A proposal to significantly increase the use of military tribunals in Colombia would lead to impunity for human rights violations, said NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) Monday.
The plans to expand military jurisdiction over cases of abuses by security forces, which are contained in a justice system reform bill currently in its last congressional stage, would “dramatically reverse” progress made in investigating human rights violations, claimed the New York-based organization.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, the group’s Americas Division director, said in an open letter to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, “This article (…) directly violates jurisprudence by Colombia’s high courts and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, as well the views espoused by other relevant human rights bodies. (…) And by virtually guaranteeing impunity for human rights violations, [the justice system reform bill] could ultimately expose Colombia to investigations by the International Criminal Court.”
The reform bill proposes that all acts committed during military operations are presumed to be related to service, in direct contradiction with multiple rulings and decisions by Colombia’s Constitutional Court, Supreme Court and Superior Council of the Judicature. In cases referenced by HRW, the courts have stated human rights violations and other conduct “contrary to the constitutional function of the security forces” are never related to service, and so must always be investigated, prosecuted and judged by the civilian justice system.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has also stated, “Regarding situations that violate the human rights of civilians, military jurisdiction cannot operate under any circumstances.”
Vivanco said, “The very structure of the military justice system fundamentally inhibits it from independently and impartially administering justice for cases of human rights violations. Military courts are comprised of active or retired members of the security forces. The hierarchical nature of the military, an institution founded on a strict chain of command, clearly limites active or retired military officials’ capacity fo impartially judge members of their current or former ranks.”
Colombia’s military justice system had long failed to hold perpetrators of human rights violations accountable, said Vivanco, highlighting the lack of convictions against those responsible for “false positives” — a term used to describe soliders murdering civilians then dressing them in guerrilla clothing to inflate their kill rate.
Colombia’s Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon has defended the proposals, claiming cases of human rights violations will be referred to civilian courts once it has been proved that such a violation occurred. But HRW was highly skeptical. “Military judges lack the independence and impartiality to decide whether an alleged crime constitutes a human rights violation,” said Vivanco, adding,”Moreover, the ability of military judges to make these decisions in an impartial manner is further undermined by a history of pressure and threats against military judges who have transferred abuse cases to civilian jurisdiction.”
Colombia’s highest criminal court and highest administrative court have both withdrawn their support for the proposed justice system reform because it hands too much power to the government, they claim, and amounts to an “attack on the structure of the democratic state.”