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Colombia’s lawmakers must ensure that any laws passed to
foster peace with illegal armed groups guarantee that crimes against humanity are
prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said today in a speech to the Colombian Congress.

“There is a strong and growing international consensus that impunity—whether through amnesties, pardons or merely symbolic punishment—must never be granted for crimes against humanity,” said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Division, in a speech before Congress delivered at the invitation of Colombian Senator Rafael Pardo. “If passed without major revision, the bill before this house would grant impunity and is therefore seriously out of step with what is happening elsewhere in the world.”

Currently, the Colombian congress is considering a bill that would grant light or trivial sentences to paramilitary leaders who have committed serious crimes, among them massacres, targetted killings, torture, and forced displacement. Meanwhile, the bill fails to take into account the need for victims of their attacks to see that justice is done and reparations made.

Vivanco noted that across Latin America, countries are eliminating or rolling back amnesties and other judicial measures that grant actual or effective impunity. One example is Peru, where a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights was accepted by the government, which now plans to reopen all human rights cases shelved because of amnesty decrees.

In Argentina, legislators and the courts have rejected the impunity granted to officers and soldiers who carried out “disappearances,” torture and other serious human rights abuses in the 1970s and 1980s. Last month, a federal judge overturned two of the seven pardons issued by former President Carlos Menem between 1989 and 1990.

“What is happening in Argentina and Peru should not be viewed here in Colombia as a possible but unlikely future,” Vivanco said. “It is the certain future if a law granting impunity for crimes against humanity is passed and implemented.”

Making further international comparisons, Human Rights Watch pointed out that the peace processes in both Northern Ireland and South Africa contained important safeguards against impunity. In Northern Ireland, only prisoners who were already convicted and serving time in prison could apply for early release, and no prisoner could qualify before completing a minimum of two years in prison.

In South Africa, perpetrators who asked to testify before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were not guaranteed amnesty, but had to prove that their testimonies were complete and truthful. Out of the 7,112 individuals who applied for amnesty, only about 1,200 (or 17 percent) received it.

Also, future criminal proceedings remained a possible option where suspected perpetrators had failed to cooperate. Among those denied amnesty was Gideon Nieuwoudt, a former South Africa police colonel infamous for his brutality as a commander in Port Elizabeth. In February, Nieuwoudt was arrested and charged in the 1985 deaths of the anti-apartheid activists known as the “Pebco Three,” a crime for which he had been refused amnesty by the commission.

Vivanco also noted that Colombia is a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, meaning that its nationals are potentially subject to the Court’s jurisdiction. An effort to circumvent justice and protect notorious human rights abusers from prosecution could lead the Court to take up Colombian cases.

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