Case Watch: A Step Forward in Colombia’s Struggle for Truth

In “Case Watch” reports, lawyers at the Open Society Justice Initiative provide analysis of notable court decisions and cases that relate to our work to advance human rights law around the world.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has published a long-awaited decision against Colombia this month, in a case that reflects the country’s struggle to address its past history of political violence, even as it pursues a lasting peace agreement aimed at ending a long-running left-wing insurgency.

The case Rodríguez Vera y otros (desaparecidos del Palacio de Justicia) v. Colombia [PDF, Spanish] focuses on abuses committed by Colombia’s security forces in the aftermath of a bloody siege at the country’s main court building in November, 1985, after it had been seized by guerrillas from the M-19 movement.

On November 6, 1985, 35 members of M-19 took over the Palace of Justice in Bogota, which houses Colombia’s three high courts, including the Supreme Court. Over 100 people were killed in the resulting two-day siege and retaking of the building, including twelve judges and all of the guerrillas. Subsequently it emerged that eleven people seized by the military had disappeared; that four survivors of the siege had been tortured; and that a judge, Judge Urán Rojas, who had supported decisions critical of the military, had been shot in the head.

Responsibility for the violence has long been disputed in Colombia, and complicated by allegations that M-19 was working with drug cartels. At the same time, efforts to establish the truth and seek justice for the victims were thwarted by resistance from the security forces and their allies, by a weak judicial system, and by poor political decision making by the government. M-19 itself signed peace agreements with the government in the late 1980s, giving up its guerrilla campaign; the larger and more powerful left-wing Farc guerrilla group remains active, and is currently in peace talks with the government.

Because the 1985 siege predated the establishment of the Inter-American Court, the victims and their families were unable to take their grievances regarding the siege to the regional tribunal. However, the continuing nature of the enforced disappearances made it possible to bring a claim against Colombia regarding whether the government had breached its duties under the American Convention on Human Rights by failing to conduct a proper investigation into the disappearances of the 11 people.

In its ruling, the IACHR concluded that the eleven individuals had been disappeared by the military because they were suspected of collaborating with the M-19 guerrillas; they were first separated from other released hostages, then held in a nearby museum before being taken to military bases. The final whereabouts of some of the victims remain unknown. The court determined that at least four other survivors of the siege had been taken from the Palace of Justice and tortured in military bases. These survivors recounted how they were beaten, asphyxiated with smoke, forced to carry heavy objects, threatened with death, and in at least in one case subjected to electric shocks.

Further, it concluded Judge Urán Rojas had been forcibly disappeared while in military custody and then executed. Evidence presented included family accounts of phone conversations with him during the siege in which he claimed to be uninjured; video footage of him being escorted by military personnel out of the building; his personal belongings being found in military archives; and the autopsy report detailing several injuries to his body and death by a gunshot to the head.

The judgment welcomed Colombia’s partial acknowledgment of responsibility for some failures, including: failing to investigate the disappearances and bring the perpetrators to justice; the prolonged delay in internal proceedings; and its participation in the detentions, tortures, and disappearances.

But the court concluded that the government had fallen short of its obligations under the convention. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that Colombia had violated the rights to life, integrity, juridical personality, and personal freedom in relation to the 11 disappeared persons; that it had violated the rights to life, integrity, and personal freedom in relation to the disappearance and extrajudicial killing of Judge Carlos Horacio Urán Rojas; that it had infringed the right to personal integrity, private life, honor, and dignity—as well as the prohibition against torture and inhuman and degrading treatment—in relation to four survivors; and that it had breached its duty to investigate in relation to judicial guarantees of a fair trial and judicial protection.

The court also found that the state had breached its obligation to initiate an immediate and effective official investigation, failed to conduct searches to locate the whereabouts of the disappeared, and to some extent continues to fail to meet its obligations of due diligence in the ongoing investigations.

The court ordered Colombia to compensate the victims; to carry out new investigations regarding the whereabouts and fate of the disappeared; to prosecute those responsible for the disappearances; and to provide medical and psychological assistance for the victims and their families. In addition, the court demanded that the government create a documentary record about the siege and disappearances, and publicly acknowledge its responsibility under international law.

These last two steps are especially important. The Inter-American Court’s decision is a significant victory for some of the victims and their families, but admitting the truth of what happened remains a challenge for Colombia. The state has struggled to acknowledge and address the abuses it committed in the affair, as seen from its long and convoluted defense of its actions before the court.

The Rodríguez Vera judgment may help Colombia come to terms with its past—and may even reinforce ongoing efforts to conclude a peace agreement with Farc, the left-wing guerrilla group. But much will depend on the government’s willingness to fully implement the court’s decision.

 

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