Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Colombian Congress Passes Controversial Military Justice Reform Bill

On Tuesday night, Colombia’s Congress approved a constitutional amendment granting military courts increased jurisdiction over crimes committed by members of the country’s armed forces. As El Tiempo reports, the bill passed the Senate with a 57-7 vote, and is expected to be signed into law by President Juan Manuel Santos later this week. 

While Human Rights Watch’s Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco has condemned the final version of the bill as “an unnecessary and premeditated blow to human rights,” El Espectador reports that lobbying by non-governmental organizations like HRW and leftist lawmakers resulted in drastic changes to its language.

As a result of these efforts, the bill ensures that cases of crimes against humanity or violations of international humanitarian law such as forced disappearances, sexual violence, torture, forced displacement and extra-judicial executions can only be tried in civilian courts. When jurisdiction over a case is in doubt, it will be decided by a special committee made up of both military and civilian legal officials.

Concerns that the constitutional amendment will result in impunity for human rights abuses persist, however, as the bill does not include language equating "extra-judicial executions" with existing crimes in the country’s legal code, like homicide and aggravated homicide. According to the Associated Press, because "extra-judicial execution" is not specifically defined as a crime in Colombia, the bill’s opponents worry that the more than 1,700 cases of extra-judicial execution currently being prosecuted in civilian courts could be shifted to military jurisdiction. 

As La Silla Vacia points out, the vote is a major victory for Colombia’s armed forces, which have long claimed that civilian oversight hampers their ability to carry out operations effectively. The fact that the bill’s passage coincides with the government’s ongoing peace talks with FARC guerrillas is no coincidence, and likely amounts to an effort by President Santos to gain support for the peace process among the military command.

News Briefs

  • After Argentina’s Supreme Court on Monday rejected the government’s attempts to bypass federal appeals courts and take its case against the Clarin media group -- which it accuses of violating anti-media monopoly laws -- to the Supreme Court, the administration of President Cristina Fernandez has continued its legal battle against the media giant, filing an extraordinary appeal against the ruling. While most major media outlets have framed the case as a matter of freedom of the press, analyst James Bosworth points out that it has worrisome implications for judicial independence in the country.
  • An Argentine court yesterday found 13 individuals charged with the 2002 kidnapping and disappearance of Marita Veron innocent of wrongdoing. The case had become a symbol of the country’s fight against sex trafficking, and Veron’s mother Susana Trimarco has earned a reputation as the premier champion of the cause, having rescued hundreds of women from sex trafficking through her nonprofit.
  • The government of Cuba formally allowed for the creation of non-agricultural collectives yesterday, a move which was first announced last summer and is expected to contribute to economic growth on the island, the New York Times and AP report.
  • El Salvador’s El Faro takes a look at the government’s recently-announced poverty statistics, which show that the poverty rate in the country has risen to levels not seen since 2000. Even still, the news site claims that the official figures drastically underestimate the number of Salvadorans living in poverty.
  • The government of El Salvador has accepted the Inter-American Court of Human Right’s ruling calling for a full investigation into the 1981 El Mozote massacre, according to La Prensa Grafica. In response to the decision, the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement saying that the government takes full responsibility for the incident, and will comply with the Court’s ruling.
  • Brazil’s O Estado de São Paulo reports that an ex-consultant to the ruling Workers' Party claims that former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva knew about the so-called “mensalão” vote-buying scheme, and pressured him to keep quiet about his links to the scandal when it began to receive media attention.
  • Milenio reports that the secretary general of Mexico’s powerful SNTE teacher’s union, Juan Diaz, has said that the union will support the education reform initiative recently announced by newly-elected President Enrique Peña Nieto. The announcement comes a surprise, as the SNTE was thought to be the biggest opponent to the proposed reforms, which would establish an independent body tasked with monitoring teachers’ performance.
  • Continuing the country’s trend of progressive lawmaking, Uruguay’s Chamber of Deputies voted in favor of a bill which would legalize gay marriage.  Infobae reports that the bill will now move to the Senate, where the ruling coalition is expected to pass it early next year. As the AP notes, the bill would establish a single law regulating both straight and gay marriages, and breaks with tradition in that it would allow all couples in the country to decide whose surname goes first in naming their children.
  • Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro  announced via state television that President Hugo Chavez’s cancer surgery in Cuba yesterday was a success and that the president is recovering, although he gave no further details of the operation.
  • The UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean has released its annual assessment of economic progress in the region, which predicts that the region’s economic output will likely grow by 3.8 percent in 2013.

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