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Securing Lasting Peace and Justice in Colombia

 

FACTS ABOUT THE CONFLICT IN COLOMBIA:

 

  • The conflict started in the 1960’s and has led to the death of 220,000 people and the internal displacement of nearly 6 million Colombians.
  • To date, three sizeable armed organizations have fought to attain their political goals through violence – the left-wing Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC), the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN), and the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).  A few smaller ones have also participated in the conflict.
  • These three organizations have been involved in assassinations, kidnappings, oil pipeline sabotage, and drug trafficking.
  • FARC has also been responsible for recruiting adolescents in its ranks, many of whom became victims of sexual and physical abuse.

 

FACTS ABOUT THE PEACE PROCESS (2012 – present):

  • There have been numerous unsuccessful attempts to secure lasting peace in Colombia.  The first process was initiated in 1982 under the administration of President Betancur.  A temporary ceasefire with the leftist guerrilla group M-19 ended when the group organized an attack on the Palace of Justice in Bogotá.  Separate negotiations with FARC leaders led to the signing of the Uribe Accord in 1984.  Negotiations with FARC were suspended in 2002 by President Pastrana.[1]
  • The current negotiations with FARC leaders started in late 2012 and recently led to the signing of a ceasefire.
  • The final accord will make provisions for an amnesty of those combatants who confess any human rights violations and other crimes they have committed.
  • The final accord must be approved by the Colombian public in a plebiscite.  Recent surveys indicate that only 39% of respondents were supportive of the accord.

How likely are the recent negotiations between the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia and the Colombian government to secure lasting peace?  Colombia has been gripped by a violent civil conflict for five decades.  Many Colombians have lost their lives as a result of the conflict; many others have been displaced from their hometowns and sought refuge either in less violent regions of the country or abroad.  Negotiations have entered their final phase, but the accord has to be approved by a majority of the Colombian voters before it is implemented.  Based on survey data from an Ipsos Napoleón Franco poll conducted in August 2016, only 39% of the respondents backed the peace deal whereas 50% opposed it.[2] How viable is the peace accord in the face of such substantial public opposition?  What factors motivate this opposition?  In the eyes of many Colombians the deal is unacceptable because FARC members who confess that they have perpetrated violent crimes can take advantage of an amnesty that will allow them to avoid serving a prison sentence.  To many victims and their families, the deal is a poor bargain, if peace is to be attained at the price of justice.  FARC ex-combatants who confess their crimes will not be automatically exculpated from their crimes and avoid responsibility.  They will have certain “restrictions to their liberties” and participate in community programs that give them an opportunity to compensate the victims of the conflict.[3]  This sort of punishment, however, will hardly be commensurate with the crimes they committed.

Ex-combatants who have been responsible for committing more serious crimes against humanity, including war crimes, torture, forced displacement, and sexual violence, will be subject to “restricted liberty” between five and eight years.  Conversely, those ex-combatants who do not confess their crimes, will be subject to legal prosecution and could possibly serve prison sentences of up to 20 years.[4]  Former President Álvaro Uribe, who advocated and pursued a mano dura approach in dealing with all illegal armed organizations who were a party to the civil conflict, has launched a strong “No” campaign in the upcoming plebiscite on the final peace deal.[5] Many Colombians seem to have been swayed by the “No” campaign.  Critics also revile the idea that ex-combatants, many of whom are responsible for perpetuating the cycle of violence, will renounce their weapons and return to civilian life as candidates for political office.

Child Soldiers

Caption: Child soldiers are recruited by FARC to fight alongside adults.

Source: Colombia: FARC Guerrilla Pledges to Stop Recruiting Child Soldiers. (2016, May 16). Retrieved August 15, 2016, from https://panampost.com/sabrina-martin/2016/05/16/farc-promises-to-stop-recruitment-of-minors/

The stakes in the plebiscite on the peace deal are high.  If the deal is approved, Colombia will be on its path to lasting peace, possibly at the price of impunity for the perpetrators of human rights violations.  Moreover, there are still no guarantees that the peace accord will be implemented smoothly.  The success of the deal will depend on the compliance of all FARC ex-combatants occupying the demilitarized zones (zonas veredales) and the Colombian authorities.  All weapons must be surrendered and the monitoring and verification mechanism for weapons disarmament ought to work impeccably in order to ensure a permanent cessation of hostilities.  Concerns do remain that there may be FARC units that are not willing to comply with the terms of the deal or even acknowledge its legitimacy.  There are reports that a breakaway FARC unit, known as the “Armando Ríos First Front,” whose fighters are operating in the southeastern Colombian jungle, is questioning the peace deal and will refuse to surrender its arms.[6]  The possibility of such breakaway units is real; their refusal to comply with the deal might sabotage it and deepen Colombian people’s suspicion of the FARC’s commitment to peace.

If the accord is not approved at the plebiscite, however, the government will find it difficult to accept it in its current form and there may be strong pressure for revisions of some of the clauses, specifically those that discuss amnesties and the opportunity for political involvement of ex-combatants.  President Santos has even suggested that if the peace deal is not approved at the plebiscite, FARC might return to violence.  “He [President Santos] said he had “ample information” that the FARC is “preparing to return to war, even an urban war.”[7] It is difficult to predict how the FARC combatants will respond to a negative vote on the peace deal, but its future will be precarious, if that is the outcome.

 

Victims of Violence in Colombia

Source: Marty, B. (2014, July 07). FARC Victims Demand Voice in Colombian Peace Process. Retrieved August 15, 2016, from https://panampost.com/belen-marty/2014/07/07/farc-victims-demand-voice-in-colombian-peace-process/

Experts on the peace negotiations in Colombia note that previous peace talks between armed non-government actors and the Colombian government did not focus sufficiently on victims’ rights.  The process that involved the demobilization of the right-wing paramilitary organization Self-Defense Forces of Colombia during the last decade and the current talks with the FARC leadership have placed more emphasis on victims and their right to compensation and justice.[8]  In spite of this positive evolution of the peace process, however, victims’ rights are not automatically recognized and protected by the state until they are formally acknowledged as victims.  In some cases it might be difficult for victims to present evidence that certifies their status as victims or they might be too traumatized to testify in court.  The complexities of the peace process are staggering, and though much has been accomplished, there are still controversial issues such as the perpetrators’ impunity or insufficient protection of victims’ rights that might lead to a setback.[9]  The Colombian government is facing a major challenge in building its constituents’ trust in the goodwill of the FARC to surrender its arms and commit to lasting peace.

Disclaimer: “The views expressed in this post solely reflect the author’s opinion, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Reiff Center or Christopher Newport University.” 

[1] Ferstman, C., Goetz, M., & Stephens, A. (2009). Reparations for victims of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity: Systems in place and systems in the making. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff.

[2] Gran encuesta: Colombia opina. (2016, August 06). Retrieved August 13, 2016, from http://www.semana.com/nacion/galeria/plebisicito-por-la-paz-50-votaran-no/485058

[3] 2nd poll confirms majority in Colombia opposes peace deal with FARC. (2016, August 08). Retrieved August 13, 2016, from http://colombiareports.com/2nd-poll-confirms-majority-colombia-opposes-peace-deal-farc/

[4] Brown, G. (2015, September 23). Colombia’s peace deals in depth: Transitional justice. Retrieved August 13, 2016, from http://colombiareports.com/colombias-peace-deals-in-depth-transitional-justice/

[5] Mano dura or the ‘iron fist’ approach to dealing with the guerrillas and paramilitaries entails the use of the police and the military to crack down on guerrilla units.

[6] Acosta, N., & Marsh, S. (2016, July 07). Colombia’s FARC probing rebel unit’s opposition to peace deal. Retrieved August 13, 2016, from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-colombia-rebels-idUSKCN0ZN2PE

[7] Alpert, M. (2016, July 18). Politics Roils Colombia’s Tentative Peace Deal With the FARC. Retrieved August 13, 2016, from http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/07/18/politics-roils-colombias-tentative-peace-deal-with-the-farc-eln-santos-uribe/

[8] Jaramillo, S., Giha, Y., & Torres, P. (2011). Transitional Justice and DDR: The Case of Colombia (Case study). Retrieved August 08, 2016, from https://www.ictj.org/publication/transitional-justice-and-ddr-case-colombia-case-study

[9] Miroff, N. (2016, July 7). Colombia’s peace process: What’s next and what’s at stake. Retrieved August 08, 2016, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/07/07/colombias-peace-process-whats-next-and-whats-at-stake/