Colombian President’s Veto Threat Challenges Peace Process

Colombian President Ivan Duque is threatening to veto legislation that would endorse and regulate a special tribunal established to address atrocities committed during the country’s five-decade guerrilla war, undermining a key element of the 2016 peace accords. The veto threat, which has drawn criticism from the deputy prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), combines with a controversial U.S. government extradition request to pose what may be the most acute challenge yet to the struggling peace process.

Duque, who met with U.S. President Donald Trump last month during his first official visit to Washington D.C. since being sworn into office in August 2018, has criticized the 2016 peace agreement. Like his mentor and longtime peace accord critic, former President Alvaro Uribe, Duque argues that the terms of the accord don’t punish the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels sufficiently and would provide soldiers too much leeway in reintegrating into society and into the country’s political processes. Uribe, now a Colombian senator, himself is the target of a criminal case that the Colombian Supreme Court widened last year.

The 2016 peace agreement was intended to end a conflict that killed more than 200,000 people and left 7 million displaced. Whether its implementation succeeds has repercussions beyond its borders too. The country’s internal strength and stability will determine how effectively it can curb the flow of cocaine into the United States, and how strong a partner it can be in the Trump administration’s effort to stabilize neighboring Venezuela.

The legislation at issue would implement a key section of the peace accords, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a new court system designated to try more than 12,000 people responsible for serious abuses committed by each side during the conflict. Uribe has called the court system an “absurdity,” and another congresswoman of Duque’s party suggested the mechanism would reward too many former FARC fighters with impunity. Duque has called it unconstitutional.

Approval from Colombia’s Congress and Highest Court

Colombia’s Congress signaled its approval of the court system by passing the implementing legislation at the end of 2017. Both the constitutional amendment and the implementing legislation that were necessary to establish the mechanism withstood automatic constitutional review in Colombia’s highest court in August 2018, leaving Duque with little legal support for his position.

ICC Deputy Prosecutor James Stewart quickly criticized the veto threat, saying, “We would have to consider the implications” of not signing the law. He described the JEP as “the key transitional justice mechanism adopted under the peace agreement.”

The ICC in 2004 opened a preliminary investigation against Colombia over the failure to investigate, prosecute, and effectively punish those most responsible for atrocities committed during the conflict, including thousands of civilian murders the Colombian military allegedly committed to increase their statistics for time off and other perks, and to justify the billions of dollars in U.S. aid that Colombia was receiving to turn back the FARC. Last year, a study co-authored by a former police colonel estimated that the number of civilians killed in such crimes might have reached 10,000, more than three times the previous estimates of human rights organizations.

U.S. Extradition Request

Meanwhile, another major challenge for the court system emerged last week, with an extradition request by the U.S. government for Seuxis Paucias Hernández Solarte, a.k.a. “Jesús Santrich,” an ex-leader of the FARC guerrillas, which have been demobilized in the two-plus years since the peace accord. Santrich, who was among the FARC negotiators on the peace agreement, was arrested on April 9, 2018, in Colombia, on charges of drug trafficking between 2017 and 2018, as a result of a sting operation.

Under the terms of the peace accord, former rebels who submit to the JEP process can avoid extradition and receive reduced penalties and sentences other than prison that are available to those who admit to their wrongs and share information with the transitional justice system.

Santrich had been due to go through that process, which peace advocates say is crucial for providing victims of the FARC with information about the whereabouts of their family members and to expose the networks that fueled the conflict for years.

However, if extradited, it is unclear whether Santrich would cooperate with the JEP. Other former guerrilla leaders also are watching the process closely to determine whether they should participate in the transitional justice system. If they perceive the incentives of participating in the JEP are illusory, given the threat of extradition, there is a risk they may take up arms again.

To make matters worse, a prosecutor of the JEP was arrested on March 1 during another sting operation, this one reportedly involving U.S. authorities. In the operation, undercover agents allegedly paid bribes to a former Colombian congressman and the prosecutor to lobby the courts system and block Santrich’s extradition.

These challenges illustrate the turbulence of Colombia’s attempted recovery from 50 years of war. That U.S. has much at stake, after years of effort and more than $8 billion in aid that the U.S. government put into suppressing the FARC and ending the war in order to stabilize Colombia and strengthen its ability to curb drug flows into the United States. Negotiating a route to a sustainable peace process will require cooperation from all sides, internal and external.

IMAGE:  Jesus Santrich (L) and Victoria Sandino (R),Colombian commanders of the then-FARC-EP leftist guerrillas, arrive at Convention Palace in Havana for the peace talks with the Colombian government, on Nov. 9, 2015. The rebels demobilized and transformed into a political party after the 2016 peace agreement was signed. But Santrich was arrested in April 2018 and charged with continuing drug trafficking since the peace deal was signed. (Photo: YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)

  

About the Author(s)

Juan Ramirez

Staff Attorney with the ABA Center for Human Rights’ Justice Defenders program, where he coordinates pro bono assistance for human rights defenders in Latin America and the Caribbean.