Colombia’s Victims’ Law: challenges for the next decade

By Santiago Hoyos, MPP’21, Pearson Fellow, former advisor at the Inspector General’s Office – Victims’ and Peace Department

On December 5th of 2019, the Constitutional Court of Colombia decided to extend the Victims’ and Land Restitution Law until 2030. The Victims’ Law, which was enacted in 2011 for a 10 year period –until June of 2021- in the first term of president Juan Manuel Santos, was conceived as the government’s recognition to millions of victims who have directly suffered the consequences of an armed conflict that has lasted for more than 50 years. Around 80% of the victims have been internally displaced, and there are also hundreds of thousands that have been threatened, murdered, kidnapped, tortured, sexually assaulted, or disappeared in the middle of the conflict. This recognition has created a widespread expectation among victims, which can be understood considering the ambitious scope of this law.

Colombia’s policy regarding victims’ reparation is considered one of the most ambitious in the world. It is the only country that has policies that address reparations on the individual and the collective level. The legislation contains decrees for the indigenous, Afro-Colombians, and even gypsies. However, these reparations should not be understood simply as an economic compensation, as they also are measures of symbolic recognition, physical and psychological rehabilitation, land restitution, housing, and/or employment, depending on the type of victimizing event. This is why reparations cannot be seen merely as a cash transfer, but as a way in which victims’ lives can be transformed with the objective of achieving the nation’s reconciliation (Victims’ Law, 2011). 

The number of historically registered victims in Colombia is the highest one in the world. As of November 2019, there are 8,920,473 victims, more than 7 million are active to benefit from the reparation process (Victims’ Unit website). According to Colombia’s Follow Up Commission of the Victims’ Law –which is formed by the Inspector General’s Office, The Comptroller General’s Office, the Ombudsman’s Office, and three victims’ representatives-, as of March of 2019, a total of 821,836 victims had been compensated economically, and only 6 of the 669 collective reparation plans have had a complete implementation since 2011 (Sixth report of the Follow Up Commission to the Victims and Land Restitution Law). These are just a some of results that evidence the great amount of work Colombia’s government has in this matter for the next decade.  

It is hard to imagine a society with almost 9 million victims that succeed in its efforts to reconcile if the reparation policy does not fulfill the victims´ expectations. Colombia faces major challenges with its victims in the near future in a convoluted context in the midst of widespread protests to Ivan Duque’s government, levels of cocaine production that are reaching historic highs, the announcement of former FARC commanders to return to war, and the killings of hundreds of local social leaders in the last couple of years. 

The results from the implementation of the Victims’ Law indicate the urgency to formulate more effective policies that can adjust with the high expectations that this ambitious framework has created. A good starting point could be in Congress: it is critical to start a debate around the budget planning for the next decade regarding this law. According to the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit of Colombia, in order to repair the remaining victims in Colombia, almost 241 billion Colombian pesos are needed. This number basically represents Colombia’s tax total revenue for about one and a half years.

With hundreds of thousands of victims registering each year –after the Peace Agreement was signed, almost 350,000 citizens have been registered (Victims’ Unit website)-, the government has the responsibility to adjust accordingly to this changing scenario. Two years after Colombia’s Senate denied the 16 seats that were supposed to be granted for the victims –this was one of the main stipulations of the Participation Chapter of the Peace Agreement-, a thorough and inclusive debate may turn out to be a valuable opportunity for reconciliation in the near future.  

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