Colombia, Ecuador, and the very local face of international law

Colombia, Ecuador, and the very local face of international law

[Rene Uruena is Assistant Profesor and Director of the international law program at the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota, Colombia. He is also a Fellow at the Centre of Excellence in Global Governance Research, University of Helsinki.]

Last year, Colombian armed forces bombed a guerrilla camp a couple of miles into Ecuadorian territory. After some diplomatic tension at the OAS, everyone made up and things appeared to take their course. Or so it seemed. Last week, a judge from the province of Sucumbíos, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, issued an arrest warrant against Juan Manuel Santos, Colombian Defense Minister at the time of the bombings. The charges are serious: the death of 25 people, including one Ecuadorian citizen. In the hearing, Santos was tried in absentia and represented by Walter Lombeida, 32, a public defender in the district of Nueva Loja, Ecuador (pop. 68.000). Here is a photo of the hearing, taken by the Quito daily El Comercio:

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(Walter Lombeida, counsel (left.); Carlos Jiménez, Prosecutor, and Daniel Méndez, Judge).

As word of the warrant spread, all hell broke loose in both countries. Colombian President Uribe called for an ‘elite team’ that would plead before the ICJ and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, to “defend Colombian interests and Colombians in this war that, from within and in the international arena, is being waged by terrorism against our country through political and legal means” . The Ecuadorian Government announced an extradition request, and forwarded the warrant to Interpol, to which Colombia promptly objected.

And so it was that the problem ended up on Interpol’s lap. According to the BBC, Interpol declined to act on Ecuador’s request, arguing that under Article 3 of its Constitution, “it is strictly forbidden for the Organization to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character”. Ecuador pledged to comply with Interpol’s decision, and attempted to lower the profile of the issue, said the Miami based El Nuevo Herald.

The end of the story? Guess again. A couple of days ago, Abelardo de la Espriella, a controversial Colombian lawyer, pressed domestic criminal charges for terrorism against Gustavo Larrea and Jose Ignacio Chauvin, then Ecuador´s Minister of Security and official at the Ministry of Interior, respectively. Moreover, De la Espriella requested the Colombian Attorney General (AG) to initiate proceedings against Ecuadorian President Correa before the ICC, for crimes against humanity. To be sure, Ecuador reacted and threatened further international legal action, including pushing Interpol for a ‘red notice’ against Santos.

Now, hardly any of this will fly. Ecuador´s warrant without Interpol´s support amounts to very little outside its territory, and the charges against Ecuadorian officials seem specious at best – unless, of course, the Colombian AG decides to push them further, which is a different story altogether. But that is hardly the point. What is fascinating about this case is that it reveals a very local facet of the practice of international law today. Away from The Hague or Geneva (but not forgetting about them, either) international law is being practiced everywhere – including packed offices in the Amazon. It is appropriated and becomes part of the rhetoric in domestic debates. Would these international lawyers be considered part of the invisible college?

All this is political, of course: everyone is in on it for political gain. And yet, this is just the result of international law being integrated (dragged, some would say) into the everyday life of Latin America. With this, dissonances quickly emerge. Interpol, for example, ends up in the middle of highly charged disputes – without the mandate, skill nor will to deal with them. This same week, Interpol declined issuing a ‘red notice’ against Honduran President Zelaya, booted out of power this month in controversial circumstances. International law thus becomes captured and deployed by strategic interests, which may appear cynical and biased, but are ultimately expressed as international legal arguments. In sharp contrast with an ideal of ‘universal justice’ or ‘rule of law’, the role of international law here seems messy and unsettling. And, as importantly, seems up for grabs for anyone willing to pick a fight.

I’m guessing that won’t make it into textbooks anytime soon.

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Courts & Tribunals, Foreign Relations Law, General, Latin & South America
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