16 October 2012
Brussels/Bogota, 16 October 2012 – On the eve of the Oslo peace talks between the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels and the Colombian government, the question of justice in Colombia is ever-present. The desire for peace should not diminish the need for justice in a country where the conflict has caused thousands of victims of disappearances, summary executions, and other human rights violations.
Four and a half million displaced persons and thousands of political activists and trade unionists murdered: half a century of violence in Colombia has taken a particularly heavy toll and, as a result, these peace negotiations are vital. However, Colombian civil society is so far not part of the process, in spite of its appeal to the government to be involved. “The state should open inquiries into the human rights violations; sentences should be passed against the perpetrators and reparations should be envisaged for the victims”, declares Reinaldo Villalba Vargas (see picture), a member of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR). “And yet”, he continues “we are afraid that the peace process will result in impunity for the military and state officials responsible for crimes against humanity.”
CCAJAR has been working with Avocats Sans Frontières-Canada (ASFC) since 2009 on a programme aiming to improve access to justice for victims of conflict, especially among the indigenous communities. ASFC is also working with the Brussels-based Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) and Colombian lawyers to combat the impunity prevailing around the so called “falsos positivos”. These extrajudicial executions are carried out by members of the Colombian armed forces without trial and can be considered as crimes against humanity and war crimes. “The Colombian justice held an inquiry over four years into the murder of more than 3,000 civilians who were victims of this practice, but only 216 soldiers were convicted”, reports Luc Meissner, International Criminal Justice programme coordinator at ASF. This situation is symptomatic of the lack of significant progress combatting impunity and achieving justice.
An appeal was made to prompt the International Criminal Court (ICC) to launch an inquiry into Colombia to address these shortcomings. Contributing to this process, ASF and ASFC launched a project to strengthen the links between the stakeholders in civil society and the ICC (1) in 2011. “Among other things, we organised training for 65 Colombian lawyers so that they are better able to defend victims of extrajudicial executions”, explains Luc Meissner. “The group sessions enabled almost 200 representatives of villages and communities affected by violence to be made aware of their rights and the opportunities to take action and obtain redress.”
The lawyers trained by ASFC and ASF also took over 18 cases representing 456 victims in the Colombian courts. The victims and their families can finally make their voices heard in the courts. “This is essential”, says lawyer Reinaldo Villalba Vargas, “because above all, the victims want the truth as a sign of reparation, and particularly as a guarantee that the crimes committed will never be repeated.”
Cover picture: R. Villalba Vargas, Brussels, 2012 © ASF/V. Vanderelst
(1) Project “Promoting the Rome Statute System and enhancing the effectiveness of the International Criminal Court (ICC)”, financed by the European Union