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.

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