The ‘turn’ to Criminal Justice in Human Rights Law: An Analysis in the Context of the 2016 Colombian Peace Agreement


This article discusses the turn to a focus on criminal prosecution and custodial sentencing in international human rights law. Although it shares the concerns of many critics of the ‘turn’, it does not reject the orientation outright, arguing instead for the role of criminal justice to be seen holistically, encompassing proper consideration of the varied aims it can pursue and be geared towards countering inherent discrimination in criminal justice systems. The analysis is situated in the context of the 2016 peace agreement in Colombia and the attitude taken by human rights groups towards its transitional justice provisions, noting that criticisms raised by one prominent human rights group converged with a campaign against the agreement centred on a right-wing politician hostile to human rights, equality and redistribution. In light of the nuanced views of local civil society actors, it questions whether anti-impunity specifically requires custodial punishment for all international crimes, before assessing the benefits and drawbacks of individual accountability through trials. Finally, it discusses obstacles to the prosecution of powerful state agents and the relationship of the anti-impunity drive with state power.

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