Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: Paramilitary Crimes Should Be Tried by ICC

Helda Martínez

BOGOTA, Oct 5 2007 (IPS) - The International Criminal Court (ICC) should open an investigation into the crimes against humanity committed by the paramilitary militias in Colombia, even if they have demobilised, says a new report by the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH).

By early 2006, 31,000 members of the far-right paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) had officially demobilised and handed in their weapons as a result of controversial negotiations with the rightwing government of President Álvaro Uribe.

The demobilisation process was governed by the “justice and peace law”, which human rights groups like the FIDH and Amnesty International criticised as a “virtual amnesty” that would grant impunity to paramilitaries who had committed atrocities. (United Nations officials blame the paramilitary militias for at least 80 percent of the human rights violations committed in Colombia’s armed conflict).

The FIDH report, released Thursday, is based on more than two years of work in Colombia in conjunction with local human rights groups: the “José Alvear Restrepo” Lawyers’ Collective, the Permanent Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, the Latin American Institute of Alternative Legal Services (ILSA) and the Popular Women’s Organisation (OFP).

It is also based on observation of the “justice and peace” hearings held for paramilitaries from May to July 2007 at the justice and peace tribunals in Colombia’s main cities.

The Paris-based FIDH, which protested that the justice and peace law was not in line with international standards and violated the rights of victims of human rights abuses, has submitted reports to the International Criminal Court’s office of the prosecutor requesting that those guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Colombia be investigated and tried.

Colombia is among the signatories to the treaty that created the ICC, which began to consider cases of war crimes or genocide in 2002 in The Hague, Netherlands.

The FIDH report states that more than one million people in Colombia have been forcibly displaced as a result of the terror, threats and actions of the paramilitary groups, including more than 219,000 in 2006 alone. In addition, more than 770 civilians were killed or forcibly disappeared between January and June this year, the rights group says.

As of late 2006, more than 80 mass graves had been discovered, but the office of the public prosecutor estimates that there are still more than 30,000 people to be found. “It is believed, however, that this figure falls far short of reflecting the more than 30,000 forced disappearances that have been reported,” the FIDH adds.

The paramilitaries are tried in so-called “free version” hearings under the justice and peace law, in which they can be sentenced to no more than eight years in prison, or “work farms,” says the FIDH, which describes the hearings as “a forum for justifying crimes and paramilitarism.”

“The paramilitaries are not forced to confess to their crimes, disclose the truth about who supported their structures, or even show repentance,” says the report. “They have not been forced to turn in all of their weapons or hand over their assets to compensate the victims, while the latter and their representatives have very limited access to hearings and are hindered from participating in them.”

FIDH secretary general Luis Guillermo Pérez told IPS that “we are waiting for a response from the ICC office of the prosecutor, to which we have sent three reports on Colombia.”

“We know the processes can take a relatively long time, but the arguments back up our request” for an investigation, he added.

“The ICC should assess the effectiveness of the justice system overall, as well as the fear felt by many because of threats. It would have to determine whether the rights abusers truly confess all of their crimes, whether they reveal the location of common graves and the whereabouts of the ‘disappeared’, and whether they hand over all of their assets,” said Pérez.

“If that does not happen, the courts can tell the paramilitary chiefs that they are not eligible for the legal benefits offered by the justice and peace law, and that they will be handed ordinary sentences instead,” he said.

The FIDH report also states that more than 30 paramilitary groups made up of around 9,000 combatants continue operating in different parts of Colombia, under new names.

For example, the Central Santander and Guaviare Blocs, with some 750 members, are active in the southeastern part of Bogotá, says the 83-page report, “Paramilitary Demobilisation in Colombia: On the Road to the International Criminal Court”, which was presented in Bogotá Thursday by FIDH president Souhayr Belhassen.

“We should call attention to the continuing Colombian conflict, which from our point of view is one of the most serious in the world,” said Belhassen at the presentation of the report, which lays out recommendations to the Colombian Congress, the country’s justice system, the Uribe administration, the international community, and the ICC office of the prosecutor.

The recommendations to the legislature include the repeal of the justice and peace law and the approval of a legal framework in keeping with international standards and rulings handed down by the Colombian Constitutional and Supreme Courts.

The FIDH also urges the country’s judicial authorities to carry out rigorous, independent prosecutions, although it recognises that judges and other members of the judicial branch face death threats and intimidation.

The international community is urged to make free trade agreements with Colombia conditional on respect for human rights, and the U.S. Congress is specifically called on to do so before ratifying the free trade deal agreed with Colombia.

In addition, the FIDH states that the ICC office of the prosecutor should “open an investigation without further delay. Doing so could have a significant preventive effect.”

The United States, which provides heavy military and economic aid to Colombia for its counterinsurgency fight, removed its signature from the statute that created the ICC.

In 2002, the administration of George W. Bush withdrew the signature of former president Bill Clinton (1993-2001), and since then has pressured many countries to sign bilateral agreements that exempt all U.S. citizens – including members of the military and government officials – from being brought before the ICC. Colombia signed such a treaty.

“But history changes, and there are winds of hope in Latin America that make us believe that things will move in a more positive direction in the future,” said Pérez.

The head of the Committee of Solidarity with Political Prisoners, Agustín Jiménez, told IPS that the FIDH report was released at a time “when the situation of the victims is up in the air, because of the government’s attempt to carry out a process that ensures impunity for the paramilitaries.”

“Some sectors of civil society are insisting that the victims have the right to know the truth, justice must be done, and reparations should be made,” he added.

“It is important for the international community to see, from another angle, the grave situation we are experiencing in Colombia, and this report is fundamental in that respect,” said the activist.

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