International Day for the Right to the Truth

On March 24 is worldwide celebrated the International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims.  It is on this day that the memory of victims of gross and systematic violations of human rights and the importance of the right to truth and justice are promoted. It pays tribute to those who have dedicated their lives to the struggle to promote and protect human rights for all, and to those who have lost their lives in the process.

Colombian Transitional Justice for the Dignity of the Victims and the Truth of what happened in the Conflict.

In Colombia since the signing of the Peace Accord, victims of the conflict, and human rights defenders, have presented their testimonies and reports and are looking to the Transitional Justice System to uphold their rights to truth, justice, reparation and no-repetition.

The JEP (Special Justice for Peace), is the Tribunal of the comprehensive system of truth, justice, reparation and non-repetition that was created by the Peace Accord. Since 2018, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has been working with and providing technical assistance to support macro-cases and strengthen the participation of victims in this jurisdiction. This commitment was renewed in 2020, as the UN office considers the JEP to be an example for the world, which has welcomed the victims of the Colombian conflict with coherent and concise decisions.

There are those who consider that the JEP, because it fails to deliver retributive justice, is generating impunity. However, the Peace Accord, in taking a restorative justice approach clearly states that the underlying principles on which the Special Jurisdiction for Peace is based is on the premise of non-negotiation on impunity, additionally taking into account the basic principles of the special jurisdiction for peace, one of which is that ‘damage caused shall be repaired and made good whenever possible. It also recognizes that there has been a differential impact impact of the armed conflict on victims due to the sector of the population they belong: ‘The comprehensive system adopts an equity-based and gender-based approach, which is tailored to the particular characteristics of the victimization in each territory and each population, and in particular to the needs of women and children’.

The work and efforts of the JEP so far has focused on seven macro-cases involving more than 61,432 events and a presence currently in 25 cities and municipalities in the country.  It has also managed to submit 12,803 people, of whom 9,797 are former FARC members with commitment agreements signed with victims and human rights organisations.

“One of the guiding paradigms of the JEP will be the application of restorative justice that preferably seeks restoration for the harm suffered and reparation for the victims affected by the conflict, especially to end a situation of social exclusion that the victimization has caused. Restorative justice primarily addresses the needs and dignity of victims and is applied with a comprehensive approach that guarantees justice, truth and non-repetition of what took place.” (Legislative Act 01 of 2017, transitory clause 1 of article 1, unofficial translation by ICJ)

The JEP has faced a considerable number of obstacles with the Centro Democrático government party attempt to revise legal basis of the JEP. For example in March 2019, President Duque objected to six articles in the bill for the JEP’s Statutory Law. ‘This not only delayed the law’s entry into force, but also aggravated polarization concerning the JEP’s capacity to deliver justice and reparation to the victims of the conflict.’ Finally, the President signed the bill and it became law in June 2019.

This image shows the Structure of the JEP and its different chambers.

In the first months of 2021, the JEP announced progress in the investigations. The first of these was macro-case 01, “Hostage-taking and serious deprivation of liberty committed by the FARC-EP” (Order No. 19 of 2021, 26 January 2021). This case is against high ranking leaders in the FARC-EP secretariat.  Importantly the JEP recognised the act of hostage-taking as a war crime and other serious deprivations of liberty, hostage-taking for purposes of extortion, homicide and forced disappearance as crimes against humanity.  The JEP (Recognition Chamber) is prosecuting eight members of the FARC secretariat as responsible for these crimes and the victims have been given the opportunity to ask them specific questions about the events that took place. Identifying that the answer to these questions has a restorative dimension  facilitating the grieving and recovery process, from the pain caused by a lack of information over so many years.

 The second area of progress issued by the JEP is in the macro case 03 on “Deaths illegitimately presented as combat casualties by agents of the state” (Order 03312 February 2021).  The JEP established that at least 6.402 civilians were extra judicially executed and presented as  combat killings by the army between 2002 and 2008. This upheld what victims’ movements and human rights organisations have been saying for over ten years. The JEP strategy in this macro-case promises an opportunity to clarify the facts suffered by the victims and their families. Family members have been working tirelessly in an effort to reveal the truth and to finally know who the real perpetrators are, who it was who gave the orders for the forced disappearances and extrajudicial executions.

The JEP’s participation model ensures that victims have a central role in this process. The contributions of the victims in each process of contrasting, analysing and evaluating the information is essential to arrive at a single truth and to assemble the country’s history.  Furthermore, this approach will guarantee for victims access to their rights to truth, justice, reparation and non-repetition.  

Currently the high-ranking FARC leaders “most responsible” have been identified in the kidnapping and hostage taking case . However, the high ranking officials “most responsible” in the Security Forces have yet to be identified. The Extrajudicial Executions case has generated a very strong backlash. The vice-president of Colombia Minister Martha Lucia Ramirez, demanding a rectification of the number of cases of extrajudicial killings and respect for the military forces. Marta Lucia Ramirez was Defence Minister (2002-2003) the period it which the JEP recorded at least 1,100 cases. Additionally, the former President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) called for disregard the figures and registers given by the JEP.  The former president denounced that the JEP was a biased entity because it accepted reports from enemies of his government and presented the list of the considered offenders, which was of human rights NGOs who had documented cases of Falsos Positivos (False Positive extra judicial executions).

The JEP is making steady progress with its work. The truth is an essential foundation for building peace and for the dignity of the victims. Recognition of the suffering of the victims and reparation for the violent acts they have experienced is essential for the country to move forward.

Continued international support for the JEP is essential. The revelation of the truth will not be easy for Colombia.