Colombia's president has approved a law that makes acts of sexual violence committed during the country's long-standing armed conflict crimes against humanity, but questions remain regarding how this legislation will be applied to the benefit of the victims.
On June 18, President Juan Manuel Santos signed a law that gives this categorization to systematic or generalized sexual violence perpetrated in the context of the conflict, and allows an indefinite amount of time for the investigation and prosecution of these acts, reported El Tiempo. The legal norm complements Colombia's existing Victim's Law and provides a broad conception of sexual violence, including as crimes forced acts of sterilization and abortion.
Under the new norm, courts are also obligated to assume the credibility of a victim's testimony and state investigators are required to make serious efforts to find evidence proving the crime occurred.
Perpetrators of sexual violence will be prosecuted according to the same standards regardless of which armed group they belong to, meaning that any soldiers accused of acts of sexual violence would be tried in civilian court, rather than military tribunals.
According to Santos, 4,672 women have been recognized as victims of sexual violence in the context of the country's armed conflict.
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A United Nations report released in March (pdf) highlighted the use of sexual violence to establish territorial control and intimidate women as a means of social control in Colombia's armed conflict. Women and girls of Afro-Colombian descent have been particularly affected. Estimates of the incidence of this crime in Colombia -- including cases that were not officially reported -- range from 90,000 over the course of the conflict to 500,000 just in the past decade.
The new law meets international standards that require conflict-related sexual violence to be treated as a war crime or a crime against humanity, and is an obvious step in the right direction in a country where less than an estimated ten percent of sexual aggressors have been sentenced during the conflict.
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The law addresses several issues raised in a 2012 Amnesty International report (pdf) on sexual violence in Colombia, which identified inadequate political will and the specialized military justice system as obstacles to victims seeking justice.
However, the full implementation of the law -- which applies to crimes committed before its implementation and could theoretically involve the investigation of sexual violence cases spanning five decades -- will not be an easy task. Experiences in post-conflict processes carried out in other countries demonstrate that prosecuting perpetrators can be a long and difficult process.