Skip to main content

Those Who Value the Rule of Law Should Back Supreme Court’s Independence in Colombia

Published in: El País
Former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe arrives at the Supreme Court for questioning in a case about his alleged involvement in witness tampering in Bogotá, Colombia, Tuesday, October 8, 2019.  © AP Photo/Ivan Valencia

Colombia’s Supreme Court made a brave decision when it ordered the pretrial house arrest of Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s most powerful politician. As his supporters attack the court, those who believe in the rule of law and human rights should back the judiciary – not the authoritarian former president.

The court’s August 4 order was issued in the context of an investigation into whether Uribe bribed former paramilitary fighters to change their testimony about his alleged role in establishing paramilitary groups.

Colombians should be proud of what the ruling signals about the rule of law in their country, given that Uribe, who was president from 2002 to 2010, is President Ivan Duque’s mentor. In countries where the rule of law is weak, judges rarely have the courage to detain powerful politicians. In authoritarian governmentslike those in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaraguajudges never rule against the governing party.

Uribe supporters in Colombia, including influential political leaders, reacted to the court’s ruling with groundless accusations and threats. They made statements designed to smear and intimidate the court, including by proposing an overhaul of the country’s entire judicial system.

The court urgently needs support. Unfortunately, some political figures in the region who claim to be democratic seem to be doing just the opposite. The reaction of some members of the Venezuelan opposition, who are standing up to the brutal Maduro administration in their country, is particularly worrying. Some have openly supported Uribe, even calling him a “defender of the democratic cause.” Others, like the opposition leader Juan Guaidó, expressed their "solidarity" with the former president.

Uribe may well have supported their struggle against Madurobut surely not because of his commitment to the rule of law. Indeed, when it comes to respecting the rule of law, Uribe has acted more like Hugo Chávez than many Venezuelan opposition figures may think.

Uribe has often attacked the rule of law and undermined basic democratic institutions that are essential to the protection of human rights in his country. His administration engaged in a broad pattern of verbal attacks and intimidation of journalists and Supreme Court justices. Just like Chávez, Uribe bypassed presidential limits. He amended the Colombian Constitution to seek a second term and, in 2010, sought a referendum to put a third term to a vote.

Luckily, he was unable to politically take over the courts, like Chávez did, and the Constitutional Court stopped his reelection bid. Uribe’s latest proposal to reform the country’s high courts would severely undermine judicial independence in the country, in a manner similar to Chávez’s packing of the Venezuelan Supreme Court in 2004.

Chávez’s erosion of checks and balances enabled him and Nicolás Maduro, his successor, to intimidate, censor and punish his critics and opponents with impunity. Venezuelan security forces and armed pro-government groups currently engage in egregious abuses including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and torture, and impunity for these crimes is the norm.

Uribe’s administration was also marked by a wide range of atrocities. From 2002 through 2008, in cases that have come to be known as false positives, army personnel systematically killed innocent civilians to boost body counts in the country’s long-running armed conflict. In the mid-2000s, Uribe promoted impunity for abuses by paramilitary death squads and led a flawed paramilitary demobilization process that triggered the creation of new armed groups that still engage in serious abuses, including killings of human rights defenders.

There are open questions about Uribe’s own responsibility for many abuses. In recent years, courts have requested investigations of his alleged role in a range of crimes, including the establishment of paramilitary groups, massacres when he was the governor of the Colombian state of Antioquia in the 1990s, and illegal wiretapping of judges, journalists, and human rights defenders during his presidency.

The Supreme Court’s decision was a critical test for the rule of law in the country, arguably the toughest since the Constitutional Court stopped Uribe’s re-election plans a decade ago. Democracy supporters in the regionespecially those who have witnessed the deterioration of the rule of law in Venezuelawould better serve their goals by supporting the court, instead of Uribe.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country