Colombia set to vote on controversial military justice law

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 13 June 2013 04:28 GMT

Colombians shout slogans against the government behind photos of people killed by violence in the Colombian conflict, during a nationwide march for the country's peace and for the victims of war, in Bogota, on April 9, 2013. REUTERS/Jose Miguel Gomez

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Under new law, Colombia's armed forces - which have history of human rights abuses - would be tried for some crimes by military rather than civilian courts, possibly paving way for impunity

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Colombian lawmakers are poised to vote on a law that would lay a new legal framework on how its security forces are investigated and prosecuted for crimes and human rights violations, amid criticism from rights groups that the law could open the door to impunity.

Colombia’s senate approved the bill on Wednesday night, raising hopes among supporters of the bill that it will go through the final round of debates before the country’s House of Representatives and Constitutional Court in order to become law.

If passed, the bill could see some crimes committed by Colombia’s security forces tried by military courts - rather than civilian courts. Rights groups say such a move would expand the jurisdiction of military or police tribunals and shield members of the armed forces, especially those higher up the chain of command, from justice for crimes under international law.

“If the bill, which will regulate implementation of last year’s reform of the military justice system, is approved by Congress, it will show yet again that Colombia is unwilling to genuinely investigate and prosecute crimes under international law,” Marcelo Pollack, Colombia researcher at Amnesty International, said in a statement on Wednesday.

ABUSES OR ACTS OF WAR?

The controversial bill comes at time when the Colombian government and the country's largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), are engaged in peace talks in Cuba to end nearly 50 years of war.

One major issue in any peace agreement will be how Colombia deals with human rights abuses committed by all sides in the war.

Supporters of the bill, including Colombia’s justice and defence ministers, insist it will not pave the way for impunity. This is because under the proposed law, crimes against humanity, genocide, forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, torture and forced displacement would be covered under civilian courts and excluded from military jurisdiction, the government says.

Even so, rights group say members of Colombia's armed forces - which have a long history of human rights abuses - could more easily escape punishment for such crimes.

“What little progress has been made in recent years to bring to justice at least some of those responsible for crimes under international law will be reversed by this reform, which should not be adopted by Congress,” Pollack said.

Rights group Amnesty and the United Nations have said that under the proposed law Colombia’s armed forces will continue to have control over the initial stages of a criminal investigation, making it easier for them to define rights violations as legitimate acts carried out within the context of war, and as such make them subject to military jurisdiction.

“There is a risk that the proposed legislative changes will result in even fewer cases of human rights violations - including torture, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances - being effectively investigated, and those responsible being brought to justice,” said Pollack.

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