Economic Actors and Transitional Justice Policies in Latin America

Nelson Camilo Sánchez*

Versión en español aquí.

A few days ago, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (la Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz, JEP), the transitional tribunal established in Colombia by the peace agreements signed in 2016, issued a very important decision providing clarification for cases of civilians murdered during the conflict who were presented to the government as enemy casualties in combat (a macabre practice that in Colombia was known by the euphemism “false positives”).

The JEP’s decision included, among other significant things, this court’s first indictment of a “civilian third party”. The peace agreement uses the term “civilian third party” to refer to those persons who, without being part of an armed group, participated in the commission of grave human rights violations. Many of these third parties had eminently economic motivations and, to satisfy them, sponsored the armed actors in various ways, including providing economic, logistical, and political support. 

The relationship between economic actors and armed groups in times of repression and war is not unique to the Colombian conflict. Victims of human rights violations have recounted how economic elites, companies (transnational and national) and other business agents (formal and informal) have been complicit in human rights violations in every corner of the globe.  

Although much of this information is known thanks to the pioneering work of transitional justice mechanisms (such as the truth commissions of Argentina and Guatemala), the systematic study of this dimension of conflict has only gained prominence in academic studies on transitional justice over the course of the last decade. In addition to this academic work, there is now the recent report produced by the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights on the relationship between human rights violations and corporate activity in conflict-affected areas

These comparative studies coincide in pointing out the leading role played by victims, activists and other Latin American institutional and social actors in the search for accountability of economic actorsLeigh Payne, Gabriel Pereira and Laura Bernal highlight in their book, for example, that truth commissions and judiciaries in Latin American countries are developing innovative practices to do such work, which has + the region the most active in this area of focus across the world.

But there is a long way to go, both around the world and in Latin America. Truth and memory building processes are incipient, impunity remains the rule rather than the exception, and reparations remain an unfulfilled promise for the vast majority of victims. At the same time, many of the corporate practices that allowed these violations to occur continue to be repeated throughout the region. 

In order to evaluate in greater detail the progress made, but also the complexity and historical debts of these processes, I conducted research and prepared a report in collaboration with DPLF, a member of the Global Initiative for Justice, Truth, and Reconciliation (GIJTR) consortium, on three concrete experiences of transitional justice in Latin America: Argentina, Colombia and Guatemala. The study, available here, seeks to contribute to efforts to promote corporate accountability in two ways. 

First, the report investigates the role of corporate complicity in the commission of grave human rights violations in Latin America – with special emphasis on Argentina, Colombia, and Guatemala. The report analyzes the dynamics of parties involved, the motives that led different economic actors to become involved in the violations, and characterizes the people and communities against whom the violence promoted or supported by economic actors was directed. In addition, the report analyzes the factors that facilitated this corporate involvement and the subsequent impunity or barriers to accountability that these economic actors face.

Furthermore, the study shows how the transitional justice mechanisms created in the region have revealed the relationship between the private sector and systematic violence in times of repression and conflict across all three countries. Existing official and academic information shows that such complicity has not been isolated. Consequently, the study seeks to systematize and organize lessons that will enable victims, survivor groups, civil society organizations and policy makers to promote accountability of economic actors involved in gross human rights violations.

The experiences of Argentina, Colombia and Guatemala demonstrate that the few, but significant, advances in the region in transitional justice through corporate responsibility have come about thanks to the tenacity, innovation and strategic vision of victims’ movements and organizations. Hopefully, this report will help to identify these efforts and design strategies to enhance them. 


*Director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law. 

Photo: Fernando Vergara / AP Images 

Acerca de Justicia en las Américas

Este es un espacio de la Fundación para el Debido Proceso (DPLF, por sus siglas en inglés) en el que también colaboran las personas y organizaciones comprometidas con la vigencia de los derechos humanos en el continente americano. Aquí encontrará información y análisis sobre los principales debates y sucesos relacionados con la promoción del Estado de Derecho, los derechos humanos, la independencia judicial y el fortalecimiento de la democracia en América Latina. Este blog refleja las opiniones personales de los autores en sus capacidades individuales. Las publicaciones no representan necesariamente a las posiciones institucionales de DPLF o los integrantes de su junta directiva. / This blog is managed by the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF) and contains content written by people and organizations that are committed to the protection of human rights in Latin America. This space provides information and analysis on current debates and events regarding the rule of law, human rights, judicial independence, and the strengthening of democracy in the region. The blog reflects the personal views of the individual authors, in their individual capacities. Blog posts do not necessarily represent the institutional positions of DPLF or its board.

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