Correcting course: Victims and the justice and peace law in Colombia - ICG report

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The more than 155,000 victims of Colombia's conflict registered to date with the attorney general's Justice and Peace Unit (JPU) - mostly those who suffered from the paramilitaries - are mainly onlookers to, not actors in, a lagging transitional justice process. Over three years after passage, implementation of the Justice and Peace Law (JPL) is stymied by the relative disinterest in promoting victims' rights of the Uribe government and much of political and civil society. The problems are exacerbated by serious operational and financial bottlenecks in the judicial process and assistance and reparations to victims, as well as the persistence of armed conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) insurgents and the emergence of new illegal armed groups (NIAGs) and paramilitary successors.

To avoid failure of the process, more government commitment to rigorous JPL implementation is required, as is constructive dialogue with the political opposition and victims and human rights groups on the new victims of violence law before Congress and an integrated victims and reparations strategy. There is also need to increase protection of victims from illegal armed groups, eliminate military abuses and strengthen the rule of law across the country.

The government has treated military efforts to reestablish security throughout the country as a much higher priority than defence and promotion of victims' rights. The institutions charged with JPL implementation experience great difficulties moving the judicial process forward, providing assistance to victims and recovering ill-gotten assets that can be used to pay them reparations. Focused narrowly on its security policy, the government has done little to address these serious shortcomings. Its recent decree establishing an administrative reparations program is likely to provide only short-term relief to victims and could undermine the justice and truth goals.

Some civil society as well as human rights organisations are trying to reach out to victims and give them legal and other help, but they represent only a small sector of the large and fragmented victim universe. Political parties kept their distance for several years, and the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation (NCRR), charged with defending and promoting victims' interests, has been hamstrung by its closeness to the government and internal divisions. Only a recent initiative by the Liberal party for a victims law has started to bring civil society and parties, both opposition and pro-government, together on the issue.

Victims' active participation in the JPL process is hindered by the evolution of the armed conflict. The emergence of NIAGs is a major obstacle, especially in regions like Nariño, where the new groups are using intimidation and violence much like their paramilitary predecessors did. The ongoing military struggle with the FARC, in which the security forces sometimes have used questionable and even criminal tactics, also causes difficulties. Victims have been able to increase their participation and make themselves better heard only in regions where NIAGs have not yet emerged, insurgent groups have been driven out and civil society organisations and local, departmental and national government institutions are cooperating more closely, such as eastern Antioquia.

Expanding the rule of law, security and victim protection and strengthening institutional capacity for JPL implementation are major challenges the Uribe administration must meet if it is to prevent the transitional justice process from failing. The current debate in Congress about a new victims law is an opportunity for government and political opposition to work together and engage victims, human rights and civil society organisations in the design of a policy seen as an essential complement to, not a competitor with, the effort to win the military struggle with illegal armed groups. Efforts by the security forces to recover territory contribute to the consolidation of the state's presence in Colombia's regions, but to be ultimately successful they need to be combined with rigorous implementation of the JPL, so as to end impunity, as well as expand the rule of law across the country - two measures that are rhetorically key pillars of the government's pacification strategy but in practice are too often undermined by its own actions.