In a landmark ruling that is unappealable, Colombia’s Constitutional Court on Wednesday struck down a military justice reform that according to human rights groups would have given war criminals impunity. This decision represents a blow to the government, which has been trying to pass this law for almost five years.
The Court’s 5-4 ruling prevented a military justice reform amendment to Colombia’s Constitution that would have allowed military courts to try their own people for all but seven crimes that constitute crimes against humanity. The seven would have been the only crimes tried in civilian court.
Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon, a strong supporter of the bill, called this legal military defeat “a blow to the morale of the military forces that will without a doubt affect Colombians’ security.”
Local media reported that in anticipation of this decision, the government has begun preparing alternative legislative proposals to try to overhaul the military penal system again.
The Courts have yet to release the opinions of the decision.
One of the seven crimes against humanity specified was ‘extrajudicial execution,’ the crime linked to Colombia’s notorious ‘false positives‘ scandal that broke in the mid 2000’s. ‘Extrajudicial execution’ is the centerpiece of the conflict surrounding this bill.
This ‘false positives’ scandal, which involved members of Colombia’s military killing nearly 4,000 civilians and dressing them up as enemy combatants in order to boost numbers of deceased militant hostiles, prompted the once invulnerable military to be stripped of its internal judicial system in 2008 because the armed forces dragged its feet prosecuting those responsible.
FACT SHEETS: False Positives
Since then, the military and the government have been fighting to reclaim military judicial autonomy only to achieve failed attempts that often resulted in the the exposure of more scandals and cover-ups. Those in favor of reform however found success this past summer when in June, Congress passed the bill in question, allowing the armed forces–which report to the President through the Defense Minister–to use their own tribunals for all crimes except seven designated as crimes against humanity.
The Constitutional Court determining the constitutionality of the law would be the last step before officially ratified.
Both Human rights organizations and international organizations immediately became up in arms over this decision and have put pressure on the Colombian government to overturn this law. In addition to the primary argument that there is inherent bias and often leniency when the military tries their own, human rights organizations have claimed that the system “is at odds with international human rights standards and threatens to deny justice to victims of egregious abuses by the military.” Human Rights Watch also claimed that there were many loopholes in the law, which would allow for war crimes to be tried in military tribunals in spite of the reform.
Human rights groups however have been most concerned over the possibility of perpetrators of crimes such as ‘false positives’ receiving impunity from these courts. President Juan Manuel Santos and the government had held strong that no one involved in ‘extrajudicial executions’ would receive impunity.
The United States’ congress have not taken the President at his word however, as the legislative body has withheld around $10 million in military aid in objection to the law, according to the Associated Press.
As the government regroups and tries to see if military reform this large will be possible in the future, human rights groups will celebrate this constitutional victory and breath easier for a moment.