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Inter-American Court Judgment on the duties of investigation and prosecution: Palacio de Justicia v Colombia
On 10 December 2014, the Inter-american Court of Human Rights handed down a strong judgment that reinforces the duties of states to investigate allegations of torture and disappearance and to prosecute and punish those responsible. The case of Rodriguez Vera v Colombia (‘Palacio de Justicia’) concerned the arbitrary detention, torture and disappearances of several individuals who occupied the Colombian ‘Palace of Justice’ on 6 and 7 November 1985, and the subsequent, on-going failure of the state to investigate and to hold those responsible to account. The court found the state responsible for violations of the right to liberty, freedom from torture and forced disappearance, and for the failure to conduct an adequate investigation, prosecute those responsible or provide remedies for victims and their families.

The Court acknowledges the importance of the fact that the state has now recognized, partially, its responsibility for the violations and offered a public apology. This was a step towards vindicating the victims’ quest for justice, though insufficient in itself. The judgment makes clear that duties to investigate and prosecute continue to apply even many years after the fact, in this case 29 years on from the events in question.


Human rights in Practice intervened in the case, providing an amicus brief on developments in international law and practice that indicate the impermissibility of amnesties, prescription or any other measure that would preclude investigation and accountability for serious rights violations of this nature. The judgment endorses this view: in ordering the state to investigate and prosecute, the Court explicitly notes that amnesty and prescription cannot apply to these crimes. The Court also clarified that the process of investigation and accountability must unfold within the ordinary criminal process and not before military justice. A wide range of reparations, moral and material damages, were ordered in favour of the victims.


This judgment reaffirms the enduring importance of truth, justice, accountability and reparations for victims and for society more broadly. It is a decision with resonance beyond the case or those directly affected. It is likely to prove significant in the context of the Colombian peace process and deliberations on truth, justice and transition for one. The Court’s order to the state to ensure the effective investigation of torture and disappearance and a rigorous process of individual accountability is particularly pertinent internationally in a week when the US Senate Intelligence Committee report on detention, torture and disappearance has further contributed to the clamour for justice for victims of torture and disappearances in that context too.

The decision, in Spanish, is available at: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_287_esp.pdf