Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Colombia moves again to weaken civilian jurisdiction over military human rights crimes

New bill text posted to Colombia's Congressional Record shows human rights crimes that, stricken from the law, could automatically go to the military court system.

Colombia’s Congress is moving quickly this week to weaken the civilian court system’s ability to try and punish human rights violations committed by the country’s armed forces.

A current draft of constitutional reform legislation to reform military justice would send all but the most absolutely severe human rights cases to the military court system, which has a long history of failing to punish such crimes.

The Colombian daily El Tiempo reports today:

The sponsors of the initiative – which has seen few obstacles in its legislative course – propose to eliminate the list of crimes for which military personnel would be judged in the civilian jurisdiction instead of military tribunals.

The only crimes for which uniformed personnel would face civilian justice would be crimes against humanity, genocide and forced disappearances.

The law’s new draft cuts out the following crimes that appeared in earlier versions: “torture, extradjudicial execution, forced displacement, rape and sexual abuse, acts of terror against the civilian population, and recruitment or use of minors.” If the legislation passes in this form, these crimes would now go automatically to the military justice system.

Last fall, amid officers’ calls for greater “judicial security” against civilian human rights investigations, the government of Juan Manuel Santos proposed a legislative provision that would have sent all alleged abuse cases first to the military justice system. The Santos government withdrew that provision in April, in the face of pressure from human rights defenders and warnings from Washington that, due to requirements in U.S. foreign aid law, sending human rights crimes to the military system could trigger a freeze on some military assistance.

It then introduced new legislation – the current constitutional reform – that until this week was worded to include a list of crimes that would go to civilian jurisdiction. This list, which human rights groups derided as incomplete, has now been cut back drastically.

While less sweeping than last year’s attempt, this bill would still represent a giant step backward in human rights defenders’ 15-year struggle to get abuse cases out of the military court system, where impunity has long been the expected outcome.

It is happening quickly, prodded along by conservative legislators and approved by a majority who do not want to be seen as tying the military’s hands. And it is happening just four weeks after the State Department certified that Colombia is meeting human rights conditions in foreign aid law, thus freeing up aid and reducing U.S. leverage on human rights for as much as a year.