Colombia’s Legislature Rejects President’s Changes To Peace Tribunal

On April 8th, Columbia’s House of Representatives rejected President Ivan Duque’s proposed amendments to the law which governs the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) tribunal by 110 votes to 44. The vote was expected to fail because the peace accord, as part of the constitution, requires a two thirds supermajority to pass. The tribunal is part of a peace agreement between the state and a communist rebel group called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC); it was created to investigate and try military officials and former rebels for war crimes and human rights abuses. According to Voice of America, Duque was elected on a mandate to revise the JEP which he argued was too lenient on the FARC. He proposed six changes, including harsher sentencing, removing sexual violence crimes from the tribunal’s scope, and adding clarifications on extradition rules and reparation payments from the FARC to conflict victims.

Sergio Guzman, the director of a political risk consultancy firm called Colombia Risk Analysis, described the failed vote as “a huge defeat for the government”. He went on to say that he thinks the vote was “a warning to the government that suggests that they need to compromise more with the other parties and they need to reach agreements on legislative substance”. Yann Bassett, a political scientist at Rosario University, told Al Jazeera that this defeat will “dissuade [Duque] from trying to make other reforms that touch on the peace agreements”, as Duque has previously stated that he will accept the outcome of the vote. According to Al Jazeera, at the announcement of the vote many legislators shouted “long live peace”.

The protection of the peace deal’s integrity, through the cooperation of Colombia’s legislature, is an important victory for peace in the region. Given that the peace deal was negotiated in good faith, it is inappropriate for one party to unilaterally change the terms – doing so would threaten the stability of the peace. Any changes to the agreement between the state and the FARC should be built on a consensus between the two parties. If there is any future unilateral action attempting to alter the peace deal it should be roundly opposed as it was in this case.

Conflict with the FARC lasted 52 years and left 260,000 people dead, according to a 2016 estimate made by Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory. Negotiations for the peace deal began in 2012 under President Juan Manuel Santos and were finally ratified in November 2016, at which point approximately 7,000 FARC fighters abandoned their arms, marking the end of the conflict. Since then, as of January 2019, 85 former FARC rebels have been killed by illegal armed groups and drug gangs who have been rushing to fill the power vacuum left in the territories previously controlled by the FARC. UN secretary-general, António Guterres, has urged President Duque to do more to protect ex-rebels. As part of the peace agreement the FARC have now formed a political party and were elected into five seats in both the upper and lower houses respectively. The murder rate in Columbia has declined by 40% since the deal was signed.

It is understandable to want justice for the victims of conflict and to feel outraged when guilty people are given leniency. But sometimes the best justice that can be achieved out of a long-term conflict is ensuring the conflict will finally end, so that further injustice will not arise from it. Sometimes maximizing justice requires compromise and peace is an admirable victory for justice in and of itself. If Colombia can continue to keep the agreed peace process on track, then there is reason to be optimistic about the country’s future.

Edmund Pollock