Over the course of Colombia’s fifty-two year civil war, over 200,000 of its citizens were killed and nearly 7 million displaced. Corruption and violence were endemic on both sides of the conflict and thousands of crimes remain undocumented and untried. Many of those who have sought to represent victims or hold violators accountable have been threatened or killed both during the conflict and in its aftermath. The 2016 ceasefire agreement established a tribunal, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, or JEP, its Spanish acronym, that offers new hope for accountability, peace, and justice in Colombia.
The JEP will create a special war crimes court that will adjudicate war crimes of the civil war and seek justice for tens of thousands of such crimes committed during Colombia’s armed conflict. Over the past few months, the Justice Defenders Program assembled a team of over 30 pro bono attorneys and law students who conducted a thorough vetting of 109 candidates for appointment to this special tribunal. After sharing these findings with the Selection Committee, 19/26 of the candidates we deemed to have no clear impediments to their objectivity were chosen for the tribunal and a candidate our team flagged as being exceptionally qualified was selected to lead the office of prosecutors who will bring cases before the court.
However last month, Colombia’s Senate amended the legislation to broadly prohibit the appointment of lawyers who have documented and represented victims of war crimes to the special tribunal. In particular, the legislation bars from appointment anyone who, in the past 5 years, brought actions against the State on behalf of human rights victims, were members of organizations that have done such work, whether domestically or in regional or international human rights courts. The extremely broad scope of these stipulations dismisses the knowledge and experience an entire class of lawyers and judges, including several of the judges the JEP selection committee had already vetted and approved, would have added a wealth of pertinent knowledge to the tribunal and who could have been recused as needed from any specific cases they had brought or been involved in prior to their appointment.
In a recent national justice for peace event, international experts on transitional justice gathered to discuss the challenges Colombia faces in implementing the JEP. Discussing lessons learned from transitional justice systems in Bosnia and Kosovo, experts insisted that Colombia must repeal the disqualification clause that prevents the most qualified lawyers and judges from serving on the war crimes court. For the Justice Defenders Program, it is even more important that we and others in the global legal community continue to work with the many committed investigators, lawyers, judges, and others involved in the JEP process to ensure it is able to fulfill its critical role in the midst of these and other ongoing challenges.