Colombia: UN expert on independence of judges and lawyers expresses need for judicial strengthening

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BOGOTÁ (17 December 2009) - The Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Ms. Gabriela Carina Knaul de Albuquerque e Silva, ended her 10-day visit to Colombia with a press conference, in which she shared with local and regional media some the preliminary findings of her mission.

Highlighting the important steps accomplished by the Government so far and being mindful of the significant challenges encountered, the Special Rapporteur stressed that "a climate of fear and insecurity appears to reign over the judicial system because of attacks and threats against judges, prosecutors and lawyers that occur to them as a consequence of the cases they deal with or the functions that they discharge."

"This also affects victims and witnesses who often prefer not to denounce abuses or to testify before the courts," according to the UN expert. "This situation leads to the impunity for the committed crimes and negatively affects the confidence of the population in the justice system."

In her preliminary findings, Ms. Albuquerque noted that the long delay in the appointment of the new Prosecutor-General has created a limbo in a situation when the country attempts to come to grasp with past violations and impunity. "International standards call for strict principles to be applied in the selection of judges and prosecutors."

"The appointment process must be transparent and free from any discrimination," says the UN expert monitoring the independence of judges and lawyers. "The person to be appointed must meet the highest standards of integrity and professional ability." She further called for "firm safeguards and guarantees which are to limit the involvement of the executive and the legislative branches of power in the selection and appointment of judges of the highest judicial instances of the country".

Ms. Albuquerque noted that the 'Justice and Peace process' is making too slow progress and so far is not apt to bring about the truth that so many people are looking for. "Another important aspect is the lack of equal access to justice, which is reflected in overcrowding of the prisons with persons awaiting trial. This situation is aggravated for individuals belonging to the indigenous and afro-Colombian communities, in particular those who are displaced," she stressed.

"The absence of an independent national association which regulates the activities of lawyers and protects their professional interests is a significant deficiency", highlights the Special Rapporteur. "For the justice system to be strengthened, the independence of lawyers must be enhanced, which includes the supervision of their professional conduct."

The Special Rapporteur will present her findings and recommendations in a forthcoming report to the Human Rights Council in 2010.

Ms. Gabriela Carina Knaul de Albuquerque e Silva took functions as Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers on 1 August 2009. In that capacity, she acts independently from any government or organization. Ms. Albuquerque has a long-standing experience as a judge in Brazil and is an expert in criminal justice and the administration of judicial systems.