With the new Congress officially taking office on July 20, 2014, Colombia Reports looks back on the many bills that were passed – or almost passed – by Colombia’s Congress that served from 2010-2014.
The Colombian Congress passed several bills of importance during the 2010 – 2014 term. Victims, royalties, the armed conflict, free trade agreements, and the rights of members of the military were among many other bills (a total of 318 were eventually signed into law by President Juan Manuel Santos).
1. Victims’ Law
One of the major achievements of this Congress was its passing of the Victims’ Law, passed in June 2011, which sought to repair victims of guerrilla, paramilitary and state violence. The bill, for the first time in history, officially recognized the existence of an armed internal conflict within Colombia, as well as officially defining a “victim” of the armed conflict.
Also included was the reparation of victims after 1985, and restitution of victims’ lands that occurred after 1991. The law was spearheaded by Liberal Party Senators Juan Fernando Cristo and Guillermo Rivera. This law was the first time that an internal armed conflict, victims on the part of the state, were officially recognized by the state. It received praise from world leaders, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Then representative (now Senator-elect) Ivan Cepeda, a staunch defender of human rights, was skeptical. Cepeda mentioned the difficulty of recognizing such a law without having full control over the para-politics scandal, or other issues related to paramilitaries which still rocks the dynamic of Colombian politics.
2. Mining and oil royalty reform
Criticized by many within mining regions, the royalty reform law distributed royalties from natural resource exploitation across Colombia to other, non-mining regions. Failures cited within the old system were the fact that benefits only assisted a limited number of people in a certain region and the failures with regards to the handling of the money by local authorities, or putting it towards projects with very low social benefit. Although the regions that produced would still receive a larger chunk of the royalties associated, other regions would begin to gain assistance from these royalties.
The signing of the law had a political cost for Juan Manuel Santos in many mining regions. Colombian political news website La Silla Vacia cited the losses in money and autonomy with spending that money experienced in some states as an negative electoral cost for Santos and his allies in the 2014 elections. Regions that received more, or about the same amount, money from royalties than previously reported a boost in votes for Santos. The new guidelines also designate that royalties go towards programs with a larger social benefit. Criticism is still widespread as to how these funds are being spent, and accusations that the money is being given to the mining companies they were taken from.
3. The Legal Framework for Peace
The peace process with Colombia’s largest rebel group, the FARC, is one of the more contentious issues in Colombian politics. Six points were slated to be discussed between FARC and government negotiators with three agreements of the six already reached. The agreements was formalized by a bill in Congress that would allow the agreements reached to actually be enacted. The bill, conceptualized by Congress and ratified by the Supreme Court, only allows the imprisonment of the FARC or ELN leaders who committed crimes against humanity, also seeking to apply different sanctions to FARC leaders.
The formalization of the peace process with the FARC was the cornerstone for the peace process, which was announced three short months after the bill was passed. Human rights groups criticized the bill stating that it bordered on impunity, while the government hailed it as a step towards peace in Colombia. The Constitutional Court revised the law, eventually upholding it i a 7 – 2 vote, despite criticism that it may have had guidelines that were overly vague.
4. Free trade agreements: passed and ended
Congress passed several Free Trade Agreements (FTA) and – shot down one – in the current session, with a strong change of opinion after the effects of the FTA with the United States began to be noticed. An FTA was signed with South Korea by President Santos, but was shot down by Colombia’s congress in the wake of the disastrous effects of the FTA that went into effect with the United States.
Economic agreements with the the Pacific Alliance countries (Peru, Chile and Mexico) generated controversy as prominent Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo called the agreements “treason” to Colombia by the Colombian Constitution, because of their “detrimental effects” to the Colombian economy. An FTA with South Korea was shot down by Congress, stating that specific clauses would have negative consequences on Colombia’s economy, especially with regards to the automotive industry.
An FTA was eventually passed by Colombian Congress with the European Union, despite controversies that Colombia’s exporters were not prepared for the European market, as well as concerns about the Colombian agricultural sector’s preparedness for an eventual agreement. The EU criticized Colombia’s Congress for not moving along with the deal fast enough,
5. Military justice reform
One of the most controversial bills passed was the transfer of justice for Colombian soldiers from a civilian court to a military tribunal. The bill aimed to expand the jurisdiction of military courts with regards to the actions of soldiers in battle. The implications would remove “false positives” cases – where members of the military dressed up civilians as enemy combatants and presented them as combat kills to boost numbers – and all sorts of abuses by the military to military courts. The bill was harshly criticized by the United Nations and human rights groups, calling a recent incarnation of the bill a “recipe for impunity.”
The bill, although passed by Congress, was shot down by the Constitutional Court on a technicality, rather than the actual content of the bill. The bill would have prevented soldiers from being tried by military courts for their crimes on every count except seven which constitute crimes against humanity. A new bill is being considered by Congress that includes practically the same content is currently making the congressional rounds, although its future is unknown.