Reparation for victims of armed conflict in Colombia. | Illustration: Juan José Restrepo
Is it impossible to pay reparations? The case of the reparations policy for survivors of sexual violence and victims of the armed conflict in Colombia
This paper provides elements for reflection and analysis on the political economy of reparations by analyzing the Colombian case since 2011, when the policy for victims of the armed conflict was created through Law 1448.
Reparations for serious human rights violations is a right that generates broad consensus when it comes to law. There are multiple international standards on the subject and the literature coincides in pointing out its importance as a transitional justice mechanism that directly benefits victims. However, when it comes to massive situations of human rights violations, it is common to hear perspectives that consider reparations an unfeasible mechanism, as they are very costly and difficult to implement (Special Rapporteur for the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-repetition, 2014).
Are administrative reparations an unworkable and financially unsustainable mechanism? Although there is extensive literature on the right to reparations, these types of questions about the financial viability of reparations programs have been little developed. This paper provides elements for reflection and analysis on the political economy of reparations by analyzing the Colombian case since 2011, when the policy for victims of the armed conflict was created through Law 1448.
Colombia’s victims’ policy is ambitious and complex. It provides victims with assistance, humanitarian aid and reparation. In terms of reparation, it seeks to provide more than 7 million victims with compensation, restitution, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition from a transformational and differential approach to inequalities. This makes it the most ambitious program at a comparative level, as no other country has attempted to repair such a large universe of victims, which represents about 14% of the country’s population.
The fact that such a policy has been created and implemented over the past 12 years shows that administrative reparations programs are viable. As previous studies on the political economy of reparations suggest (Segovia, 2006), the viability of these programs—understood as the possibility of having the necessary resources to be effectively created and implemented— depends not only on financial considerations, but also on factors such as the political backing of the governments in power and social support for the victims and their rights. In the Colombian case, these political and social factors were present and decisive in the approval of the law that created the reparations policy. This allowed a country with high levels of inequality and scarcity of resources to decide to end the internal armed conflict through policies that guarantee rights. However, the challenges for the financial sustainability of the program are great.
Since 2011, the State has invested considerable amounts of economic and institutional resources in this process, including those necessary to provide compensation to almost 1.5 million victims. These results exceed what has been achieved by other reparations programs in similar countries. For example, in Peru, the universe of registered victims amounts to 182,350 individuals and 7,678 communities, and in Guatemala it amounts to 54,000 victims. In Indonesia, although there is no registry of victims, it is estimated that 233,282 individuals in 1,724 communities have been direct beneficiaries of collective reparations and another 30,000 individuals have been beneficiaries of cash payments through individual reparations (Harvard Carr Center, 2015). However, this number of compensation payments represents only 16% of the people entitled to receive this type of measure, as the goal is 7 million people (Unidad de Víctimas, 2023).
Given the large number of victims who have yet to receive full reparations under the terms of the law—not only compensation but the full set of measures to which they would be entitled—there are new concerns about the financial sustainability of the policy. In fact, a ten-year extension was necessary for the policy to meet its goals. The answer to this issue of sustainability is not simple and requires nuance.
The analysis of the Colombian case allows us to identify both successes and failures that can help illuminate debates in other countries and the future of reparations in Colombia. In terms of successes, for example, we can highlight the recognition of sexual violence as a human rights violation that must be repaired. In addition, through administrative channels, the need to establish reparations for children who are the consequence of sexual violence has also been considered. Unlike other transitional contexts, where it has been excluded or minimized, in Colombia sexual violence must be repaired in a comprehensive and transformative manner, in the terms defined by Law 1448, and granting all procedural and symbolic guarantees to its survivors.
Another relevant success is that, once this policy was established in Law 1448 of 2011, the government carried out a cost determination or costing process of reparations with broad criteria, based on the empirical evidence available at the time, and including transparent methodologies. To this end, it carried out an estimation of the universe of victims, which at that time was unknown, and established the approximate value of the measures to be delivered as reparations in accordance with the Law. Based on the results of this process, the government planned the budget necessary to implement the policy. However, the costing exercise was conservative and resulted in the underestimation of the universe of victims and the cost of reparations. This underestimation has been deepened by the progressive increase of the universe of victims, associated with the persistence of the armed conflict in the country and judicial decisions that have broadened the definition of ‘victim’.
In this context, based on official sources, interviews with key officials, and analysis of secondary literature, we describe the costing process and the financing of the victims’ policy in the country from 2011 to the present. With this analysis, which we deepen in the full version of this summary, we identify the following challenges and recommendations.