Members of Colombia’s armed forces who committed serious crimes during the country’s 49-year armed conflict may not be punished, according to comments made by the President on Tuesday.
During a speech before the security services in which he warned about the slow progress of the peace talks with Colombia’s main rebel group FARC, President Juan Manuel Santos suggested that those members of the armed forces who had committed some “error” during the conflict could, like FARC soldiers, be absolved of their crimes or given shorter sentences, if doing so would be conducive to a lasting peace.
He assured those in uniform that they should “feel calm as far as the post-conflict judicial processes are concerned.”
Santos did not detail the exact judicial benefits those who made “errors” would receive, nor did he specify what constitutes an “error”.
He had previously insisted that the legal framework for peace, which will establish the legal parameters on an eventual peace deal with the FARC, will leave “no room for impunity”, but has since softened his stance.
In July Colombia’s Prosecutor General said that “it is possible within the framework of transitional justice and the framework of international law that, even though [FARC rebels and members of the armed forces] will be convicted for crimes against humanity and war crimes, the sentence can be provisionally suspended if this corresponds to the need of overcoming the conflict.”
He added that the same rule would apply to members of the military implicated in the 1985 siege of the Palace of Justice in which the military violently retook the building from M-19 rebels, after which 11 people were disappeared, allegedly at the hands of the military.
The Prosecutor General’s comments alarmed the International Criminal Court (ICC). Fatou Bensouda, Prosecutor of the ICC, said in August that “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community must not go unpunished.”
“Given the goals of the Rome statute (the treaty that established the ICC), the suspension of penalties goes against its object and purpose because in practice it prevents the punishment of those who commit the most serious crimes,” added Bensouda.
In May, international human rights organization Amnesty International likewise expressed their concern about the post-conflict judicial process, pointing to two laws approved in 2012 that could “exacerbate impunity.”
First, the constitutional reform that would place the responsibilty of criminal investigations into members of Colombia’s security services in the hands of military courts, instead of the ordinary criminal courts.
Amnesty International warned that this “could result in the transferral of many cases concerning human rights violations to the military judicial system, instead of the established international norms for cases involving human rights abuses.”
The second law they criticized is the so-called “legal framework for peace”, which Amnesty fears “could allow the perpetrators of human rights abuses to elude justice.”
Colombia’s government has since clarified that only certain crimes will be processed by the military justice system; the most serious crimes, including crimes against humanity, genocide, forced disappearance, extrajudicial execution, sexual violence, torture, and forced displacement, will apparently remain in the hands of the ordinary judicial system.
Among those who should not expect judicial leniency, according to Prosecutor General, are the members of the armed forces who took part in the ‘false positives’ scandal, in which 2,997 civilians were killed, then dressed as guerrillas in order to be presented as combat kills.
Former President 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 people who had been reported missing in Soacha, a city south of the capital Bogota.
FACT SHEET: False Positives