Human Rights Watch has called the high court’s decision to strike down Colombia’s military justice reform bill a “major victory for human rights,” while Amnesty International has warned that it does not represent a “complete victory.”

Human rights groups and NGOs have been particularly outspoken in the past five months since Colombia’s congress approved a bill that would restore judicial autonomy for the military after it was taken away in 2008. Groups such as Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) believed that such a restorative law would jeopardize the possibility for unbiased trials and lead to impunity for war crimes committed by Colombia’s armed forces.

On Wednesday evening, the Constitutional Court of Colombia overturned this military justice reform bill, which appeared to be a clear victory for human rights groups, but they warned that while this particular battle has been won, the war against the use of the military penal system will continue to rage on.

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An Unequivocal Victory for Human Rights?

“The Constitutional Court’s decision to strike down the military justice system reform on procedural grounds is a major victory for human rights in Colombia,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Director of the Human Rights Watch’s Americas Division, in an interview with Colombia Reports.

But Peter Drury, investigator and researcher of Colombia for Amnesty International, was not as quick to simply call it a victory, precisely because the law was only thrown out on procedural grounds, not because of the human rights issues inherent in giving lenient sentences to soldiers guilty of war crimes.

“It is an important decision in the context of weakening the strong military and armed forces lobbies…but to be thrown out solely on the basis of the form in which the law was initially approved, that is not a complete victory,” Drury told Colombia Reports.

He warned that there was a precedent of the Constitutional Court calling certain actions that are widely viewed as human rights violations, as military acts, meaning that those responsible for the acts could be tried in military courts and avoid the harsher sentences meted out by civilian courts for human rights violations. He referred specifically to the court’s C354 decision of August 2007.

Vivanco maintained that this was a positive step forward for the courts and suggested that this could start a new precedent of the judicial branch’s strengthened autonomy from congress and the executive branch.

“It demonstrates the high court’s independence, and ability to resist the significant political pressure exerted by the [President Juan Manuel] Santos administration and Congress,” he said.

“More importantly, the decision completely nullifies a law that threatened to deny justice to victims of military abuses, including cold-blooded false positive killings.”

The false positives scandal involved the murder of an estimated 3900 civilians by Colombia’s armed forces and illegal paramilitary groups. Civilians were kidnapped, murdered, then dressed as guerrillas in order to inflate the army’s figures for combat kills. The President at the time, Alvaro Uribe, denied the armed forces were killing civilians until late 2008, when investigators linked the bodies of unidentified rebel fighters found in the north of the country to people who had been reported missing in Soacha, a poor suburb of the capital Bogota.

These ‘extrajudicial executions’ were processed so slowly by the military justice system that the system was stripped of much of its autonomy and power. The bill struck down by the Constitutional Court this week would have restored much of that autonomy.

But AI’s Peter Drury noted that the ruling, while positive, will only serve to strengthen the current state of the law, which already has serious problems.

“What is worrisome is that in spite of the court’s ruling, the Military Penal Code of 2010 — which is the current law in place — still contains ambiguous language that allows the military courts to investigate [some] human rights violations,” he said.  ”This latest decision will strengthen the current system a lot.”

What Was the Purpose of the Bill?

The executive branch had been trying to push military justice reform legislation through congress for nearly five years before finally seeing it approved in June. The bill had failed in the past due to untimely eruptions of scandals and cover-ups relating to the issue.

The bill stated that all military-related crimes would be tried in military courts with the exception of seven crimes designated as crimes against humanity, which would be tried in civilian courts.

“The military justice system amendment was unjustified from its very conception,” said HRW’s Vivanco. “The government argued that the reform was necessary to protect military personnel from baseless charges of human rights crimes brought by civilian prosecutors. But the government has failed to provide a single case to support its claim that soldiers have been wrongfully convicted for human rights violations.”

At the start of October, Vivanco wrote a public letter to the European Union (EU) pointing out each of the problematic issues in the legislation, and pleaded with the EU to condemn such a reform to the military justice system.

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Drury and other critics of the law believe that the proposed reform was a thinly veiled strategy to shield important military figures, rather than an attempt to carry out justice.

“This law did not come about by accident; it was a strategic move,” he suggested.

The Government’s Response

Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said Wednesday that this legal military defeat represented “a blow to the morale of the military forces that will without a doubt affect Colombians’ security.” He assured congress that the fight to reform the military justice system was not over.

According to local media, Pinzon and other executive workers started drafting new legislation to replace the unsuccessful bill that very night.

Drury said that what human rights organizations such as AI and HRW have to do is “continue lobbying and campaigning to ensure that the international community demand that the Colombian government comply with their international obligations to end impunity [for those guilty of human rights violations].”

Vivanco likewise stressed the need to continue fighting against impunity, but was more willing to celebrate the Constitutional Court’s decision to throw out the military reform bill: ”While the defense minister called the Court’s decision a ‘blow to the morale’ of the military, what it really did was strike down a reform that had given the armed forces a license to kill.”


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