ICC called to investigate war crimes in Colombia

by Garry Leech

In June, Colombia's Congress passed the Justice and Peace Act, which defined the terms for demobilizing right-wing paramilitaries belonging to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Under the new law, paramilitary leaders responsible for gross violations of human rights, including massacres, will likely serve less than 22 months of jail time, and that will likely amount to house arrest on ranches rather than confinement in Colombia's harsh prisons. Shortly after the law was passed, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), a French-based NGO representing 141 human rights organizations around the world, claimed that the Justice and Peace Law amounted to virtual impunity for war criminals. The FIDH called on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate alleged war crimes committed by paramilitary members participating in the demobilization process.

Colombia ratified the ICC treaty in August 2002. As a result, Colombia agreed that cases against war criminals could be investigated and prosecuted by the ICC when it is not possible to achieve justice in Colombia. According to the FIDH, the new Justice and Peace Law amounts to a virtual amnesty for Colombian paramilitaries responsible for selective assassinations, kidnappings, forced displacements, disappearances and massacres in the almost three years since Colombia signed onto the ICC. The FIDH claims that paramilitaries closely allied with the U.S.-backed Colombian military are responsible for killing more than 2,000 civilians since they announced a unilateral cease-fire in December 2002 in order to begin negotiations with the government.

Colombia has a long history of impunity for members of the military and paramilitaries that have committed atrocities against the civilian population. Paramilitaries have killed more than 4,000 Colombian labor leaders over the past two decades with only a handful of the culprits ever being charged with a crime. Likewise, thousands of human rights defenders and other civil society representatives critical of the government's policies have been killed by the military and paramilitaries with few prosecutions. The FIDH claims that the new Justice and Peace Law only continues this pattern of impunity.

While the Justice and Peace Law calls for maximum sentences of five to eight years, even for those found guilty of committing massacres, it allows the two years the paramilitary leaders lived comfortably on ranches while negotiating with the government to constitute part of the sentence. Along with time off for good behavior, paramilitary leaders guilty of crimes against humanity could serve as little as 22 months of prison time, most likely on a ranch. According to the FIDH, 22 months on a ranch does not constitute justice served, therefore, the ICC should take on the case. The FIDH has also requested that the ICC investigate and prosecute Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and other government officials for their failure to prevent and prosecute crimes against humanity.

Colombia could prove an interesting test case for the ICC. It is country whose justice system has clearly failed with regard to achieving justice in the overwhelming majority of war crimes committed in the country in recent decades, including the three years since Colombia ratified the ICC treaty. Also, there are few who would consider a sentence of less than two years confinement on a ranch as justice for a crime against humanity. If the ICC cannot intervene to address a failure to achieve justice for war crimes committed in a country closely allied to the United States, then its legitimacy will be seriously diminished. After all, war criminals targeted by the United States are already tried in ad-hoc international tribunals. The ICC is the only source of hope of achieving justice for those victims of war crimes committed by U.S.-supported governments.