On September 23, Colombians awoke to the unexpected news of a peace accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the guerrilla group better known as FARC. The agreement, which has the potential to bring an end to years of armed conflict, was signed by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC’s leader Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, also known as Timochenko, after a meeting in Havana. The accord is the result of three years of periodic meetings between the two parties, mediated by international observers from Cuba and Norway. As FARC lacks its once-strong legitimacy as a political group and the government no longer sees state-promoted violence as a viable option, the opposing groups are giving peace a chance. Both sides welcomed the agreement with a shared message of peace: “Peace is near, peace has arrived”, they proclaimed through their Twitter accounts, even posting a picture of the two leaders shaking hands, something that was seemingly impossible not long ago. This agreement will establish a system of transitional justice, whereby a separate and temporary justice system is created solely to address civil war related cases. While the transitional justice model poses important limitations given the country’s longstanding conflict, it is Colombia’s best bet for peace.
Transitional justice is nothing new to the region, with other Latin-American countries employing similar mechanisms in the past and successfully reinstating peaceful and democratic regimes. In Argentina and Chile, the transitional justice systems set up so-called Truth Commissions, which were able to compile testimonies of enforced disappearances and other systematic human rights violations during the countries’ military dictatorships. The commissions submitted the testimonies and recommendations for establishing reparations to the executive authorities, allowing those authorities to take appropriate measures. The commissions became both a successful legal mechanism and a repository for the countries’ collective memories. While this process aided Argentina and Chile in their transitions to democracy, it was far from perfect. Especially in the case of Chile, many military personnel were granted amnesty and never had to testify in front of the commission, let alone pay for their atrocious crimes.
However, Colombia seems to be learning from the mistakes of its neighbors. Like those in Chile and Argentina, the focus of Colombia’s Truth Commission will lie primarily on state reparations for victims. Additionally, Colombia will grant amnesty for those accused of political crimes. Perpetrators of other crimes will face a choice between confessing to the Truth Commission and possibly being found guilty without a confession. Those who confess will be required to pay reparations to victims in the form of social work, but will not necessarily be imprisoned, while those who do not but are found guilty will face up to eight years in prison. However, unlike Argentina and Chile, Colombia is making an unprecedented step towards dealing with those accused of crimes against humanity. Perpetrators of enforced disappearance and displacement, extrajudicial killings, genocide, and torture will not be granted amnesty and instead will be directly sentenced to 20 years in prison. These provisions apply to both guerrilla members and state agents active in the internal conflict, so that both sides are equally held accountable. Furthermore, if the guerrilla forces give up their arms within a 60-day period, they will be given the chance to become a legally recognized political group. While the announcement last month included this general framework, the finer details of this agreement are due to be hashed out by March 2016.
At first glance, Colombia’s agreement offers an opportunity to advance a much-needed transition to peace, given the country’s long history of armed conflict. Colombia’s armed confrontation, which dates back to 1948, has developed into a multifaceted war between a variety of actors including the state’s army, guerrilla groups, and drug cartels. Adding to the chaos and violence, the country experienced the rise of the extremely violent Medellin and Cali cartels during the 1980s. The continuous confrontations between these actors resulted in the overwhelming levels of violence that defined Colombia during this period. While exact numbers are uncertain, official estimates put the number of casualties at 220,000, the number of victims of forced disappearances at 50,000, and the number of internally displaced people at six million.
While the peace talks are undeniably a major step forward, the country still faces important political and economic challenges. Transitioning to peace is a complex process that demands more than the willingness of the leaders of involved parties to quit armed confrontation. This is particularly true in a nation like Colombia, where most affected citizens were not unaffiliated in the conflict. The internal displacement of a large fraction of Colombia’s rural population because of the conflict has long destabilized the largely agriculture-based economy. Internal displacement has also promoted a culture of fear among rural farmers, many of whom are victims of crime and are afraid to return to their lands. The war has also taken its toll on Colombia’s youth, who have not experienced peace in their lifetime. As a matter of fact, no Colombian born after the eruption of the conflict in 1948 has experienced a truly peaceful Colombia. With many Colombians not knowing anything else, the continuous violence has inevitably bred a culture of fear and tension among Colombians. Unless these cultural wounds can be healed, they will continue to be an obstacle to the agreement between the government and the FARC. Moreover, the years of conflict have left many citizens unable to trust their government, creating a good deal of skepticism about the effectiveness of the agreement. The success of the agreement will play a key role in creating a genuine sense of reparation and improvement among Colombian citizens.
Leaving fear behind might indeed be the biggest challenge for a nation accustomed to violence. But as it stands, both sides are simply weary of conflict and are ready to move on. The accord certainly has its limitations, but, at this stage, it is Colombia’s best path to peace. Rather than a set of imposed terms and conditions, the agreement can be seen as an invitation for Colombians to collectively enter a peacebuilding process, to come to terms with their past, and to start a new chapter in the history of their nation.
Photo: Camilo Rueda Lopez