tank DeJusticia is certain that’s what will happen:

“The Constitutional Court has already established that it violates due process to create new requirements or prohibitions to block a person who has already been chosen for a position. …This disqualification from the Senate will, therefore, have no effect. It was just a clumsy maneuver by some senators. But the issue should be taken seriously, as it exhibits a dangerous and unacceptable stigmatization against human rights defenders.”

All who care about “putting victims at the center” of the peace accord must hope that Rivera and Uprimny are correct.

  1. Neither the text of the law for implementing the JEP, nor the Constitutional Court decision, defines how austere the conditions of “restricted liberty” will be for those sentenced for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

As long as they tell the JEP tribunals the full truth about their participation in war crimes, and make reparations to victims, defendants can be sentenced to up to eight years of “effective restriction of liberty.” This is not prison: confinement is to occur in a space no larger than one of the village-sized cantonment zones where the FARC disarmed, but the accord doesn’t specify the conditions within that space. The peace accord leaves that up to the judges in each case. Individuals will also be able to leave these spaces to carry out activities defined as reparations to victims.

How austere or luxurious, then, will conditions be within the “restricted liberty” zones? This thorny question is a “hot potato,” write Juanita León and Juan Esteban Lewin of Colombia’s La Silla Vacía investigative website: no institution wants to be forced to specify the answer. The Constitutional Court’s November 14 decision passes the “potato” to the Congress, requiring its JEP implementing law to “typify” the sanctions that war criminals would receive. However, the implementing law does not do this: it leaves the conditions of confinement up to the tribunal judges.

  1. The Court decision and the law for implementing the JEP includes  a watered-down standard of “command responsibility,” which could  allow dozens of top military commanders to avoid accountability. It may also make Colombia a top priority for the International Criminal Court.

As WOLA noted with alarm in March, the constitutional reform establishing the JEP watered down the definition of “command responsibility”—the extent to which leaders are liable for crimes committed by those below them in the chain of command—“in a way that almost certainly runs afoul of Colombia’s international human rights commitments.”

The Constitutional Court’s November 14 decision upheld that definition. As things stand now, Colombian military commanders can avoid accountability before the JEP by contending that they didn’t know about their subordinates’ illegal actions. As it is almost impossible to prove what a commander did or did not know at a given time, commanders at the level of battalion and higher are likely to avoid accountability. The constitutional amendment does not apply this softer standard to ex-guerrilla leaders, though: they will be liable if they “should have known” about the crimes committed by those they commanded.

“Should have known” is the standard set forth in Article 28 of the Rome Statute, the founding document of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which merely requires that the commander have had enough control of subordinates to prevent the abuse.

As Colombia is a signatory to the Rome Statute, failing to apply the “should have known” standard for its security forces may run afoul of the Court, which may decide to act against individual Colombian commanders if it determines that Colombia isn’t doing enough on its own to hold them accountable. By applying a weaker standard, Colombia’s Constitutional Court “may open the door for international tribunals to formally investigate high-ranking military commanders, government officials, or guerrillas,” according to the Colombian daily El Espectador.

The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has been unambiguous about this. The JEP constitutional amendment’s definition, she wrote in October, “frustrates the object of command responsibility in international law” and means that “people with the material ability to prevent or to punish subordinates’ crimes, and who may have knowingly omitted doing so, could go unpunished.” It is true that the ICC prosecutor is not the same thing as the Court itself. But since the language, in its current form, makes it harder for those who suffered at the hands of the armed forces to receive justice than for those who suffered at the hands of the FARC, a future clash with the ICC is a strong possibility.

The weak definition of “command responsibility” is a direct result of pressure from Colombia’s powerful military. Hours before the peace accord was signed on November 24, 2016, the Colombian government quietly introduced, and demanded that the guerrillas accept, a key change to page 164 of its text: it eliminated a reference to the Rome Statute’s Article 28 as the standard for “command responsibility.” It did so to at the vehement insistence of the armed forces, whose commanders insist that Colombia acceded to the Rome Statute with a specific reservation against Article 28. The Senate’s final debate on the JEP-implementing law took place with Colombia’s defense minister and armed forces’ chief watching every moment in person. As the Colombian daily El Tiempo reported, “For these two and their advisors, it is vital that everything related to military commanders’ responsibility for subordinates’ crimes, among other norms, remain intact without even a single comma being introduced.”

  1. The Court’s decision, and the law for implementing the JEP, both stripped key language from the peace accord which would have compelled civilian third parties to appear and confess. There is now little hope of holding accountable landowners, narcotraffickers, local officials and other politically influential individuals who sponsored armed groups or even planned killings.

During the most intense years of Colombia’s armed conflict—the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s—guerrillas carried out the majority of kidnappings, child recruitment, indiscriminate bombings, and use of child combatants. However, they did not commit the largest number of homicides and massacres of civilians during this period. That grim distinction belonged to pro-government paramilitary groups, which were frequently armed and backed by civilians: landowners, right-wing politicians, organized crime figures, and some members of the security forces.

After the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary umbrella organization demobilized in 2006, its members underwent their own transitional justice process, known as “Justice and Peace,” involving full confessions. These confessions revealed the identities of about 13,000 Colombian non-combatants who allegedly aided and abetted the paramilitaries’ murderous offensives.

Some of these 13,000 may have been extorted into supporting the paramilitaries; others may have done so willingly, for reasons ranging from counterinsurgency to greed. But we still don’t know what happened, because Colombia’s regular criminal justice system failed to act.  The transitional justice system passed these names to Colombia’s criminal prosecutors, who did not follow up.

The FARC peace accord sought to rectify this with an innovative provision requiring that civilians credibly alleged to have “authored” war crimes appear before the JEP, where they might benefit from lighter sentences in exchange for full confessions and reparations to these crimes’ victims. This provision held the promise of identifying, and thus finally dismantling, paramilitary support networks around the country. But it also alarmed politically powerful individuals throughout Colombia’s provinces.

In March, Colombia’s Congress responded to this alarm: its constitutional amendment establishing the JEP gutted the requirement that civilian accomplices participate. Non-combatants now need only appear before the post-conflict justice system “voluntarily.” The assumption—so far proven wrong—is that the regular justice system might uncover enough evidence to make real the threat that these individuals suffer real penalties—decades in prison—for their crimes. They would then see the JEP as the best option for themselves, and do right by their victims..

However, powerful civilian third parties generally haven’t felt threatened by Colombia’s regular justice system. As a magistrate in the paramilitaries’ “Justice and Peace” transitional justice process, Rubén Darío Pinilla sent information about many civilian collaborators to the regular criminal justice system. He told Colombia’s Verdad Abierta:

“The Court’s decision [to uphold civilians’ ‘voluntary’ participation] is serious, because it implies that there is going to be some risk that civilians who participated in a determining manner in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity may remain in impunity. And that risk exists because the names sent over from the Justice and Peace courts, which exceeded 13,000, haven’t generated the investigations that should be expected, even though there is evidence not just of participation, but also of responsibility, of people in sectors of business, mining, industry, agro-industry, and cattle mining, as well as of public officials, in cooperation with paramilitary groups.”

As the law stands right now, the JEP will have little opportunity to hold these individuals accountable or to ensure that their victims receive the truth, justice, and reparations that are their due. “The businessmen who financed the paramilitaries can breathe easy,” write León and Lewin in La Silla Vacía. “The ‘gray men’ that investigator Luis Jorge Garay talks about when describing those people who live in ‘legality’ but who are bridges to illegal groups, and those who make it possible, when a capo is taken down, for a new one to take his place the next day.”

If this provision stands, writes columnist María Jimena Duzán in the Colombian newsweekly Semana, the burden will fall on chief prosecutor Nestor Humberto Martínez, whose office tries cases in the regular criminal justice system. If he doesn’t act, the ICC might. Duzán writes:

“Martínez will have to investigate what until now he has not wanted to investigate. If he doesn’t do it, he is going to have the International Criminal Court on his back, which can enter with the argument that civilian third-parties who participated in the conflict are protected with impunity and that victims are being denied justice.”

  1. The Court’s and the legislature’s actions still leave unclear whether “false positive” killings will be tried within the JEP, even though most were unrelated to the armed conflict.

The JEP is meant to offer lighter penalties for war crimes committed in the context of Colombia’s armed conflict. It remains unclear whether this should apply to cases in which soldiers, often conspiring with common criminals, murdered civilian non-combatants, then presented them as combat kills in order to benefit from rewards given for high “body counts.” This happened between 3,000 and 5,000 times during the armed conflict, especially between 2002 and 2008, in a phenomenon known in Colombia as the “false positives scandal.”

WOLA agrees with Jorge Eliécer Molano, a lawyer who represents several “false positive” victims, that most “false positive” killings should not be considered conflict-related, and thus should remain in the regular, criminal justice system with long penalties for the soldiers and officers involved. Molano explained to El Espectador:

“First, the ‘false positives’ owed more to personal purposes (like getting leave time, medals, commendations, promotions, or in many cases, financial rewards). Second, they have no relation to the armed conflict: the armed conflict was used as a pretext for killing civilians who had nothing to do with it. Additionally, many of the cases deal with people presented as common criminals, which undoes much of these crimes’ purported ties to the armed conflict.”

The peace accord and subsequent legislation so far leave it up to tribunal judges, on a case-by-case basis, to decide whether a “false positive” murder is conflict-related or not. But they do not offer detailed criteria to guide judges’ decisions. This remains up in the air, even as criminal-court judges have suspended some trials for  years-old false positive cases out of an unsubstantiated belief that they will end up going to the JEP.

  1. War criminals may still be able to hold office. Or maybe not.

As a condition for turning in weapons, the FARC’s leadership insisted not only on avoiding long prison terms, but on retaining the ability to hold, and run for, political office. There is an obvious tension, though, between holding office and undergoing a JEP-mandated “restricted liberty” for war crimes. The Congress and Court have begun moving to resolve this tension, but the formula so far remains awkward.

The way it stands right now is that ex-guerrillas may run for office and hold political positions before the JEP has decided their guilt or innocence for war crimes. They merely need to sign a commitment stating their intention to “submit to the JEP.” FARC candidates for Colombia’s March 2018 legislative and May 2018 presidential elections, then, have a “green light,” as the JEP won’t even begin to act until well after these elections. So do the five FARC senators and five FARC House members who will get automatic seats in Colombia’s Congress for eight years regardless of the vote outcome.

Once the JEP sentences them to “restricted liberty,” however, the next steps are less clear. The court ruling states, “the JEP will determine the compatibility of political participation with the sanctions it imposes on the ex-combatants.” This may give the JEP the ability to decide whether a FARC political candidate can be blocked from participating in politics, if his or her sentence is incompatible with doing so. (For instance, if a JEP judge sentences maximum FARC leader “Timochenko” to perform demining in Putumayo, he can’t serve in Congress hundreds of miles away in Bogotá.)

On the other hand, this sentence could also be interpreted as giving the JEP the ability to issue penalties that would allow guilty ex-FARC leaders to participate in politics. This raises the bizarre possibility of an ex-guerrilla leader leaving his place of confinement in the morning, spending the day in Congress making laws, then returning to his place of confinement the evening.

  1. The timeline for setting up the JEP is excruciatingly slow. In the meantime, thousands of guerrillas and soldiers are in a legal limbo.

Even if the JEP’s implementing law goes into effect by the end of the year, we cannot expect the first trials to begin for some time. As was the case for the JEP constitutional amendment, the implementing law must undergo a thorough review by Colombia’s Constitutional Court. This will not be a speedy process. “It won’t be sanctioned before April or May of next year,” predicts Prosecutor-General Néstor Humberto Martínez.

After that, it will take months to hire staff and build or re-purpose space for the JEP tribunals and other chambers to carry out their proceedings. We can optimistically expect to see the first trials begin during the latter part of 2018. Pessimistically, in 2019.

In the meantime, over 5,000 defendants remain in a legal limbo, unsure how the next eight-plus years of their lives will play out. This uncertainty could prove too much for many ex-guerrillas, especially former mid-level commanders, who may be tempted to give up on the process. It would be tragic to see more of them return to the jungle, joining the growing ranks of armed “dissident” groups that are taking control of territory and drug-trafficking in several former territories of FARC influence.

Conclusion

The process of crafting the JEP is not over. Opportunities remain to address these concerns, avoid unwanted outcomes, and iron out confusing provisions. Next year, when it rules on the implementing law, we hope that Colombia’s Constitutional Court will address the concerns laid out here and align the JEP more fully with the spirit of the peace accords. If not, the International Criminal Court may have a lot to say in coming years about command responsibility and persistent impunity for civilian accomplices.

These institutions must do their jobs. A lasting peace, with real guarantees for the conflict’s victims, demands it. WOLA and other human rights advocates worldwide will be watching closely.

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

(1) In a decision announced late on May 17, Colombia’s Constitutional Court appears to have dealt a severe blow to implementation of the FARC peace accord. In a 5–3 vote, the magistrates did away with key parts of “fast track,” the special legislative authority the Court approved last December to allow swift passage of laws to enact the November 2016 peace accord’s commitments.

The new changes result from the Court’s consideration of a suit brought by Iván Duque, a senator from the opposition party led by former president Álvaro Uribe, the peace accord’s most vocal opponent. The Court struck down the ability to get a vote on a full bill without amendments or modifications (votar en bloque, similar to how the U.S. Congress approved free-trade agreements in the 1990s and 2000s). It also struck down a requirement that the executive branch approve of changes to implementing laws under “fast-track” (a protection against changes that might violate the accord’s commitments). The decision does not undo the few peace-implementation laws that have already passed, like the amnesty for ex-guerrillas not accused of war crimes.

Without “fast track,” the danger is that Colombia’s Congress might treat what was agreed after four years of negotiations in Havana as a mere suggestion. Legislative wrangling could delay, change unrecognizably, or quietly kill some of the government’s accord commitments.

We still need to see the actual text of the decision to interpret the potential damage. In the meantime, here is a sample of what analysts are saying.

  • The government’s lead negotiator in the FARC talks, Humberto de la Calle, said the Court’s decision “opens the door to a cascade of modifications to what was agreed,” calling it a “swindle.”
  • Juanita León and Tatiana Duque of La Silla Vacía discuss the “hard blow” that the Court’s decision represents for the peace accord’s implementation, which they say is a “triumph” for Uribe’s right-wing opposition party. On the bright side, though, León and Duque say that congressional deliberation and compromise might restore to the accord some of the credibility it lost when voters rejected it by a 50.2 to 49.8 percent margin in an October 2, 2016 plebiscite.
  • “The legalistic complexity of the debate is such that few Colombians have managed to understand the devastating effects that this decision has on the future of peace in Colombia,” wrote Semana columnist María Jimena Duzán.
  • Rodrigo Uprimny, a much-cited legal scholar from the think-tank DeJusticia, believes the decision was “legally incorrect” and worries that it might “make accord implementation slower and harder, as political groups opposed to or skeptical of peace could use the ability to introduce changes, and to vote article by article, to attempt, in bad faith, to block the accord’s implementation.”
  • Semana magazine lays out seven pessimistic effects that the decision will have on the peace process, concluding that “the ball is now in Congress’s court” at a bad time–just 10 months before the next quadrennial legislative elections.

(2) President Juan Manuel Santos visited Washington and met with Donald Trump at the White House. Trump appeared not to have been well-briefed about Colombia. “Trump did not mention Colombia’s hard-fought peace process until a reporter asked about it,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “He then praised Santos’ efforts. ‘There’s nothing tougher than peace,’ Trump said, ‘and we want to make peace all over the world.’”

Santos’s visit came just 13 days after the 2017 foreign aid budget became law, including the $450 million post-conflict aid package (called “Peace Colombia”) that the Obama administration had requested in February 2016. (The link points to $391 million in aid, because it doesn’t include assistance through the Defense Department budget and a few smaller accounts.)

As the Trump administration prepares to issue to Congress its request for foreign assistance in 2018—which is expected today—two senators appear to be occupying the Republican legislative majority’s “turf” on Colombia policy. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) explained in a Miami Herald column that he opposes the FARC peace accord, but supports the “Peace Colombia” aid package with conditions. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) supports a more generous approach to lock in the peace accord’s security gains. Sen. Blunt, along with Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), co-chaired an Atlantic Council task force that issued a report coinciding with Santos’s visit, which endorsed aid within the “Peace Colombia” framework.

(3) The Colombian Presidency’s post-conflict advisor, Rafael Pardo, says the government will launch 12 pilot projects this year to start work on one of the most ambitious parts of the peace accord’s rural development chapter: a cadaster, or mapping of all landholdings in the country.

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

Photo from Presidency of Colombia. Caption: “President Juan Manuel Santos greets a FARC member during a surprise visit to the La Carmelita disarmament zone in Putumayo.”

  • Ex-presidents and peace process opponents Álvaro Uribe and Andres Pastrana had either a conversation or a brief contact with Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort on Good Friday. They were guests of one of the resort’s members, and the Miami Herald reports that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) may have helped arrange the meeting, or encounter, or whatever it was. The ex-presidents no doubt had at least a brief opportunity to express to Trump their opposition to the FARC peace accord.
  • Ex-president and sitting Senator Uribe sent a blistering missive to the U.S. Congress, and to much of the Washington community interested in Colombia, attacking the peace accord. The document included many false claims, which were rebutted by WOLA, by Colombia’s La Silla Vacía investigative journalism site, and by 50 members of Colombia’s Congress (PDF).
  • The occupation of formerly FARC-dominated territories by new armed groups was the subject of coverage by The Guardian in Cauca, La Silla Vacía in Chocó, and Rutas del Conflicto in Meta.
  • The dilemma of ex-FARC splinter or “dissident” groups is the subject of reporting by Verdad Abierta in Tumaco, Nariño, and Medellín’s daily El Colombiano, looking at the roughly 110-member “1st Front” in Guaviare.
  • FARC leaders are hinting that the disarmament process may be delayed as much as 90 days beyond the originally foreseen 6 months. They blame government slowness in complying with commitments. The government is reluctant to bear the political cost involved with granting such an extension.
  • The FARC is also hinting that it may want to allow its members to stay in the 26 disarmament zones after the 6-month (or perhaps 9-month) process concludes, or even to settle in them permanently.
  • President Juan Manuel Santos paid a surprise visit to one of those zones, in Puerto Asís, Putumayo, after visiting the site of a massive mudslide that killed hundreds in Putumayo’s capital two weeks earlier. VICE documented a visit to the site in Tumaco, Nariño.
  • Speaking of extensions, Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo said that, due to the legislature’s slowness in approving legislation to implement the peace accords, the government may seek to extend “fast track” lawmaking authority for another several months. The six-month authority expires at the end of May.
  • Colombian soldiers and police found a FARC arms cache in Putumayo. Opposition politicians called it a sign of guerrilla bad faith in the disarmament process. Maximum FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño said the guerrillas are working with the UN mission to collect 900 arms caches hidden around the country.
  • WOLA called for the UN’s post-disarmament mission to make guaranteeing human rights, and the security of human rights defenders, a central focus of its work. This should include a prominent and autonomous role for the Colombia office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
  • An essay in Semana looks at the international community’s growing concerns about the Colombian government’s continued stumbles in implementing the peace accord.
  • Verdad Abierta asks what will happen if the military’s thousands of “false positive” killings end up being tried by the special transitional-justice system established by the peace accords. Since many involved hiring criminals to murder civilians so that soldiers could win rewards granted for high body counts, these cases’ link to the armed conflict is tenuous at best.

Álvaro Uribe’s Questionable “Message to U.S. Authorities” About Colombia’s Peace Effort

On Easter Sunday Colombia’s former president, Álvaro Uribe, wrote a blistering attack on Colombia’s peace accords with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas. He sent it in English as a “message to the authorities and the Congress of the United States of America.” It went to every U.S. congressional office, as well as to Washington’s community of analysts, advocates and donors who work on Colombia.

Inaccurate=pink. Debatable=orange.

Uribe, now Colombia’s most prominent opposition senator, is the most vocal critic of the peace process led by his successor, President Juan Manuel Santos. The ex-president’s missive leaves out the very encouraging fact that 7,000 members of the FARC, a leftist guerrilla group, are currently concentrated in 26 small zones around the country, where they are gradually turning all of their weapons over to a UN mission. One of the organizations most involved in the illicit drug business has agreed to stop using violent tactics for political purposes and to get out of the drug economy. The process currently underway is ending a bloody conflict that raged for 52 years, and holds at least the promise of making vast areas of Colombia better governed, and less favorable to illicit drug production.

Colombia’s peace accord implementation is going slowly, and faces daunting problems. There is a responsible, fact-based critique that a conservative analyst could make. Uribe’s document is not that critique. It suffers from numerous factual inaccuracies and statements that are easily rebutted. Its fixation on the FARC, a waning force, deliberately lacks important facts regarding other parties to the conflict and it does little to explain how the United States can help Colombia address post-conflict challenges.

Here is WOLA’s evaluation of several of the points made by Álvaro Uribe in this document, and evaluations of their accuracy. The vast majority of his claims are either inaccurate, or debatable.

Statement:

“Coca plantations were reduced from 170,000 ha to 42,000 ha, now there are 188,000 ha according to the lowest estimate.”

Inaccurate. Two sources estimate Colombian coca-growing: the U.S. government and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (working with the Colombian government). Their highest, lowest, and most current estimates of Colombian coca-cultivation are as follows.

Source Highest before current Lowest Most current
U.S. government 170,000 (2001) 78,000 (2012) 188,000 (2016)
UNODC 163,300 (2000) 48,000 (2012-13) 96,000 (2015)

No estimate shows a drop from 170,000 to 42,000 hectares. Both show the lowest estimate in 2012, two years after Uribe left office. 188,000 hectares is not the “lowest” current estimate, it is the higher of the two. Using the 188,000 hectare (U.S.) figure yields an increase from a baseline of 78,000, not 42,000.

Nobody denies that Colombia’s post-2012 coca boom is a problem, but Uribe’s statement exaggerates its severity still further.

Statement:

“THE CAUSE OF THIS DANGEROUS TREND: The government has stopped spraying illicit crops to please the terrorist FARC.”

Inaccurate. First, the October 2015 suspension of “spraying illicit crops” with herbicides from aircraft is one of seven causes for the boom in coca cultivation, which WOLA explained in a March 13 report. (The other six are a decline in manual eradication, a failure to replace eradication with state presence and services, a drop in gold prices, a stronger dollar, a promise that people who planted coca would get aid under the FARC peace accords, and an increase in organized coca-grower resistance.) Giving all explanatory weight to the suspension of herbicide fumigation is misleading, as even the State Department recognized that the program’s effectiveness was “significantly reduced” by “counter-eradication tactics” like swift replanting and pruning sprayed plants.

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

Pedro Portal / Miami Herald photo at WLRN. Caption: “A member of the FARC in Colombia’s Tolima province watches over guerrilla rifles turned over as part of the country’s peace agreement.”

  • By now, the UN mission in Colombia has inventoried more than 7,000 weapons that over 6,900 FARC members have brought to 26 disarmament sites around the country. The FARC is handing these arms over to the UN in phases.
  • FARC members concentrated at the disarmament site outside Puerto Asís, Putumayo, have offered to help with rescue and rebuilding efforts after mudslides and flooding destroyed much of the departmental capital, Mocoa, which is about two hours’ drive away.
  • Two former presidents, José Mujica of Uruguay and Felipe González of Spain, visited Colombia in their role as international representatives of a government-FARC commission to monitor compliance with the peace accords’ commitments.
  • The investigative journalism website Verdad Abierta finds some truth to FARC allegations that elements of Colombia’s military have been trying to coax guerrillas away from the sites where they are to disarm collectively, so that they might enter the Defense Ministry’s program for individual deserters.
  • The new administration in the United States has said almost nothing about future U.S. support for peace implementation in Colombia. So every statement that does come out is important, like this one from April 3:

“Right now as the United States works through its budget process both for the current budget here that we’re in right now, Fiscal Year 2017, as well as the next budget year, we are evaluating how our assistance funds can be best utilized to support the highest U.S. priorities. Supporting the peace process in Colombia has traditionally been a high priority for the United States. We look forward to working with the Colombian Government in order to make sure that our assistance dollars are utilized as effectively as possible.”

  • On the evening of March 28, Colombia’s Congress approved the transitional-justice system envisioned in the peace accords. This system, the “Special Peace Jurisdiction,” will try and punish war crimes that were ordered, planned, or committed by the FARC, the Colombian government, or private citizens. WOLA, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and others have criticized some of the changes to the original accord that Colombia’s Congress added, and that we hope Colombia’s Constitutional Court will correct.
  • Two prominent generals imprisoned for their role in human rights crimes have signed up to have their cases considered by the new Special Peace Jurisdiction. This holds out the possibility of reducing their sentences in exchange for full confessions and reparations. As many as 2,000 convicted or accused military personnel may choose the transitional justice route.
  • “The discourse rejecting indulgence for the eternal enemy—the FARC—helps avoid speaking of what is truly feared: that economic, military, and political elites’ ties to atrocities might be placed in evidence,” reads a tough analysis of transitional justice by human rights lawyer Michael Reed Hurtado at Razón Pública.
  • A coalition of Colombian human rights groups voiced strong concern that the country’s new transitional justice law does not give “high level entity status” to a new Unit for the Search for Disappeared Persons in the attorney-general’s office, as envisioned in the peace accord.
  • As peace talks with the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas continue to struggle, violence continues. An ELN ambush in the northeastern department of Arauca, where the guerrilla group is at its most activekilled two soldiers on March 27. A Colombian armed forces aerial bombardment killed 10 ELN guerrillas at an encampment in the Catatumbo region, also in northeastern Colombia, on April 1. Meanwhile the La Silla Vacía investigative journalism website denounced an intimidating message from one of the ELN’s most powerful leaders, and Jesuit peace activist Francisco de Roux, in his regular El Tiempo column, criticized arrests of civil-society leaders charged with ELN ties, and called for an immediate bilateral ceasefire.
  • A potentially fatal flaw in the FARC peace accords is their failure to address the “partial collapse” of Colombia’s state, argues the University of Chicago’s James Robinson in a speech at Bogotá’s Universidad de los Andes.

The past week in Colombia’s peace process

  • Colombia’s draft law creating a transitional justice system to try war crimes, two elements of which WOLA strongly critiqued last week, has not yet passed. The legislature failed to reach a quorum last Wednesday night. A new vote will be attempted the night of Tuesday the 28th.
  • FARC and government representatives met in Bogotá over the weekend to review the peace accords’ implementation so far. It was the two teams’ first formal meeting since the accords’ November 24 signing. A joint communiqué commits the government to finishing construction of disarmament zones by April (finally), and to speed up mechanisms to guarantee security for political activists. The FARC promised to turn over its final list of all its members.
  • Two former presidents, José Mujica of Uruguay and Felipe González of Spain, will be named on March 30 as international representatives to the FARC peace accords’ Committee of Oversight, Stimulus, and Verification of Implementation. This body, with the Spanish acronym CSIVI, will produce regular evaluations of both sides’ compliance with their accord commitments.
  • According to government estimates, about 5 or 6 percent of the FARC’s membership refused to demobilize and are considered “dissidents.” Another 2 percent are deserters from the demobilization process. This is considered low by the standards of post-conflict processes, but there are many months to go.
  • One of the main FARC dissidents, Carlos Carvajal alias “Mojoso” of the 14th Front in Caquetá, turned himself in to authorities. He had led a group of dissidents of unknown size: estimates run from eight to sixty. “Mojoso” will be tried within the regular justice system. He may have yielded in the face of dogged pursuit by his former comrades in the FARC, even though the guerrillas have purportedly been observing a ceasefire.
  • Women in the FARC were the subject of feature stories at The Intercept, The Guardian, and Agénce France Presse, while the Miami Herald portrayed guerrilla painter Inty Maleywa.
  • The acting mayor of Tumaco, the Pacific coast port that is the seat of Colombia’s number-one coca-growing county, alleged that undemobilized FARC members were illegally campaigning in favor of a candidate for an upcoming special mayoral election.