Colombia’s Victims’ Rights Act

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Here's a guest blog from LAWG colleague Adam Isacson at the Center for International Policy on the debate surrounding Colombia's victims' law. Colombia needs a  strong, fair law on victims rights and meaningful reparations.

Link to original blog post:

Here is a helpful English overview of Colombia’s Victims’ Law, which will go into its final debate in the country’s House of Representatives next month. It was prepared by the bill’s principal sponsor, Liberal Party Senator Juan Fernando Cristo.

Sen. Cristo is alarmed that – as the document explains – the Colombian government has moved to weaken key sections of the legislation. If the Uribe administration gets its way, victims of the state security forces – including relatives of people “extrajudicially executed” by the Colombian Army in recent years – would have no access to a special procedure to speed reparations for victims.

Sen. Cristo and the bill’s other proponents want the international community to register their support for the legislation in its original form, as Colombia’s Senate approved it last June. The summary follows. Please share it.

Colombia’s Victims’ Rights Act

Since the 1960s, the South American nation of Colombia has been embroiled in a complex armed conflict involving leftist guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries, and narcotrafficking organizations. In a country of 45 million people, the violence has killed many tens of thousands, forced more than 4 million into internal displacement, and led to the theft of as many as 17 million acres of land. In many parts of the country, the conflict is little more than a cycle of victimization, grievance and revenge that feeds on itself, making a final resolution of the violence ever more difficult.

Breaking this cycle requires a Colombian government policy to provide truth, reparations and restitution to the conflict’s victims. A group of members of Colombia’s Congress is sponsoring a Victims’ Rights Act that would provide a legal framework for such a policy.

It would be the first “victims’ law” that Colombia has ever had, after decades of amnesty laws and sentence reductions that have sought to induce victimizers to demobilize, without any consideration of victims’ rights.

What is the “Victims’ Law”?

  • A bill presented in Colombia’s Congress in October 2007 by an important group of senators.
  • It would benefit all Colombians who, during the past 40 years of armed conflict, have suffered damage or injury that caused, whether temporarily or permanently, collectively or individually: Death or disappearance; Physical disability; Psychological harm; Emotional suffering; Financial loss; Denial of fundamental rights; or Violations of international human rights norms or serious international humanitarian law violations.
  • Benefits would be made available without regard to the identity of the victimizer (guerrillas, paramilitaries, or Colombia’s state).
  • Benefits would also apply to victims’ relatives, spouses, permanent companions or same-sex partners.

Who supports it?

  • The bill was supported in Colombia’s Senate by all parties and political movements.
  • It has received public backing from: National and international human rights organizations; Victims’ organizations; Agencies in the Colombian state charged with protecting and promoting human rights, like the Inspector-General (Procuraduría) and Ombudsman (Defensoría del Pueblo); The Catholic church in Colombia; and International organizations like the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission.
  • USAID’s MIDAS program (”More Investment for Sustainable Alternative Development”) had worked arduously to elaborate a proposal to return stolen land to victims through administrative procedures. The Victims’ Rights Act incorporates much of this proposal, which would provide a quick and effective solution to the main challenge to providing reparations: the return of stolen assets.
  • The UN system supported the bill’s development, including funding a series of consultations in nine regions of Colombia with more than 4,000 victims, who gave testimony about their tragedies and made concrete proposals about how the bill would benefit them.

Why does it deserve support?

  • It is a universal law. All victims, without discrimination, would benefit, whether they be victims of the paramilitaries, the guerrillas, or state agents. With no additional burdens, and without regard to the victimizer’s identity. Victims would need only to accredit themselves through an easy process that presumes their good faith. They would face no deadlines for making their request, because the conflict is still ongoing.
  • The bill views reparation as holistic and complete, not just an economic payment of damages. It also includes other measures like restitution, rehabilitation, and guarantees of non-repetition.
  • The bill views reparation as separate from the economic, social and cultural rights applicable to all citizens. While Colombia’s state is expected to help all citizens, particularly the poor, to improve their lives, victims’ right to reparations goes beyond standard government assistance.
  • The bill creates mechanisms for the rapid return of stolen assets to affected populations. One of these is a reversal of the burden of proof: victims would not have to prove that their lands were usurped. Instead, holders of disputed land titles would have to demonstrate that they acquired them legally. Another proposal is the creation of zones of priority attention, geographical regions where victims of forced displacement would receive urgent assistance to recover their assets through an administrative mechanism.
  • To speed restitution, the bill would strengthen the Reparations Fund, which was created by the 2005 Justice and Peace Law, by making it the recipient of all proceeds from the sale of assets seized from narcotraffickers.
  • The bill would create a Land Truth Commission, which would investigate the most serious episodes of forced displacement and land theft, document their patterns and dynamics, issue technical recommendations to government agencies, and create and protect archives and databases about what its investigations uncover.
  • The bill would create a Historical Memory Center with a museum, a general archive of the conflict, medals and recognitions for victims and their relatives, and the promulgation of a National Day of Solidarity with Victims.
  • The bill would reorganize state agencies charged with providing attention and reparations to victims, by designing a National System of Integrated Aid, Assistance and Attention, and another for Reparations. This would avoid duplication of functions, while improving the quality of attention to victims, the clarity of information provided to them, and oversight of state agencies. It would ensure that victims know the route they must take, both geographically and within the government, to achieve resolution. It would include training of government officials with responsibility for providing victims with social, psychological and legal assistance. These two systems would have an operational plan including the restitution of family life, employment, freedom and dignity, as well as voluntary, safe and dignified return to places of origin.
  • The bill contemplates sanctions for officials who place obstacles in the way of, or otherwise delay, the procedures by which victims seek reparations.
  • The bill contemplates providing a differentiated focus for victims who are women, children, elderly, homosexual, Afro-Colombian or indigenous.
  • The bill would create a monitoring commission to provide oversight of the law’s execution. This commission would be made up of representatives of the executive branch, state oversight agencies, and non-governmental organizations.

Legislative background

The Colombian Senate approved the Victims’ Rights Act described here, with the support of both pro-government and opposition parties, in June 2008. It then passed to the House of Representatives where, during its third debate in November 2008, it suddenly encountered government opposition to some of its central provisions.

The Álvaro Uribe administration, and the pro-government legislative majority, objected to the inclusion of victims who had suffered at the hands of the state security forces. They argued that doing so would place the government on equal moral footing with Colombia’s illegal armed groups, which would harm the armed forces’ morale. Colombia’s executive branch also rejected provisions in the law recognizing the government’s responsibility to guarantee victims’ permanent right to reparations, establishing the presumption of the victim’s good faith, and interpreting state jurisdictional questions in the victim’s favor. The three latter principles had been promoted by the United Nations.

Discriminating among victims according to their victimizer, however, would contravene international standards for reparation and restitution of victims. In Colombia, it would mean that victims of the security forces would have to seek redress through the regular justice system, which moves so slowly that cases are routinely not resolved for ten years, if at all. While direct victims of the state are a small minority of the conflict’s total number of victims, many have very urgent claims. They include the relatives of hundreds of civilians whose bodies have appeared throughout Colombia over the past few years. These victims, according to widespread allegations and dozens of criminal cases and firings of officers, were killed by members of Colombia’s Army seeking to present them as illegal armed-group members killed in combat.

The Victims’ Rights Act will be debated a fourth and final time in April 2009, and will then go to a vote and reconciliation between Colombia’s House and Senate. Before then, it is important that the international community accompany the Colombian conflict’s victims by supporting a legal framework that provides restitution and reparations to all of the conflict’s victims, without regard to the identity of the victimizer, in accordance with international standards defined by the United Nations.