In Colombia, nominally Latin America's oldest democracy, the rule of law continues to be weak and impunity reigns. A culture of impunity, in which human rights abuses like displacement, targeting killings, and disappearances remain unpunished, has existed in Colombia for decades. Impunity, more than any other factor, has been responsible for prolonging the human rights crisis.

Not only are the perpetrators of human rights abuses like massacres and forced displacement not held to account, but those who work to prosecute those perpetrators, including witnesses, lawyers, judges, human rights defenders, families of victims, and prosecutors involved in human rights cases, are regularly threatened and killed.

A UN report on Colombia published earlier this year found that at least 300 people working as part of judicial investigations had been killed in the past 15 years. Colombia is the world's most dangerous country for trade unionists, and a staggering 95% of the roughly 3,000 cases of assassination of union members committed over the last 30 years remain unprosecuted.

Despite some advances in some high-profile criminal investigations into human rights abuses, impunity remains the norm and most perpetrators have never been identified, let alone investigated by the courts.

Prominent examples include:

  • Flawed paramilitary demobilization. Through a law known as the "Justice and Peace" law passed in 2006, a government-backed legal framework was created to facilitate the demobilization of illegal armed forces. However, the demobilization process fails to adequately address the brutal legacy of paramilitary abuse, and led to intensification of already high levels of impunity in the country, fails to ensure victims? right to justice, and did not prevent demobilized paramilitaries from being 'recycled' into the armed conflict in other roles.

    The "Justice and Peace" law provided for significantly reduced prison time for human rights violations and other crimes if the armed individual confesses to his/her illegal activity, and agrees to demobilize.

    One criticism of the law is that it has allowed paramilitary members who are responsible for serious human rights violations to be "recycled" into the ongoing Colombian conflict ? through security-related employment or as military informants. The law also fails to bring to justice those security forces responsible for working closely with paramilitary forces in the commission of serious human rights violations.

    Amnesty International USA has pressed the United States Congress to adopt strict criteria consistent with human rights standards before deciding to provide U.S. assistance for Colombia's demobilization process.
  • The DAS scandal. The massive, long-standing, illegal "dirty tricks" operation carried out by the civilian intelligence service (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, DAS), which operates under the direct authority of the President, against human rights defenders and others led to threats against those subjected to these measures. These operations included surveillance and campaigns to discredit human rights defenders and political opposition, and even unlawful killings by paramilitaries. Activists who were the object of this operation, particularly those involved in bringing human rights cases before the courts, continue to be subjected to unfounded criminal investigations and accusations linking them to guerrilla groups. This has placed them at risk of attack and has undermined their work. Although several senior DAS officials have been charged with "conspiracy to commit an aggravated offense" and abuse of authority, serious questions remain over who ordered the "dirty tricks" operation and over whether such illegal methods are still being employed.
  • The "parapolitics" scandal. Some 80 Members of Congress are under criminal investigation by the Supreme Court of Justice for their alleged illegal links to paramilitaries, and a number of legislators and other elected officials have already been convicted. However, the government has repeatedly sought to undermine the legitimacy of the Court in order to assure impunity. Several magistrates investigating the case have been threatened, placed under surveillance and have had their communications intercepted by state institutions.
  • Extrajudicial executions. Although the Office of the Attorney General is investigating more than 2,000 extrajudicial executions carried out by the security forces over the last six years, most of the alleged perpetrators have yet to be identified, let alone investigated. Those cases where a criminal investigation has been opened have made little progress. Resistance by the military justice system to accept civilian jurisdiction in such cases is threatening to further undermine the fight against impunity, as are the threats against and unlawful killings of lawyers and witnesses associated with these criminal cases. In the emblematic case of the extrajudicial killing of 11 people in Soacha, 31 military men went free when they exceeded the allowed time in jail without prosecution, an endemic problem in the Colombian legal system. Estimates put the rate of impunity in these cases at up to 98.5%.

The search for truth and justice in any conflict situation is fraught with difficulties and obstacles. But for such a process to succeed, it must have human rights, including the principle of "non-repetition", at its core. Protection against future human rights abuses and effective measures to address past abuses is not something to be tagged on to a peace or demobilization process to make it more acceptable; it is, or ought to be, the crucial component for achieving a just and lasting peace. It is a constant that should be applied to all peace and demobilization processes, whether they involve the paramilitaries or the guerrillas.

Read More