The Quest for the ‘Right to Truth’ in Colombia

‘Colombia presents the worst human rights and humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere’.  So said the principal specialist on Colombia for the non-profit group Human Rights Watch, Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, to the United States Congress, on 23 April 2007.  You can read the full testimony here.

Colombia has the highest level of impunity in journalists’ crimes in Latin America, according to CPJ’s 2010 Impunity Index, which calculates the number of unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of a country’s population.

Political satirist and TV host Jaime Garzón was killed on 13 August 1999 by two gunmen as he was driving to work in Bogotá.  On 10 March 2004, a Bogotá court convicted paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño to 38 years in jail for masterminding Garzón’s killing.  Castaño vanished a month later, believed to have been killed by other paramilitary leaders.  The growth of the paramilitaries has been a feature of the War on Drugs in Colombia.  Pitched into battle against the rebel FARC, the spread of their extrajudicial activities has been a cloud about the rule of law.

On 11 May, 2007, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) gave judgement in Case of the Rochela Massacre v Colombia, instructing the Inter-American Commission to award interim relief to victims of paramilitary killings that took place in 1989.  Seventeen years later, they still have not received final judicial determination of what happened on the day of the massacre and who was responsible for it.

However, the Court rejected the applicants’ argument that they suffered a violation of Article 13 (freedom of expression) under the American Convention on Human Rights.  The petitioners claimed that Article 13 of the Convention contained an implied ‘right to truth’ for the victims’ families, and that this right had been denied them by the lack of a judicial determination of the facts of, and responsibility for, the massacre.


Does this judgement give succour to the applicants in their domestic search for justice, or merely take the chill off the fog of impunity? Does the IACHR’s emphasis on process and Article 8 of the ACHR (right to a fair trial) over freedom of expression diminish the value of the truth as a goal in its own right? Where is the ‘right to truth’ located, in the right to a fair trial and to judicial protection, or in the right to freedom of expression?


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