Colombia’s wrong-way reform

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is asking lawmakers in his country to approve sweeping changes in the judicial system. The most controversial of these would expand the military’s jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute alleged human rights crimes committed by security forces. Currently such cases are handled by civilian courts and judges.

That’s not the kind of reform Colombia needs. This is a country, after all, where a decades-long armed conflict has led to repeated massacres and human rights violations by government forces. And no one knows that better than Santos, a former defense minister who acknowledged in 2008 that human rights was the military’s “Achilles’ heel.”

To put it mildly. Colombia has yet to prosecute most of those responsible for the so-called false positives scandal that erupted in 2008 after a dozen civilians from a working-class neighborhood outside the capital city of Bogota were found dead hundreds of miles away, dressed as rebels. An investigation concluded that troops allegedly carried out those and hundreds of other killings throughout the country in an effort to inflate the body count — considered a measure of battlefield success.

Colombian officials insist that the current proposal, which is expected to be debated by Congress in March, isn’t an attempt to wrest back military control of prosecutions from civilian courts; the country’s defense minister says that serious human rights violations, including rape, torture and forced disappearances, would still be turned over to civilian judges. But that’s hard to believe given that the decision about which cases to turn over would be made by the military, which lacks professional investigators and judges as well as the necessary independence and impartiality.

No one disputes that Colombia’s military has improved its efforts to address human rights abuses. But it hasn’t done enough. The United States, which has poured billions into the country since it launched the anti-drug initiative known as Plan Colombia, has a role to play. The Obama administration should make clear that any efforts to prevent human rights crimes from being referred to civilian courts will jeopardize military aid under Plan Colombia. That would be a shame. After all, Santos has already made great strides in confronting the country’s troubled past. Now he should stay the course.