In a move that deals a serious blow to Colombia’s historic 2016 peace agreement with guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), on March 7 President Iván Duque Marquéz remanded crucial legislation that establishes a transitional justice system. By doing so, he makes it more likely that the cycle of violence will continue and that Colombian society is denied the rights to know the truth about the conflict. Duque is sacrificing victims’ rights in order to give his political supporters an advantage in the upcoming October 2019 gubernatorial elections.
The transitional justice system, known as the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP by its Spanish acronym), was meant to investigate war crimes and hold perpetrators on both sides accountable for actions they committed during Colombia’s 52-year conflict.
Duque’s proposed changes affect 6 of the 159 provisions in the peace deal legislation, all key to the JEP’s function. The proposed changes include:
Duque and his allies argue that these alterations will allow for a peace deal that more “genuinely” guarantee truth and justice. They do not—instead, they fundamentally undermine Colombia’s ability to build a future where conflict can be settled by institutions instead of violence.
Crippling the JEP violates a peace agreement that has been established as law for more than two years. By increasing the sentencing provisions established by the JEP, the president all but assures that perpetrators of grave human rights crimes will lose any incentive to participate in the truth-telling process.
By returning the peace deal to Congress, President Duque is challenging both the legislature and the country’s highest constitutional authority—a slap in the face to rule of law.
Perhaps one of the most important consequences of Duque’s proposed revisions will be the impact on cases that have already progressed during the JEP’s first year. According to the JEP’s last report, 9,687 ex-combatants of the FARC had agreed to testify before the tribunal, in addition to 1,938 members of the Colombian armed forces. Shifting the foundation of the JEP would plunge these active cases into uncertainty.
On March 12, WOLA’s Director for the Andes met with an association of members of the Colombian armed forces who committed crimes during the conflict. They asserted that Duque’s actions do not represent the interest of the majority of soldiers who’ve committed crimes. They emphasized their wish to enter the JEP system so they can tell the truth about occurred, so that it can never happen again and the victims can heal from the damage they caused.
Both Colombia’s National Congress and the Constitutional Court unequivocally affirmed the JEP’s constitutionality last year. By returning the peace deal to Congress, President Duque is challenging both the legislature and the country’s highest constitutional authority—a slap in the face to rule of law, in order to appease his political base (vocal opponents of the peace accords).
Duque is deferring to powerful interest groups who have rarely acted with the interests of vulnerable ethnic communities in mind.
Duque and his coalition are also ignoring how the JEP has acted as a voice for the ethnic minorities disproportionately impacted by decades of conflict. Establishing the JEP—the first court in Colombian history to include such gender, ethnic and regional diversity in its makeup— represented a new opportunity for these Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities to access a measure of justice. By neutering rather than empowering the JEP to continue doing this important work, Duque is deferring to powerful interest groups who have rarely acted with the interests of vulnerable ethnic communities in mind.
Colombia’s victims’ and ethnic organizations, civil society, the UN and International Criminal Court, have already expressed disapproval with Duque’s decision. About 100 civil society groups and representatives signed a letter opposing this attempt to undermine the peace agreement.
Most concerning to WOLA were the comments made by Kevin Whitaker, the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, who supported Duque’s move and praised the president’s “rigorous” analysis ahead of the decision. Whitaker’s statement continues the erroneous U.S. policy of pressuring Colombia to extradite perpetrators of serious human rights crimes on drug charges, at the expense of the rights of victims. By doing so, victims are denied truth and justice for horrific crimes committed. “The Ambassador’s statements are disappointing since it sends the wrong signal about consolidating peace in Colombia,” was the opinion expressed by WOLA Director for the Andes Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli in her meeting with Embassy officials in Bogota on March 12.
President Duque’s manipulation of the peace agreement for political ends risks re-igniting the longest-running civil conflict in the Western Hemisphere.
In light of the U.S. executive branch’s failure to hold Duque accountable for violating the peace agreement, the U.S. Congress and the international community must take swift action to reinforce the JEP’s position as a key element to securing justice and a lasting peace in Colombia.
As one of the largest financial backers of major aspects of Colombia’s peace accords, the U.S. Congress should pass bipartisan resolutions that affirm U.S. commitment to each provision of the peace agreement. In addition, the United Nations Security Council must call for an emergency hearing with the UN body that oversees implementation of Colombia’s peace deal, in order to emphasize the compelling international interests in Colombia’s prospects for peace.
President Duque’s manipulation of the peace agreement for political ends risks re-igniting the longest-running civil conflict in the Western Hemisphere. To ensure that victims of the conflict achieve a measure of justice, while also fulfilling the 2016 agreement’s promise of non-repetition, the government must empower the JEP to complete its mandate and build a new foundation for peace in Colombia.