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Law professor offers advice to Columbian officials

BY ERICA MAHONEY | OCTOBER 08, 2014 5:00 AM

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University of Iowa law Professor Mark Osiel was recently invited to Colombia by the Republic of Colombia and the Organization of Ibero-American States, an inter-governmental organization dedicated to promoting human rights in the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking world.

“Since this is my area of scholarship, I’m periodically invited to countries undergoing transitions from war to peace and from authoritarianism to democracy,” he said. “Their leaders and citizens, including victims’ organizations, ask me to explain the range of possibilities for what’s loosely called ‘transitional justice.’ ”

He said the term “transitional justice” refers to the legal tools countries today employ to cope with the aftermath of mass atrocities. These can include “truth commissions” and criminal prosecution of key perpetrators, along with civil compensation, property restitution, and official commemoration of victims.

Osiel said his talks with Colombian officials mainly revolved around the victims of the war.

“The public lecture and private conversations with presidential advisers focused on civil reparations for victims,” he said. “One major practical problem is simply that there are so many of them — some 6 million, by reliable accounts.”

He said hundreds of thousands of people have lost their land because of 50 years of war.

“There are alone over 200,000 small farmers ‘internally displaced’ from their land by a half-century of civil war between leftist revolutionaries, right-wing paramilitaries, drug cartels, and the state itself,” he said.

Osiel offered a plan to the Colombian officials that would help the war victims, similar to how the United States responded after the 9/11 tragedy.

“Because there is so much suffering, and because litigation takes so long, I recommended an expedited mass-claims procedure, much like the one we in the U.S. used to compensate many thousands of 9/11 victims and families,” he said.

Osiel said things are looking much more positive in Colombia recently.

“There has been extraordinary progress in peace negotiations over the last few months between the Colombian state and the principal revolutionary group,” he said. “Close observers are quite optimistic.”

Downing Thomas, associate provost and dean of International Programs, said that although the UI has always had an international presence, it has grown significantly in recent years.

“What is new is the degree of involvement and the number of connections and relationships we have,” he said. “The faculty have often worked with international partners in the past, but the number of those connections and the interest in expanding those connections has really increased in the last few years. And in addition to that, there has been greater engagement on the part of the faculty in international research and collaboration.”

John Reitz, a professor of law and director of graduate programs and visiting scholars, said the type of work Osiel is involved in can draw numerous benefits.

“This is a great opportunity for Professor Osiel to not only learn more about the area he’s interested in, which includes crime that involves international law, but it’s also a great way to bring his scholarship there on these real-life problems, so it kind of works both ways,” he said.

Reitz said involvement in international relations has always been a strength of the UI College of Law, but recent additions have added to that.

“We do have quite a few exciting young colleagues now who are very active in the international field,” he said. “And within the last two to three years, we’ve hired quite a few people who have strong international connections and interests and are making big international contributions.”


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