Dr David James Cantor trains newly-created Colombian prosecutors’ unit on forced displacement

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Three to five million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes as a result of the armed conflict and associated violence in Colombia. In 2000, ‘forcible displacement’ was made a crime that attracts sanctions such as a prison term of 8 to 18 years. Despite this, prosecutions for ‘forcible displacement’ have been scarce and convictions remain in single figures. Responding to this situation, in November 2010, the Prosecutor General of Colombia created the National Unit against Forced Displacement and Disappearance dedicated to the investigation and prosecution of this crime. The Norwegian and Swedish governments have helped finance this important initiative.

The new unit’s 24 prosecutors, with their assistant lawyers, are based across Colombia and form the vanguard in combating the current impunity for this atrocious crime. Whilst all members of the unit possess 14 to 22 years experience as prosecutors (mostly in anti-kidnap and anti-extortion), none have worked previously on questions of forcible displacement. Responding to this knowledge gap, the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Colombian national Prosecutor’s office organised a special closed training session for the unit with selected legal and academic specialists on 25 and 26 November 2010. Dr David James Cantor, the only international trainer, was invited by the Norwegian Refugee Council to give the opening and closing training sessions of the event.

On the first day, following the formal inauguration of the unit by the Prosecutor General of the Nation and other dignitaries, Dr Cantor opened the training session with a presentation on ‘Forced Displacement in International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law’, tying the Colombian penal provisions to these bodies of international law. Dr Cantor then engaged in a dynamic question and answer discussion with prosecutors, joined by Dr Oscar Julian Guerrero, a specialist in Colombian criminal law. On the second day of the training, Dr Cantor concluded the training with a group exercise where the prosecutors practised applying the legal concepts that they had studied to common scenarios of displacement in Colombia. These sessions not only generated intense discussion between all the participants but the prosecutors also commented that they left the training with confidence in the legal framework and its application and were keen to get to work!

Dr Cantor said: ‘I am honoured to have been invited to contribute towards this important initiative, which represents a positive step by Colombia towards addressing impunity for the atrocious forced displacements that affect significant parts of its population.’

Dr Cantor is a Lecturer in International Human Rights Law at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. A recognised specialist on international law and forced displacement, he is currently completing a knowledge exchange project on ‘Managing insecurity: displacement and return during the Colombian conflict’, funded by the ESRC and the School of Advanced Study.