Blog entries, commentaries, and statements from WOLA’s Colombia team

9 Unanswered Questions About Colombia’s Victims and Justice Accord

December 23, 2015
A delegation of conflict victims attended the December 15 singing of the Victims accord in Havana.

Colombia’s government and the FARC guerrilla group have settled the most difficult question facing their three-year-old peace negotiations: how can Colombia hold human rights abusers accountable for their crimes, without imposing penalties so severe that they encourage guerrilla leaders to keep fighting?

The December 15 accord on Victims establishes a Special Peace Jurisdiction to hear confessions, to try and punish war crimes and crimes against humanity, and to determine reparations to victims. A December 19 government communiqué explains how the security forces will fit into that special jurisdiction.

“Settled” is too strong a word, though. Both declarations leave fundamental questions unanswered, and raise others. Detractors have seized upon these ambiguities, and their critiques are influencing the Victims accord’s reception before Colombian public opinion. The head of Colombia’s rightist opposition, Senator and former President Álvaro Uribe, wrote that the December 15 accord “substitutes Colombian justice in order to absolve the FARC.” The Americas director for Human Rights Watch, José Miguel Vivanco, told reporters, “This is a piñata of impunity. …It is a pact between the government and the FARC that ends up sacrificing the right to justice of thousands of the Colombian conflict’s victims.”

WOLA shares some of these concerns, but does not share this broad view. Colombia did not just approve a “piñata of impunity,” and this sweeping choice of wording is unfortunate. The December 15 accord does not amnesty serious human rights crimes, includes significant concessions from an armed group that is not actually surrendering, and is the product of much consultation with victims of the conflict.

Nonetheless, as HRW’s more careful written critique and other analyses have made clear, a great deal remains undefined, and some dangerous potential loopholes remain to be closed up.

  1. How austere is “restriction of liberty” going to be?

Variations of this question are coming up repeatedly in the debate over the new accord. Depending on the depth of their involvement in serious human rights crimes, demobilized guerrillas who fully confess will receive sentences of between two and eight years of “effective restriction of liberty” while they perform acts of reparation to victims.

What does “restriction of liberty” mean? The accord is still vague, but we now it doesn’t mean “jail.”

“Effective restriction means that there may be appropriate mechanisms of monitoring and supervision to guarantee good-faith compliance with the restrictions ordered by the tribunal. …The Special Peace Jurisdiction will determine the conditions of effective restriction of liberty that may be necessary to ensure compliance with the sanction, conditions that in no case will be understood as jail or prison, or adoption of equivalent security measures.”

This confinement’s austerity and geographic scope remain to be defined. The place of confinement, chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle told Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper, “will be a function of the place where reparations occur.”

“For example, there will be guerrillas contributing to de-mining at the site where it takes place. In these sanctions we’re not talking about jail. There won’t be a lot of people all going to one place, but simultaneous reparations programs in several sites. And that is where there will be the presence of those who have been punished with restriction of liberty, movement, and residence. …If someone must go and de-mine in El Orejón (Antioquia), he goes, and it could be that tomorrow he has to go and de-mine in Lejanías (Meta). But look, he won’t have the entire department [province/state] as his base, as some opponents of the peace process said at the beginning.”

How large this “base” may be, though, hasn’t been determined. “If the restriction of movement consists only of not being able to leave the country or a department, or if the labor restriction consists of going to Congress or the town council, it will be very hard for people to trust in transitional justice,” wrote journalist Juanita León of La Silla Vacía. “If it is more strict, it could give the system more legitimacy.”

Support for the process will also depend on the level of austerity of both sides’ convicted human rights abusers’ confinement. Many Colombians recall with shame the sumptuous conditions that drug lord Pablo Escobar enjoyed during his brief stay in his custom-built prison outside Medellín in the early 1990s. While the December 15 accord is unlikely to repeat that experience, it holds open the possibility of a “restriction of liberty” that is insufficiently punitive to meet international standards. “Ay, President Santos,” wrote center-right El Tiempo columnist María Isabel Rueda. “I’d like to help you out, but this sounds like a picnic.”

Concerns about leniency run both ways. A 2011 scandal surrounded the “resort” conditions in which military personnel found guilty of serious rights crimes were being held at the Tolemaida army base. As the December 19 announcement places the armed forces in charge of confining their personnel accused of serious war crimes, that experience risks being repeated.

  1. Are “false positives” going to be judged as violations of International Humanitarian Law?

There is still no clarity about whether the system would apply to the most serious military human rights crime of the past ten years: the “false positives” scandal, which continues to move slowly through Colombia’s courts. In order to satisfy top leaders’ policy of rewarding high “body counts,” military personnel killed at least 3,000 civilian non-combatants, mostly between 2004 and 2008. Civilian courts have sentenced a few hundred to long prison terms—but there is a possibility that these convictions could be reduced, or even overturned, within the new “Special Peace Jurisdiction.”

Tags: Accords, Human Rights, Transitional, Victims