Few victim reparations, impunity for violators hinder Colombia human rights: HRW

Jose Miguel Vivanco (Photo: EFE)

Colombia in 2013 once again received a failing grade on human rights, a problem made worse by the justice system’s impunity for human rights abusers, and slow progress on victim reparation, according to Human Right Watch (HRW) on Tuesday.

A report published by the human rights group highlighted the problems facing Colombia due to the presence of illegal armed groups, including warring left-wing guerrillas and right-wing neo-paramilitaries and drug traffickers, operating in the country. Since 1985, HRW claimed that over 5 million Colombians have been displaced from their homes, including 150,000 people displaced in 2012 alone, giving the country the second-highest rate of internal displacement worldwide.

While the report gave President Juan Manuel Santos higher marks for defending human rights than his predecessor Alvaro Uribe, HRW argued that the government was still failing to protect human rights in many respects through incomplete reforms and counter-productive reforms.

Limited progress on victim reparations

Although Santos signed in 2011 the Victims and Land Restitution Bill, a flagship reform for his administration to restore land to displaced victims of the armed conflict, HRW criticized the government’s “limited advances” in this arena of human rights since the law was passed.

MORE: Reparation Still Elusive For Displacement Victims In Colombia

“The Agricultural Ministry predicted that by the end of 2014 they would have completed 80.000 cases of land restitution in concordance with the Victims and Land Restitution Law. Nevertheless, by September of 2013 the government had obtained sentences that ordered the restitution of 666 of more than 45,000 solicitations made.”

However, by September, 2013, the government admitted that only three families had been returned to their land as a result of the restitution orders.

Numerous displaced land victims have faced threats and violence for trying to reclaim their land. Between January 2012 and September 2013, more than 700 displacement victims and community leaders, who were attempting to return to their land through the Victims Law, notified the authorities that they had received threats. As of yet, the Prosecutor General’s Office has not pressed charges over any of the investigated threats.

In addition, the Prosecutor General’s Office in August told HRW it was investigating 43 murders of “leaders, land claimants, or participants in land restitution matters” committed since 2008.

MORE: Neo-paramilitary Groups Preventing Return of Colombia’s Displaced: HRW

Reforms favoring impunity

HRW also laid criticism on a 2012 law called the “Legal Framework for the Peace,” claiming that the legislation, which would take effect in event of peace with the country’s largest rebel group the FARC, would open impunity opportunities for the guerrilla, paramilitary and military members who had committed human rights violations during the conflict.

According to HRW, the law limits human rights prosecution to the “most responsible,” offering legal impunity to those who had aided in the planning , the execution and cover-up if they were not defined as the “most responsible,” a category that is undefined in the law.

MORE: ‘No Impunity For Those Guilty Of Genocide And War Crimes’: Santos

Furthermore, HRW asserts that it allows Congress to exempt investigation of atrocities not — such as rape or forced “disappearance” – part of coordinated attack. Finally, the law gives Congress the right for Congress to absolve any guerrilla, paramilitary, or military member convicted of a human rights abuse, including those convicted as
“most responsible.”

The report also criticized attempts by the Santos administration to reform the military justice system by transferring investigations of military extrajudicial killings — particularly the former military practice of extrajudicial killings of apparently innocent civilians to increase guerrilla headcounts in the “false positives” scandal — from civilian court to military tribunals.

The government’s attempts at military judicial autonomy on prosecution of human rights abuses have also been thwarted by the Colombia’s Constitutional Court which in October ruled a Santos-backed military justice reform that allowed autonomy in extrajudicial killing investigations unconstitutional.

MORE: Colombia’s Constitutional Court knocks down controversial military justice reform law

HRW America division Director Jose Vivanco in an interview with local media Caracol Radio, questioned the Inspector General Alejandro Ordeñez’s absolution of members of Congress convicted by the country’s supreme court of maintaining ties with paramilitary organization AUC while in office.

Improve human rights in Colombia?

Vivanco told Colombia Reports that the government to improve Colombia’s human rights reputation should “stop promoting its military justice system reform, which threatens to deny justice for victims of false positives… and accelerate its land restitution process, which has produced disappointingly few results thus far.”



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