FINALLY, THE FINAL AGREEMENT. A comparative perspective on the Colombian Peace Agreement

After a long and tortuous journey, the final Agreement between the Colombian Government and the FARC-EP[1] has been ratified. The previous version of the agreement, which was announced on past 24th August, was rejected in the referendum held on 2nd October by an unexpected and narrow majority of Colombian citizens. Yet, a process to revise the agreement was held shortly after.

The revised agreement was signed on 24th November and, instead of being submitted to a new referendum, it has been ratified by the Parliament, thereby reaching its final status. Now the time has come for implementation, and both the legislative and the executive branches of the Colombian State are struggling to pass the required laws and reforms in a short time.

Although it is difficult to make a thorough analysis of a transitional project that has not been put into practice yet, an analysis of the Agreement itself from a comparative perspective offers some very interesting insights. The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (SJP hereafter), particularly, shows the results of lessons learnt from other transitional experiences, but it combines them with some quite original features that turns it into a novel and interesting case study.

1) The creation of a special jurisdiction

The decision to create an ad hoc judicial body to deal with the offences committed during a conflict or under a repressive regime is rather common in transitional contexts. One might recall, in addition to the International Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the many hybrid or internationalised Tribunals, such as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia or the Special Court for Sierra Leona.

All those bodies were created by virtue of an agreement between the State concerned and the United Nations and they always have an international component, either fixed or changing over time (this is the case for the War Crimes Chamber in Bosnia Herzegovina, in which the initial number of 2 foreign judges was gradually reduced until their elimination in 2012).[2]

On the contrary, the Colombian SJP is the outcome of a national decision, and the international community only plays a role as an external observer and guarantor of its implementation. Additionally, whereas the first version of the final Agreement envisaged the presence of a minority of international members within the judicial bodies, this provision has been eliminated in the revised agreement. There is still room for foreign experts, but they act as amici curiae, that is, with a merely consultative role. Just like in the original agreement, their participation is optional, insofar as it occurs only when the accused requires it.[3] Therefore, even if their participation in the processes might have a (positive) impact, the concrete resolutions and judgments will be delivered by Colombian judges.

2) Amnesty, pardon and political crimes

In the special justice system the category of political crimes plays a pivotal role. The Agreement expressly states that people who have been convicted or who face an investigation for a number of political and related crimes shall benefit from an amnesty or pardon. Such possibility was already provided in the Constitutional reform known as “Marco jurídico para la paz”, which granted constitutional status to the transitional principles and mechanisms that were later developed in the negotiation between the Government and FARC.

The same option was taken by South Africa in its transitional process after the fall of the apartheid regime. There, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) had the power to grant an amnesty to people who had committed crimes for political reasons.[4] The Act creating the TRC provided a minimum guidance on which offences fell into this category,[5] but it was the Amnesty Committee within the TRC that developed a set of criteria to determine whether a crime fitted in the definition, based on a case by case approach.[6]

The Colombian project has taken a step forward in this regard, since the final Agreement sets out a list of offences that amount to political crimes per se (rebellion, sedition, mutiny, and so on) as well as a number of interpretive criteria to define the related crimes.[7] According to the Amnesty Act, which was passed on 28th December, the former category shall be granted a de jure amnesty, whereas the latter qualification shall be established by the Amnesty Chamber case by case and according to the criteria envisaged in the final Agreement and in the Act. This feature improves the legal certainty and helps preventing inconsistencies and arbitrariness in the relevant decisions.

3) Beneficial measures as an incentive

Another point in common with the transitional experience in South Africa is the application of an incentive mechanism based on the exclusion/limitation of criminal punishment. The South African TRC could only grant an amnesty after the offender made a full disclosure of all relevant facts .[8] In a similar vein, the Colombian SJP may grant beneficial sanctions to those offenders who voluntarily recognise their responsibility. It may exempt them from imprisonment and subject them to restrictions on freedom and to reparation programs, or, in case of a belated recognition, it may impose them a reduced prison term.[9]

Both mechanisms are based on an exchange between the offenders’ contribution to the discovering of the facts and the imposition of beneficial measures. This strategy provides a strong incentive for perpetrators to take part in the procedures aimed at clarifying and declaring the offences and providing reparation to the victims. The contribution thus given by the perpetrators fosters the fulfilment of two key transitional goals, namely, truth and reparation.

The main difference lies in that the South African measure envisaged a total exclusion of criminal punishment, whereas the Colombian system provides for alternative and reduced criminal sanctions under this exchange dynamic. Accordingly, the competent body to grant the beneficial measure in the Colombian project is a tribunal, whereas in South Africa it was a non-judicial body.

 As we have seen in the previous section, amnesty is also envisaged as a tool, but outside this exchange mechanism and only for political and related crimes. This is another difference with the South African experiment, where  the exchange mechanism applied to a wider number of offences, including international crimes, which are expressly excluded from the Colombian amnesty.

4) Alternative sanctions with a restorative content

Among the different sanctions that the Special Jurisdiction for Peace envisages, the most novel ones are the alternative sanctions (which the Agreement calls “sanciones propias”, i.e., “own sanctions”). They shall be imposed if the offenders recognise their responsibility before having been formally charged before the tribunal and are accordingly the most beneficial ones. They encompass the limitation of the offenders’ freedom of movement together with the obligation to perform activities such as environmental protection, substitution of illicit crops, and programs to build infrastructures.

These sanctions have a clear restorative focus, in that they aim at repairing the harm done to victims and communities that were affected by the crimes committed during the conflict. Moreover, they shall be executed at a local level and beneficiaries may have a say in the definition of programs and their execution.

These two features remind of a mechanism that was put into practice in the transitional process in East Timor. There, the Community Reconciliation Procedure, which was a complement of the Comissão de Acolhimento, Verdade e Reconciliação,[10] may impose on the offenders a restorative measure, such as community service (an example was cleaning the community church once a week).[11] The aim of this mechanism was to both grant victims’ reparation and foster offenders’ reintegration into their communities.[12]

The same idea lies under the Colombian “own sanctions”, which are anyway more burdensome insofar as they also imply a restriction on freedom of movement. Nonetheless, the East Timorese mechanism only applied to less serious offences, for example, bodily harm and offences against property, while the serious offences were prosecuted before the Special Panels for Serious Crimes in the Courts of Dili[13] and entailed ordinary prison sentences.

The Colombian proposal is much more ambitious in this regard, since it provides that the “own sanctions” shall apply to very serious offences, including international crimes, under the condition that the offenders recognise their responsibility.

5) Final remarks

These features show that the complex transitional design envisaged in the Agreement between the Colombian Government and FARC-EP has treasured the lessons learnt from many other transitional experiences. But this scheme contains some original features that might offer new models and ideas for Transitional Justice. The creation of a national special jurisdiction, the use of amnesties, pardons and alternative penalties as tools under an exchange mechanism, the imposition of alternative sanctions with a restorative content (even for serious offences), may be interesting mechanisms for future transitional experiences.

Now, the world has its eye on the implementation of this design.

[1] The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo are the main guerrilla group in the Colombian armed conflict.

[2] G. Werle, F. Jessberger (2014), Principles of International Criminal Law, 3rd ed., 128.

[3] Para. 65, Point 5 (”Victims”) of the Final Agreement.

[4] A. Lollini (2011), “Constitutionalism and Transitional Justice in South Africa” (Oxford – New York: Berghahn Books).

[6] A. Du Bois-Pedain (2007), “Transitional Amnesty in South Africa” (Cambridge: CUP). Political crimes included gross human rights violations, as set out in s 19(3) (b) of the Act. When these offences were concerned, the Committee may not grant amnesty without holding a hearing.

[7] Paras. 39-40, Point 5 (“Victims”) of the Final Agreement.

[8] Section 20(1)(c) of the TRC Act. See also: J. Sarkin-Hughes (2004), “Carrots and Sticks: The TRC and the South African Amnesty Process” (Cambridge: Intersentia).

[9] See the following Section of the post.

[10] Created by UNTAET Regulation 2001/10, “On the establishment of a Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor”, 13.07.2001.

[11] W. Lambourne (2012), “Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (East Timor)”. In L. Stan, & N. Nedelsky (eds.), Encyclopedia of Transitional Justice (Vol. 3, Cambridge: CUP), 46.

[12] Burgess (2005), “Justice and reconciliation in East Timor”. 15 Criminal Law Forum, 135-158.

[13] Created by UNTAET Regulation 2000/15, “On the establishment of Panels with exclusive jurisdiction over serious criminal offences”, 6.6.2000.

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