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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Latin America & Caribbean > Andes > Colombia > Correcting Course: Victims and the Justice and Peace Law in Colombia

Correcting Course: Victims and the Justice and Peace Law in Colombia

Latin America Report N°29 30 Oct 2008


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 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.


To the Government of Colombia:

1.  Address promptly persisting problems of JPL implementation by:

a) giving additional resources, including vehicles, technical equipment and specialised staff, to the attorney general’s JPU, the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation (NCRR) and the ombudsman’s office, with particular emphasis on strengthening their regional offices; and

b) earmarking adequate multi-year funding for institutions charged with JPL implementation.

2.  Engage political parties, opposition and pro-government alike, civil society and human rights organisations and victims in the design of an integrated victims and reparation policy that:

a) complements the Administrative Reparation Program by including measures which assure land restitution and collective reparations, as well as symbolic actions to promote reconciliation; and

b) introduces measures to promote and facilitate victim participation in the judicial process by simplifying bureaucratic procedures, providing security to victims once they sign up and assuring that victims are given adequate legal assistance and representation and psychological support.

3.  Create a comprehensive protection and security plan for victims that:

a) reinforces the recently established victims protection program by strengthening cooperation between judicial authorities, security forces and civil society and victims organisations;

b) develops, in collaboration with security forces, judicial authorities, human rights organisations and victims, a comprehensive risk map that considers such factors as complaints about land usurpation and alleged links between local authorities or security forces and NIAGs; and

c) provides for cooperation with security forces, judicial authorities, departmental and local governments, human rights organisations and victims to establish victim risk prevention plans, including early warning measures, for high risk regions, starting with areas where NIAGs have emerged.

To the Police and the Armed Forces:

4.  Provide, in collaboration with the JPU, the NCRR and the ombudsman, more training on the JPL and victims’ rights to security forces, especially those in areas with significant victim populations.

5.  Investigate allegations of ties between security force personnel and NIAGs in areas with significant victim populations and immediately suspend officers found to be so involved.

6.  Assign greater priority to confronting and dismantling NIAGs, particularly in areas with significant victim populations.

To the Opposition Parties and Civil Society and Human Rights Organisations:

7.  Engage the government and its political coalition constructively on an integrated victims and reparations policy, as outlined above.

To the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation (NCRR):

8.  Fulfil its mandate to represent victims by acting more independently of the government and adopting a higher public profile in defence of victims’ rights, while seeking internal consensus on key issues such as reparations, land restitution and protection.

9.  Allocate additional personnel to regional offices and grant them budgetary and executive independence to improve the quality of information available to victims as well as basic legal and psychological assistance.

10.  Establish regional coordination committees in all departments where the NCRR is present in order to improve cooperation between civil society and human rights organisations, government institutions and departmental and regional authorities.

To the Attorney General’s Office:

11.  Allocate more personnel to regional JPU teams and special units such as the exhumation sub-unit.

12.  Create specialised JPU research and investigation teams for crimes against children, indigenous populations, women, and other vulnerable groups, and hold specialised sessions for ex-combatant confessions on crimes committed against these groups.

13.  Consolidate databases and establish protocols for information sharing with security forces, the ombudsman’s office and the Supreme Court, with emphasis on collection and processing of information from regional offices.

14.  Facilitate victims’ participation in ex-combatants’ confession sessions held in Bogotá, Medellín and Barranquilla and improve interactive television transmissions between those cities and the areas where the ex-combattants operated.

To the Ombudsman’s Office:

15.  Provide additional resources to regional offices, in particular to increase the number of specialists for legal and psychological assistance to victims, including public defenders.

To the Organization of American States (OAS) Peace Support Mission (MAPP/OAS):

16.  Continue supporting the NCRR’s work by promoting its regional committees, improve monitoring of threats to victims and victims organisations in areas where NIAGs are present and issue timely alerts.

To the European Union:

17.  Establish programs to support creation of victims organisations in areas where EU Peace Laboratories operate.

18.  Seek member state consensus to increase financial support to the NCRR, in particular its regional offices, provided it effectively fulfills its mandate.

To the U.S. Government and Judicial Authorities:

19.  Facilitate collaboration with Colombian counterparts, including the attorney general, Supreme Court and ombudsman’s office, to ensure that the latter’s investigations against extradited former paramilitary leaders can continue, in particular by:

a) establishing transparent and regular procedures for information sharing, such as direct access to extradited former paramilitary leaders and video interrogations by Colombian judicial authorities;

b) providing opportunities for victims organisations to access and interact during video confessions of extradited paramilitaries and, in the case of the U.S. Department of Justice, actively cooperating with victims organisations regarding information about human rights violations committed by extradited individuals which might be helpful in their prosecution;

c) incorporating incentives in any plea bargain agreements with extradited former paramilitary leaders to promote their cooperation with Colombian judicial authorities in the JPL process; and

d) permitting assets relinquished to or seized by U.S. authorities from paramilitaries and other illegal armed groups to be be used for reparations or restitution to Colombian victims.

20.  Continue providing technical assistance and funding to JPL institutions, particularly the JPU, to establish and run an adequate information-sharing system and transmit confession sessions to the regions where former paramilitaries once operated.

Bogotá/Brussels, 30 October 2008

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