By The RFK Center
The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights (RFK Center) expresses its profound concern surrounding Colombia’s recent constitutional reform to expand the power of military tribunals in the country. The Colombian Senate approved the reform on Dec. 11, 2012, and promulgated Legislative Act No. 2 on Military Jurisdiction on Dec. 28, which modified articles 116, 152, and 221 of Colombia’s Constitution. The reform represents a step backwards for the defense of human rights and a deviation from other countries in the region that have restricted the jurisdiction of military justice systems.
While crimes such as genocide and other grave human rights abuses are excluded from military jurisdiction under the new law, a whole range of other human rights violations including arbitrary detention and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment will now be tried by military tribunals. According to the law, Colombia’s military criminal justice system, not the civilian authorities, are now responsible for initial stages of investigation into any alleged human rights abuses by the military. In short, it will be military officials who will now make the decision on the applicable jurisdiction in cases of human rights violations.
The San José, Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court for Human Rights has held it to be well-established jurisprudence that, “military jurisdiction is not the competent jurisdiction to investigate and, in its case, prosecute and punish the authors of alleged violations of human rights but that instead the processing of those responsible always corresponds to the ordinary justice system. This conclusion applies not only to cases of torture, forced disappearance and rape, but to all human rights violations.”
The recent expansion of military jurisdiction in Colombia undermines the independent functioning of the judiciary and is incompatible with Colombia’s international human rights obligations, where military tribunals do not have jurisdiction to try human rights violations. Additionally, Colombia’s inversion of international standards and expansion of the competence of military tribunals stands in stark relief to significant advances in Argentina, and most recently Mexico, thanks to decisions of the Supreme Court, in addressing military impunity that continues to plague the region.
“Colombia’s decision to expand the jurisdiction of its military tribunals is a setback for the strengthening of the rule of law in the country and the region,“ said Santiago A. Canton, director of RFK Partners for Human Rights at the RFK Center. “International law clearly states that military tribunals are not the appropriate forum to try human rights violations. This unfortunate change opens the door for greater impunity at a moment when the country was making advances to guarantee the defense and protection of human rights.”
The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, international human rights organization.