Panels on perpetrator immunity, victim reparation, and other challenges of Colombia’s transitional justice drew large crowds on Thursday to Medellin‘s convention center.
Politicians, judges, and activists discussed Colombia’s transitional justice system at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (CIDH) held in Medellin’s Plaza Mayor this week. The transitional justice system, like those of Rwanda and Yugoslavia, attempts to deliver truth – both prosecution of the victimizers and reconciliation for the victims – in Colombia’s internal armed conflict which continues today after more than 50 years.
More than 1,000 spectators, including police and military officers, reporters, lawyers, and students observed as the panelists addressed the inevitability of some degree of immunity in the prosecution of human rights crimes on such a large scale.
Colombia’s prosecutor general, Eduardo Montealegre, asserted it would be “impossible” to punish every human rights violation during Colombia’s armed conflict, admitting that some impunity is inevitable.
Montealegre, who Friday completed his first year in office, claimed to have inherited a “catastrophic” situation of “monumental disorder” in the branch of justice which he now directs.
“The traditional way of doing things was generating impunity. With the investigation of individual cases you can never go to the actual source that gives rise to the serious violations of human rights,” Montealegre said after taking office.
As a panelist Montealegre on Thursday advocated a “minimalist” policy which would concentrate on seeking out only the gravest of crimes and the perpetrators with the greatest responsibility.
Catalina Diaz, the director for Colombia’s transitional justice, admitted it would be impossible to “investigate, try, and convict all of the authors [of human rights violations].” Instead, Diaz advocated an “integrated strategy” which includes prosecution, institutional reform and, most importantly, “truth, justice, and reparation.” Like Montealgre, Diaz favored seeking out the “macro-criminals,” and prosecuting the large-scale, systematic crimes.
Also discussed was the challenge of ensuring that victims receive reparations, particularly for crimes of the state, when resources are limited and the displaced are often stigmatized.
Alberto Perez Perez, a judge of the CIDH, spoke of the importance of symbolic compensation in addition to the monetary reparations for the victims. That is to say, it means a lot to a victim when a government admits to having committed a crime. To have effective reparation, according to Perez Perez, the following are necessary: restitution, compensation, satisfaction, the guarantee against repetition, and rehabilitation.
Political science students in the crowd debated in the pauses between panelists. Angel Lopez Castiblanco pointed out that because of the stigmatization of many victims – for example a family displaced by armed conflict is forced to migrate to the city slums where they encounter hostility from their neighbors and a dire economic situation – transitional justice is a social and cultural process as well as one acted out in court. Jessica Delgado Agredo added that because of duration of the conflict and the widespread victimization, many Colombians are de-sensitized to the plight of their countrymen. Displaced persons are often ostracized and therefore isolated from the help they deserve.
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The final panelist, Maria Victoria Fallon, director of the Interdisciplinary Group for Human Rights which aids victims in pursuing justice, spoke before a much-diminished crowd. Fallon criticized the positions of the previous speakers, many of whom represented the Colombian government in some capacity, saying that the Justice and Peace Law, which oversees the demobilization of the paramilitaries, is an agreement made between victimizers without the representation of the victims, referencing how both the government and the paramilitary groups were responsible for thousands of civilian deaths.
Fallon also pointed to the 3.8 million homeless Colombians, victims of forced displacement, in comparison with the small percentage of them who are receiving reparations under the Victims and Land Restitution Law.
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Finally, after repeatedly receiving notes from the moderator, Fallon pointed to what she perceives as the central contradiction of the transitional justice system: how can you have transitional justice when the conflict isn’t over?
“Justice doesn’t exist in Colombia,” Delgado said after the panel closed. “The cases which arrive at the prosecutor general’s office are just one percent of the crimes that happen. It would take 100 years to resolve just the cases that are currently under investigation.”
Other political science students also lamented the lethargy and corruption which, they claim, plagues Colombia’s legal system.
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