Understanding Patterns of Abuse

The second morning session consisted of three presentations on various aspects of prosecution strategies for international crimes.

Maria Paul Saffon, a doctoral candidate in political science at Columbia University began with her presentation “confronting a long list of past atrocities: how to select and prioritize cases of core international crimes.”

She gave an introduction to the concepts of selection and prioritization, then outlined Colombia’s particular challenges, including:

  • An extensive list of complex atrocities potentially within the jurisdiction of the Justice and Peace process
  • The threat of ongoing violence for actors involved in criminal justice processes
  • A long history of impunity for mass atrocities
  • Only a few, unsatisfying results to date, even though there is a special criminal justice process in place
  • A lack of clarity as to what will happen with cases that are not addressed by the Justice and Peace process, but involve similar atrocities of equality gravity

She also discussed the differences between the criteria for selection and those for prioritization. Although each set of criteria has common overall objectives, their application is different in important respects. Selection criteria respond to the question of “what cases should be prosecuted?” whereas prioritization asks “in what order?” Selection of a fraction of the cases necessarily implies the “de-selection” or exclusion of others. The task of prioritization purports to address all cases, however in practice some crimes, cases, or individuals that are not prioritized may be excluded by default as a result of additional obstacles that arise with the passage of time.

She then discussed the strategy proposed in the context of Bosnia and Herzegovina, considering it of particular relevance to the Colombian context as well as the strategy of the International Criminal Court.

Next, Paul Seils, ICTJ vice president for programs and legal spoke on the state of the Justice and Peace process, and the need for prosecutorial strategies, including prioritization of cases.

He commented that transitional justice is generally applied in contexts that are characterized by a fundamental breakdown in the relationship between the state and its citizens, marked by a failure on the part of the state to fulfill its role in guaranteeing the protection of fundamental rights. Thus, the strategic objective of transitional justice should be understood as making contributions to restoring the dignity of victims of mass human rights abuses and, importantly, to rebuild citizens confidence in state institutions.

He then discussed the importance of having a nuanced understanding of system crimes, one that reflects and responds to the reality of a given context. A key dynamic of the history of the Colombian conflict is that the structures that have caused, and continue to cause, the violence in the country are not simply military apparatuses. It is crucial for the discussion around the “most responsible” in the Colombian case to include a consideration of the socio-political and economic forces that—while not formally assuming a role in the military hierarchy—have had an important role in paramilitarism in the county.

The last speaker, Claudia López Díaz a representative of ProFis discussed the selection and prioritization strategy in Colombia. She stressed that integral investigations are not those that look into every confessed crime, but those that look take into account the context of the criminal acts of the group. The dynamics and the patterns of the criminal system should be investigated, she said. This helps to form a narrative and a general map of the activities of each group.

She stressed that even though some crimes may not be investigated when applying selection and prioritization, this should not be thought of as promotion of impunity. This type of strategy is considered acceptable internationally in situations where it is humanly and technically impossible to investigate all perpetrators, like in the case of Colombia.

The conference will continue with a discussion of the comparative experiences of Argentina and Guatemala, followed by a chance for the attendees to ask questions to a panel of all of the conference participants.

Photos by Camilo Aldana
Video by Mauricio Cardona