For the first time, a natural resource has been recognised as a victim of Colombia’s armed conflict by the transitional justice court, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP).
On 17 July, JEP judges ruled the River Cauca had suffered serious violations in the departments of Cauca and Valle del Cauca through which, as their names suggest, the river flows. In collusion with state security forces, paramilitaries used the river as a mass grave, systematically dumping bodies into its waters in efforts to disappear them.
The ruling responded to a petition from the African-Colombian Community Councils of North Cauca, which represents community organisations that traditionally depend on the river for transport, agriculture and water. As well as being used for the disposal of bodies, the river suffered high levels of mercury contamination from illegal mining and chemicals used in drugs production.
Between 2000 and 2004, according to the JEP, paramilitaries threw thousands of bodies into the river, impacting wildlife, the environment and surrounding communities. Former paramilitaries have previously testified over the horrific practice, while witnesses have also provided accounts. The damage done to the river has produced a long-lasting effect on its waters and wildlife.
According to the JEP, ‘crimes against nature constitute grave infractions against international humanitarian law that can constitute war crimes.’ Citing the International Red Cross, it said there are three main principles relating to violations of the environment during conflict: 1) it is prohibited to attack any aspect of nature, unless it is a military target; 2) the same applies for the destruction of the environment unless there is a clear military necessity; and 3) armed actors must refrain from launching attacks that produce excessive damage to natural resources and the environment in relation to any military advantages they may achieve.
The ruling on the River Cauca comes under the JEP’s Case 5, which is examining conflict violence in the region encompassing north Cauca and south Valle del Cauca. The JEP was created in the 2016 peace agreement to investigate and prosecute serious human rights violations committed during decades of fighting. Among the other cases are the state and paramilitary violence enacted against the left-wing Patriotic Union party, which killed more than 5,000 party affiliates in the 1980s and 1990s. Another is investigating the army killings of more than 6,400 civilians, most of whom were young, who were presented as guerrillas killed in combat.
Despite intense right-wing opposition to its functioning, particularly under the former government of Iván Duque, as well as threats against judges and witnesses, the JEP is due to soon issue sentences. Those convicted can face lighter sentences if they have provided evidence and accepted responsibility for their participation in human rights abuses.