The president of Colombia’s Constitutional Court announced that the national government should not have disobeyed the precautionary mandate from the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, which stated that Bogota‘s ousted mayor should have stayed in office.
Gustavo Petro might just be Colombia’s little engine that could.
On the three-week anniversary of President Juan Manuel Santos closing the door (as most thought) forever on hopes of former Bogota Mayor Petro shaking the label of “former,” there appears to be a light at the end of the long dark tunnel for the former guerrilla-turned politician.
Luis Vargas, president of Colombia’s Constitutional Court said Wednesday evening that the court believes that Santos was wrong in disobeying a precautionary mandate from the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) to stop Petro’s dismissal from office.
The court president said for Petro to return to Bogota’s city hall, the court “needs to adopt a corresponding measure.”
The court’s pronouncement came only days after Santos had vowed to reinstate Petro, if ordered by a Colombian court.
Vargas spoke out saying that the measures issued by the IACHR are linked to the Colombian judicial system, and that ignoring the organization now could lead to serious judicial problems in the future.
Rather than voicing opinion, the court made clear that this decision arrived from precedent: “There are at least some five sentences that I recall that indicate that the precautionary measures are indeed binding.”
Broken down, the judicial president said that parties were confusing the “precautionary measure” or “precautionary mandate” of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights — the mandate that demanded the suspension of the dismissal of Petro — which was issued just under three weeks ago, with rulings of the related Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is located in Costa Rica rather than Washington, DC. He asserted that many were disregarding the precautionary measure as not obligatory and just a suggestion.
However not obeying such precautionary measures could lead to bigger problems with the Inter-American Court, according to Vargas.
“Some precautionary measures that are not obeyed occasionally can go before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, not the Commission, thereby converting the theme of ‘precautionary measure’ into something much more binding and obligatory. No one has discussed the obligatory nature then of these themes.”
The court leader asserted this position with confidence making clear that Colombia does not want to be at odds with the Inter-American Court.
“The jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court on this theme has been reiterated, in this sense the high court has arrived at this conclusion,” said Vargas.
The magistrate concluded by saying that all measures like this should be obeyed especially when they make reference to violations of human rights.
Now to take a step back.
How did Colombia get to this point?
On December 9, 2013, the Inspector General of the country, Alejandro Ordoñez dismissed Gustavo Petro from his mayorship and banned him from serving public office for 15 years. This decision and punishment is not unfamiliar to Ordoñez, as he has terminated several political careers this way during his tenure as the inspector general. Normally most decisions go un-protested, or if they are, the politician in question has been found to have overwhelming links to paramilitary groups for example, and the elected official remains defeated.
Petro was different. Bogota’s mayor was sacked not due to corruption, but due to “irregularities” when he switched the garbage collection system in Colombia’s capital from a privately held contract, to a public one. Those “irregularities” did not point to foul play, just poorly executed play, and allegedly nearly 10,000 tons of trash was left uncollected on the streets of Bogota. Not even Petro himself denies that he messed up.
Since then, Petro has filed appeal after appeal after appeal in the form of “tutelas” to as many courts as he can think of. On March 18, Colombia’s State Council — another high court — denied all of his appeals, and the case seemed closed.
A day later, the cavalry seemed to have arrived. The IACHR (Commission, not Court) rushed in and ordered the dismissal to be immediately suspended pending further discussion, investigation and due process.
The decision would be left up to President Santos himself, and wonks debated back and forth who holds jurisdiction in this situation, Colombia’s courts or the international commission? Santos ultimately chose the latter, and made his decision final three weeks ago tonight, calling the IACHR’s precautionary mandate “complementary and alternative, meaning that it should only operate in the event of a malfunction or failure of the internal system.”.
Santos did not believe the internal system failed, and furthermore exemplified the sentiment that Constitutional Court President Vargas described: many have not taken the precautionary measure as a serious obligation. However yesterday, as if in anticipation of another court coming to a different conclusion in the Petro case, the head of state ceded that if a court told him to change his decision, and reinstate Petro as mayor of Bogota, he would.
Which brought the helpless Petro to tonight, with the Constitutional Court speaking out in his favor.
Petro’s case is causing judicial mayhem in Colombia.
There are four high courts in the country: the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, the State Council and the Superior Council of the Judiciary.
Two of these courts have now reached different conclusions on whether or not Petro should stay in office, the President has landed with one, and an international human rights organization has come down with the other (all four have different reasons for their decisions as well).
The battling opinions range from the IACHR’s stance that Colombian citizens’ rights were violated as they democratically elected Petro, to Santos’ position that he will follow what Colombia’s courts will say first, no matter what, to the State Council’s view that there is no evidence that anyone’s rights were compromised.
Though journalists and pundits alike have repeated this sentence many times with different names, Colombia’s Supreme Court might end up having the final say in this matter. One will have to see how this announcement affects Santos and his promise to acknowledge a court’s request if it asks to reinstate the mayor.
In which case, Petro, the little engine that could, might just hold Colombia’s second most important elected office once again.
- Gobierno debía acatar medidas cautelares de la CIDH en caso Petro: Corte Constitucional (El Espectador)
- Rama Judicial (Judicial Branch Website)
- Medidas cautelares de la CIDH sí son vinculantes (Semana)