Recently, Kai Ambos alerted readers of two attempts to weaken Colombia’s transitional justice system (see here and here). A third development fortifies suspicions that the country’s newly elected government intends to derail it. This time, a legislative proposal threatens Colombia’s land restitution process. Changes in the treatment of secondary occupants of reclaimed land could especially frustrate this integral part of the elaborate reparation efforts.
Land Restitution in Colombia
The struggle over land has long been at the core of the Colombian conflict. With 7.7 million people, Colombia hosts the world’s largest population of internally displaced persons. IDPs constitute the vast majority of the 8.7 million registered survivors of the armed conflict. Studies estimate that displacement has affected 11.4 million hectares of land. Accordingly, former President Santos included land restitution as a central element in the 2011 Law on Victims and Land Restitution – the largest reparation program in the world. To manage the massive caseload, a newly created entity, the Land Restitution Unit (Unidad de Restitución de Tierras, URT) administers a special three-phase restitution process. In the first administrative phase, the URT decides on a survivor’s request to have his or her land entered into the Register of Evacuated or Forcibly Abandoned Land (Registro de Tierras Despojadas y Abandonadas Forzosamente). The URT collects evidence and evaluates whether the survivor convincingly demonstrates his or her displacement and a legal relationship to the land they seek to reclaim. Once registered, the survivor proceeds to the judicial phase, in which a specialized judge decides the claim with finality. A positive sentence constitutes a legal title to the land. The judge can further order any measures necessary to guarantee an effective return to the restituted land in conditions respectful to the survivor’s human rights. Among these measures are debt relief, and technical and financial assistance for economic projects. In the post-sentence phase, the judge remains seized and can issue further orders if the survivor encounters problems in the return process.