Recent days have witnessed a broad mobilization of civil society organizations, media, and citizens in Colombia to protest a proposed reform to the justice system that many argue would kill the spirit of the 1991 Constitution. The result has been the biggest political crisis of the presidency of Juan Manuel Santos and an extraordinary defense of the rule of law by the people of Colombia.
President Santos declared his intention early on in his mandate to pursue a legal reform that addressed the problems of case overload in the courts and citizens’ access to the justice system. In July 2011, two bills on this matter were presented to the House of Representatives; one by the government and one by the judicial branch.
In the course of the eight debates required to approve a constitutional reform of this type, several “hot topics” were added to the original draft, including the elimination of the division of the Supreme Court that is pursuing the cases against politicians involved with right-wing paramilitary organizations and other serious political crimes, which would have effectively terminated some of the most serious political investigations in recent memory.
While some legal experts and civil society organizations had been expressing alarm about this reform, the scandal only exploded on June 21 when Congress approved the reform and it became clear that even more questionable measures had been included, such as the reduction of sanctions and penalties against any Congressmen found guilty of crimes, and the establishment of a fee for citizens who want to bring a case to the courts.
Public opinion reacted strongly to the approved reform for several reasons: first, instead of easing citizen access to the justice system, it limited it by imposing a monetary fee. Second, the reform was seen as a direct attempt by the political class to undo much of what was achieved by the 1991 Constitution in limiting corruption and restraining the abuse of power. Finally, the fact that the bill extended the terms of justices in all the courts seemed to prove that the justice system had given its blessing to a flawed reform purely to obtain personal benefits.
If the reaction to the content of the reform was loud–in the media, social networks, and even in the street as protesters gathered in front of Congress–the aftermath only made matters worse. The Minister of Justice Juan Carlos Esguerra had to resign after it became clear that, in his interest to pass the reform, he allowed the debatable clauses to get introduced. President Santos, after initially declaring his support for the reform, argued that all the defects of the final bill were the responsibility of the group of 12 Senators in charge of drafting a final text that incorporated all the suggestions approved in the debates.
According to Santos, these 12 Senators added the questionable clauses without informing anyone else (a process in Colombia known as introducing a “mico”); but video of the Congressional debates has shown that the Conciliation Commission did in fact explain to the plenary each and every article of the reform. Finally, the president of the Senate, Simon Gaviria–a young politician and son of ex-president Cesar Gaviria- awoke people’s ire and contempt when he explained that he hadn’t actually read the final version of the bill before allowing for the vote.
The citizen group “Movement of Constituents,” — its Twitter tag is #SeMueveLaContraReforma (the counter reform is moving)— started collecting signatures for a recall referendum to both reject the reform and prompt a recall vote against Congress. President Santos then convened an extraordinary session of Congress and asked the legislature to reconsider the measure, which –under enormous pressure from public opinion- was declared null and void on June 29. While the immediate crisis might be over, polls show that Santos’ approval numbers dropped from 68 to 48 percent, and charts with the names and photos of those who voted for the reform are circulating widely.
In a country with a long history of disenchantment with its political leadership, the only similar precedent of such citizen mobilization resulted in the Constitutional Assembly that drafted the Constitution of 1991. The events of the last few days show that the people are not going to allow the spirit of that text to be trumped with impunity.
Renata Segura is Associate Director of the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum at the Social Science Research Council
In the above photo: Juan Manuel Santos