Human Rights Brief

Colombia Takes a Step toward Justice with its Victims Law

Colombia is continuing its work toward lasting peace by addressing the needs of the victims of the country’s decades-long armed conflict. On June 10, 2011, President Juan Manuel Santos signed the Victims and Land Restitution Law (Victims Law), which complies with the United Nations’ Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law (Basic Principles) of 2005. The goal of the Victims Law is to require the return of land appropriated by armed groups to its rightful inhabitants, and to financially compensate the 3.7 million internally-displaced persons (IDPs) and other victims of violence since 1985. Colombia’s violent past is historically rooted in the assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and the ensuing riots in Bogotá which resulted in the deaths of 4,000 people in 1948, and the emergence of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) in the mid-1960s. Santos’ government, however, chose 1985 as the earliest date to which people could cite claims because of that year’s symbolic importance in the country’s history—on November 6, 1985, members of the now-defunct M-19 guerilla group stormed the Palace of Justice in Bogotá. The event ended in the death of eleven of the twenty-five Supreme Court Justices, all thirty-five participating M-19 members, and nearly fifty army soldiers.

The Victims Law was generally greeted with support and enthusiasm by the Colombian and international communities, as evidenced by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s presence at the signing ceremony. In accordance with the Basic Principles, the Victims Law strictly defines victims as unarmed civilians who suffered violations of international human rights and humanitarian law during the armed conflict.  If the victim is deceased, immediate family members may make a claim on behalf of the victim. No armed combatants can apply to the victims’ fund for compensation, except for former child soldiers. The law also outlines the general principles that will guide the restitution process, including dignity, equality, good faith, and due process.  Article 28 of the law details a list of victims’ rights during the restitution process, including, among others, the right to truth and justice, family reunification, and lives free of violence.  The Victims Law also complies with the Basic Principles by describing the process victims must go through in order to make their restitution claims, and the social services available to victims during and after this process. The Basic Principles provide for access to justice and reparations for harm suffered. In recognition of the fact that giving detailed accounts of the violence victims experienced would be emotionally taxing, the Colombian government will provide counseling services for those who file restitution claims. Special consideration is given to IDPs and vulnerable populations like the indigenous and Afro-Colombians, as well as human rights defenders and union organizers. Finally, the law includes specific measures for land resettlement, which are presented in more detail in the corresponding regulations.

President Santos signed these regulations on December 20, 2011. They were drafted in response to questions about how the reparations provisions would actually be enforced, and they establish more detailed assistance measures for the victims. The three main components of the regulations are restitution payments to victims (up to US $11,900 each, over the next ten years), administrative procedures to enroll in the victims’ fund, and safeguards for vulnerable populations to prevent gross human rights violations in the future.  The amount of each restitution payment will be determined partly by the severity of the violence suffered by the victim during the civil war, but also by the types of positive steps the victim or the victim’s family has taken since then to rebuild his or her life. For example, higher payments will be given to those who have already invested in their education or that of their children, or who promise to do so in the future. This provision is in keeping with the Basic Principles as well.

A special office has been created to assist IDPs in establishing their land claims. Civil society organizations in Colombia have reported that citizens were not only forced to flee because of the violence, but were also forcibly evicted from their land in many cases. This land was then cultivated to finance the armed conflict. President Santos hopes to return over five million acres of land to displaced persons in the next few years. Concerns remain, however, about the possibility of renewed violence against victims returning to their land—since Santos took office in August 2010, over twenty leaders of farmers attempting to reclaim stolen land have been murdered and only six people have been arrested in these killings to date. Despite explicit warnings by the Colombian government that such violent acts will no longer be tolerated, no changes have been made to the penal code and the Victims Law does not directly address this new violence. Therefore, only time will tell if the Victims Law can truly provide the justice it promises.