A prominent international human rights group is expressing its concern over a bill being disputed in the Colombian Congress that would give military courts jurisdiction over human rights violations committed by soldiers.
The letter, signed by Human Rights Watch (HRW) Latin America Director Jose Vivanco, is adressed to Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon and takes issue with Senate Bill-85, 2013, which Vivanco says would “open the door to unlawful killings known as ‘false positives.'”
The so-called “false positives” scandal is centered around the extrajudicial killings of thousands of civilians by members of the armed forces who presented their victims as guerrillas in order to claim them as combat kills.
Vivanco claims that a military tribunal for members of the military is a “recipe for impunity,” especially since the bill includes crimes such as illegal interceptions, illegal arms trafficking, as well as “conspiring with paramilitaries to commit crimes such as torture, forced disappearances and drug trafficking,” all of which have featured as part of recent scandals.
According to Vivanco, a 2012 ruling from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that Colombian military courts are “not the competent system of justice to investigate and, as appropriate, prosecute and punish the authors of human rights violations.”
HRW stated in the letter that there have been false positive cases correctly punished by civilian courts, but not under military courts.
“The Colombian government has claimed it is necessary to expand the scope of the military justice system because civilian prosecutors have baselessly prosecuted soldiers for legitimately killing guerrillas in combat. However, the government has failed to provide a single example of such unfounded prosecutions, despite multiple requests by Human Rights Watch,” claimed Vivanco.
The Colombian Supreme Court shot down a similar bill in 2013 for procedural reasons. 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.
The false positives scandal involved the murder of almost 6,000 civilians by Colombia’s Armed Forces and illegal paramilitary groups. Civilians were kidnapped, murdered, then presented as guerrillas in order to inflate the army’s figures for combat kills.
The president at the time, Alvaro Uribe, denied the Armed Forces were killing civilians until late 2008, when investigators linked the bodies of unidentified rebel fighters found in the north of the country to teens who had been reported missing in Soacha, a poor suburb of the capital Bogota.
In an July 2013 report, the Prosecutor General’s Office said it was investigating 3,896 civilian killings since 1986 as potential incidents of false positives.
FACT SHEET: False positives
- Colombia: Withdraw Military Jurisdiction Expansion Bill (Human Rights Watch)