Colombia's senate late Monday approved a constitutional reform to set up special war crimes courts, a key component of the historic peace agreement with FARC guerrillas that ended five decades of war.
The court system will be made up of three sections: a truth commission, a unit to search for missing people, and a temporary, autonomous body to try crimes committed during the armed conflict before December 1, 2016.
Establishing the courts was the backbone of the peace deal Bogota reached in November with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebels.
President Juan Manuel Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize in October for his efforts to end his country's 53-year conflict, which has drawn in numerous leftist rebel groups, right-wing paramilitary units, drug cartels and the army. The FARC launched its guerrilla war against the Colombian government in 1964, after a peasant uprising that was crushed by the army.
Under the peace deal negotiated by the Santos administration, the FARC will transform into a political party and its 5,700 fighters will demobilize over a period of six months.
The group began disarming in early March, a process overseen by United Nations monitors. According to the peace agreement, clinched after four years of talks in Cuba, fighters who confess their involvement in atrocities can avoid prison and receive an alternative punishment. If they don't confess and are found guilty, they face prison terms of eight to 20 years. The conflict has killed some 260,000 people while 60,000 have vanished, and 6.9 million have been displaced within Colombia.
- 'Irreparable blow' -
Colombia's senate has 102 members. Of those present late Monday, 60 voted for the measure and two voted against it. Noticeably absent were the members of the Democratic Center, a right-wing party led by former president -- and current senator -- Alvaro Uribe, a fierce opponent of the peace plan. Senator Ivan Duque, speaking on the party's behalf, said during the debate that "in the name of peace ... an irreparable blow is being delivered to constitutional order" and to the judicial branch. Uribe and his supporters argued that the peace deal grants impunity to rebels guilty of war crimes, giving them seats in Congress rather than sending them to prison. Santos was Uribe's defense minister and a key player in several military operations under the former president that shattered the FARC's strength. But since Santos followed the still-popular Uribe as president in 2010, the two have clashed on issues ranging from the peace deal to relations with the leftist regime in Venezuela. Pope Francis, scheduled to visit Colombia in September as "a messenger of peace and reconciliation," brought Santos and Uribe together at the Vatican in December in an unsuccessful bid to persuade them to overcome their differences. The constitutional reform, which has already been approved by the lower chamber, still must survive a review by the constitutional court before Santos signs it into law.