Recent polls in Colombia show that President Juan Manuel Santos could lose a national plebiscite to approve the peace accord his government is negotiating with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas. Should he lose, it will be thanks largely to his predecessor, former President Álvaro Uribe, who has become the prominent critic of the deal, arguing—among other things—that it fails to guarantee justice to victims of atrocities committed by the FARC.
This is unfortunate—first and foremost, because Uribe is at least partially right: the justice deal the parties reached last December will allow FARC commanders to get off the hook for the many atrocities they committed. But given his own record on human rights as president, Uribe is the last person you’d want to champion the cause of accountability in Colombia.
Thousands of victims have suffered systematic atrocities at the hands of the FARC. Their leader, alias “Timochenko,” has been convicted in at least 10 cases for crimes that include child recruitment, terrorist attacks, kidnappings, and murder.
With the agreement as it stands, “Timochenko” and the guerrilla fighters under his command could avoid spending a single day in prison if they confess their war crimes. Instead, they would be subject to modest and short restrictions on certain rights while being required to carry out community service projects.
Perhaps more troubling, the agreement includes a definition of “command responsibility”—a key principle of international humanitarian law—that could be misused to allow FARC commanders to escape responsibility for atrocities committed by troops under their control.
Yet when Uribe’s the one championing the rights of victims, any criticism of this seriously flawed deal risks being dismissed as self-serving hypocrisy. After all, during his administration (2002-2010), army brigades systematically murdered thousands of civilians, who were then reported as enemies killed in combat in what are known as “false positive” killings. As a senator, Uribe recently introduced legislation that would release members of the army convicted for these crimes.
As president, Uribe also negotiated a “peace” deal with the leaders of right-wing paramilitary groups responsible for mass atrocities that would have guaranteed them full impunity, if the country’s Constitutional Court hadn’t intervened. That deal resembled the deal the current government has negotiated with the FARC in important ways.
What Uribe doesn’t mention—and what too often gets left out of the debate—is that the FARC agreement will also promote impunity for members of the armed forces, including many of those responsible for the “false positive” killings. It could also benefit the paramilitaries Uribe sought to shield from justice more than a decade ago.
When the current president, Juan Manuel Santos, took office in 2010, many feared his government would continue Uribe’s legacy of disregarding the rule of law. After all, he had served as Uribe’s defense minister.
Santos broke with Uribe, however, rejecting many of his predecessor’s most problematic policies—including Uribe’s open disregard for the independence of the country’s judiciary.
But unless Santos fixes the deal with the FARC, he will go down in history as the president who accomplished what Uribe sought but failed to deliver: a facade of justice that guarantees impunity for atrocities in Colombia.