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Colombia’s Peace Process and Transitional Justice

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Author: Mariana Cardona

After nearly four years of negotiations, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) achieved a breakthrough in the peace process by reaching an agreement on transitional justice. This groundbreaking agreement contemplates the creation of a Truth Commission and a Special Tribunal for transitional justice. See our Advocate article, Colombia Advances to Peace, for LAWG’s analysis of the trade-offs between justice and peace. While reactions to the agreement have been diverse, the majority of the victims’ representatives who traveled to Havana to present their perspectives at the peace table welcomed this step.

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Panelists during the Colombia Peace Forum on the peace process and transitional justice. September 30, 2015.
Photo courtesy of USIP.

On September 30, 2015, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the International Center for Transitional Justice, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) co-sponsored a Colombia Peace Forum to discuss the issues of historical memory, victims’ rights, and transitional justice in relation to the peace process in Havana. The forum culminated with the presentation of a report produced by Colombia’s National Center for Historical Memory which examines the issues of historical memory, truth, and justice.

Virginia Bouvier, USIP’s senior advisor for Latin America programs, opened the forum by explaining the transitional justice agreement. “[These accords] have provided a much needed boost to the peace process and inspired hope at last to an impatient population that has been rather skeptical about the peace process from the get-go,” explained Bouvier. According to Bouvier, this transitional justice agreement is unique, because “it gives priority to truth telling but does not supplant the need for justice.” The privileging of truth telling has also given an essential role to Colombia’s 7.6 million registered victims by allowing them the opportunity to share their stories and participate in the peace process. Bouvier also emphasized the importance of the implementation of the agreements in a post-conflict period: “successful implementation of the terms of the accords is probably the single most important factor in ensuring that Colombia will not return to war.”  

Among the panelists was Kimberly Theidon, a medical anthropologist, who discussed gender-based violence in the context of armed conflicts. Theidon argues that the agenda of the United Nations’ Security Council resolutions on Women, Peace, and Security “falls short on a broader goal of gender equality.” The resolutions are “overwhelmingly focused on women and girls as victims of sexual violence during armed conflict” and fail to consider men and boys as victims. Theidon points to the fact that “when people think gender they think women, when they think women they think rape and sexual violence.” Therefore, men are mostly viewed as perpetuators of sexual violence, and even when they are considered victims, “they are only secondary victims.” According to Theidon, this singular focus on women as victims of sexual violence “may result in obscuring the less dramatic yet everyday forms of gender-based violence that distort the lives of women and girls, men and boys.” Theidon argues that in the context of reparations, truth telling, and justice in Colombia, we should “look at the other kinds of gender based violence that men suffer” and figure out for example, “what goes on in the barracks and what kind of violence is practiced upon recruits in the name of making them more capable of performing brutal acts of violence against the civilian population.”

Carlos Quesada, the executive Director of the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights, discussed the disproportionate impacts of Colombia’s armed conflict on indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. According to Quesada, the armed conflict has a structural ethnic dimension as “racial discrimination has played an important factor in the last two decades of the internal conflict in Colombia.” Although Afro Colombians account for about 10% of the country’s population, “they represent around 30 to 35% of the internally displaced in Colombia” as a result of the armed conflict. As Afro-Colombian communities have been disproportionately impacted by the armed conflict, “they should be considered, hopefully, in the last stages of the peace process.” “Afro-Colombians want to be part of the peace process” and they want their opinions and experiences as victims to be heard. Quesada concluded his presentation by expressing the importance of acknowledging the ethnic dimension of the conflict and remembering that although there has been a breakthrough in the negotiations, “for Afro-Colombian communities the conflict has not ended yet.” As of today, Afro-Colombians are still being killed, displaced, and threatened by various criminal groups.

The Colombia Peace Forum culminated with the presentation of the report “Basta Ya: Memories of War and Dignity.” Andres Suarez and Marta Nubio represented Colombia’s National Center for Historical Memory, as they explained the main objectives of the report and discussed a few of its limitations. The main purpose of the report, as explained by Suarez, was to create a debate among the Colombian population and to position the issue of historical memory at the center of this debate. Suarez also emphasized the marginal character of the armed conflict and its disproportionate effect on the rural population. According to Suarez, Colombia’s armed conflict throughout the years became a “nuisance with which we [Colombians] could live” because it did not affect all sectors of society in the same way. Suarez explained that 80% of the victims of the armed conflict come from rural areas that hold only 30% of the country’s population, indicating that the majority of  violence has occurred in Colombia’s rural countryside. However, “the rural country is not always recognized by the urban country.” This has created a level of indifference within urban areas, as urban dwellers do not relate to the reality of Colombia’s rural areas. Suarez explains that most of the victims of the armed conflict “are peasants, are workers, are employees, are people from this rural world… they are not politicians or highly recognized figures… they are victims of daily life” who probably do not appear on the front page of a newspaper.

Marta Nubio closed the presentation of “Basta Ya” by explaining some of the main limitations of the report and illustrating the need for ending the armed conflict in Colombia. Victims “do not want a perfect model of justice,” but an end to the conflict, said Nubio. While scholars, researchers, practitioners, and others discuss theoretical agreements and the possibilities for peace, more bullets are being fired and more human rights defenders are being killed in Colombia. According to Nubio, the transitional justice accords show that “it is possible to reach agreements even if they are not perfect, which can mean the possibility of ending the war.” Colombians “prefer an imperfect peace to a perpetual war.”

The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) has also published a full recording of the event: