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The ‘Command Responsibility’ Controversy in Colombia

Published on March 15, 2017        Author: 

The peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas has led to complex legal debates. One key controversy has stood out as legislation to carry out the agreement moved forward: the “command responsibility” definition the Special Jurisdiction for Peace —the judicial system created as part of the peace talks— will apply to try army and FARC commanders.

This is not just a technical issue. Applying a definition consistent with international law will play a key role in ensuring meaningful accountability for army and FARC commanders’ war crimes during their 52-year conflict. The issue has been part of a key debate in Colombia about how to hold officers accountable for so-called “false positive” killings.

Government forces are reported to have committed over 3,000 such killings between 2002 and 2008. In these situations, soldiers lured civilians, killed them, placed weapons on their bodies, and reported them as enemy combatants killed in action. At least 14 generals remain under investigation for these crimes.

Unfortunately, for now, this debate has been resolved in the wrong direction: on March 13, the Colombian Congress passed a constitutional reform containing a “command responsibility” definition for army officers that is inconsistent with international law. This post reviews the background and lead-up to this development.

Command Responsibility in the Original Peace Accord

The parties first announced an “agreement on the victims of the conflict” in December 2015. The agreement included “command responsibility” as a mode of liability for the Special Jurisdiction for Peace in two identical provisions, one applicable to army commanders and the other to the FARC:

Commanders’ responsibility for acts committed by their subordinates must be based on the effective control over the respective conduct, on the knowledge based on the information at their disposal before, during and after the commission of the respective conduct, as well as on the means at his reach to prevent it and, if it has already occurred, promote the relevant investigations (my translation).

Human Rights Watch, the organization where I work, expressed concern that the definition could be interpreted in a manner inconsistent with international law.

Mens rea. As Kai Ambos has recently noted, the mens rea requirement in the definition was unclear. Under international law, including article 28 of the Rome Statute, a commander’s knowledge of crimes committed by their subordinates may be either actual or constructive —that is the commander knew or had reason to know. The definition in the 2015 agreement did not explicitly include a reference to constructive knowledge. This raised questions as to whether it was meant to be included or not.

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