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Special Report
Last Updated: 02/09/2004
Peace vs. Accountability in Colombia
Natalia Riveros

The author, analysing the nature of the conflict in her country, sees a way out to resolve over forty years of conflict in Colombia. She puts reconciliation before prosecution and punishment.

Peace vs. Accountability in Colombia


The emergence and rapid expansion of an international prosecution system over the last few decades has been one of the main features of contemporary international affairs. This phenomenon, consolidated with the establishment of a permanent International Criminal Court[1], reflects a growing international consensus that “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole must not go unpunished.”[2]  While progress in the field of international criminal law has been welcomed and supported by international lawyers, human rights activists, non-governmental organizations, and the United Nations, it has also raised concerns about the illegality of amnesties[3] as techniques for ending violent internal conflicts, and how their presumed illegality could hamper processes of national reconciliation.

This article analyzes and compares the main arguments of those who support the idea that “justice” -in a strict accountability sense- is an essential precursor to peace, against proposals for alternative means of dealing with mass violations of human rights, including some measure of impunity in extreme cases as the only alternative to create the political conditions to negotiate peace. Since there has been a growing discourse within the human rights law field concerning the duty to prosecute and a rather general support for an enforcement approach to human rights protection, the main purpose is to analyze and assess the suitability of this approach when dealing with protracted, and seemingly non-negotiable internal conflicts. 

This analysis is structured in four main sections. In the first section the question of why do we punish is addressed, analyzing the duty to prosecute from legal and moral perspectives. The second section examines the role that the United Nations and Human Rights Movements play within the debate, and its overall impact. The Colombian Congress is currently analyzing a law project -which if approved- would conditionally replace prison with alternative mechanisms of punishments; the law would benefit insurgents who voluntarily agree to the terms of the agreement and lay down their arms. Thus, in the third section, the Colombian case study is utilized as an analytical tool to illustrate how the complex legal and moral issues discussed in the previous sections apply in this particular case.

It will be emphasized how different conceptions about the concept and aim of justice contribute to antagonize these seemingly irreconcilable positions. It is argued that in some cases amnesties will be necessary to go forward with a peace process, and that they should not be equated with impunity, as there are other mechanisms than can focus more on the rationale behind the idea of punishment and achieve its goals by other means. The essay concludes proposing a reconsideration of the implications of a enforcement approach towards human rights protection, and the need to balance legal considerations with the inevitable political requirements of any dispute-solving mechanism.

Read the article in full

Natalia Riveros is from Colombia, has lived and travelled widely in South America and studie in Japan. She is currently pursuing graduate work in law in Costa Rica.