Clarifying the past: Colombia’s big step forward at peace negotiations

Colombia will create a truth commission. The Colombian government and the left-wing guerrilla FARC decided on 4 June 2015 to set up a body that should clarify major human rights violations committed by all sides. It should reveal past atrocities, recognize the victims and make sure that these kinds of crimes will not be repeated in the future. While a big step forward, many challenges remain ahead.

Major breakthrough in difficult times

The Colombian public has been increasingly impatient about the lack of news from the peace negotiations in La Havana on Cuba that started in October 2012. As a matter of fact, most Colombians do not follow what is going in the peace talks nor is there extensive media coverage. Also the negotiating parties largely ignore the day-to-day reality of the conflict and the government has failed so far to establish a national dialogue of how a possible post-conflict Colombia could look like. Consequently, a disconnect has been created during the past two and a half years where many Colombians do not have the interest in negotiations that could settle one of the oldest armed conflict in the world as it is going on for more than 50 years.

Most of the attention, particularly of the media, receives not the peace negotiations but the increased military activities by both sides that brought about a lot of media coverage. These latest incidents of attacks undermined the atmosphere at the negotiating table. The government fiercely attacked the guerrilla group during the past weeks and the FARC stopped its unilateral ceasefire. For the Colombian public at large these attacks question the viability of peace talks. Despite the hostilities, the negotiators continued to meet in La Havana, which was an important achievement because other peace processes in the past fell apart after such attacks due to the lack of trust.

The stories of victims and survivors are crucial to give them voice, because it is the groups that have arms that usually dominante the official narratives.

After one year of no concrete results at the negotiation table, it has been about time to present something viable to the public. It appears to be a strategic announcement to present to Colombians that the peace talks do work: at the 37th cycle of the peace negotiations on Cuba, a major breakthrough was finally achieved. A truth commission should be established which is a crucial element of transitional justice. It will be known as Comisión para el esclarecimiento de la verdad, la convivencia y la no repetición (Commission for the Clarification of the Truth, Coexistence and No-Repetition – here is the original document) and will be created after the signing of a peace agreement (whereby a date is still not known, maybe at the end of the year) and when the FARC has handed in its weapons, thus allowing the safe access to all areas of the country.

The work of truth commissions

Truth commissions have been set up in over 40 countries all over the globe after repressive dictatorships and armed conflict with the aim to clarify the past, which is often denied by the conflict actors. A truth commission is expected to overcome myths that might have been created about atrocities and also systematically quantifies the human rights violations committed during the period investigated. There is the hope that perpetrators will speak out about the injustices that they have committed and thus help shed light to events of the crimes and the way they were organized that otherwise hardly would be revealed through the retributive justice system.

Ideally, truth commissions allow for remorse and forgiveness. However, the reality is often much more complicated and truth commissions face enormous challenges, even the largely positively evaluated Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Truth commissions have been established in all parts of the world, usually characterized by being established by the state, strictly delimited mandates, temporary in duration, a focus on the past, and the expectation to publish a final report. In contrast to tribunals or war crimes commissions, truth commissions do not possess the power to prosecute or render retributive justice.

Colombia’s truth commission in a nutshell

In the late 1990s, a monument was built for the victims in Trujillo. Many other victims never got any recognition so far.
In the late 1990s, a monument was built for the victims in Trujillo. Many other victims never got any recognition so far.

In the case of Colombia, the negotiating parties agreed on the framework of the truth commission that should consist overall 11 commissioners (all parts of society can propose names while the negotiating parties will select them by two thirds majority). The time period of three years seems to be sufficient as a working period for the truth commission; it seems to be a clear lessons learnt from other countries where truth commissions only operated for one or two years and consequently not living up to their mandate. It is important to note that their first criteria mentioned are the victims, so that they can actively participate and their voices are heard.

The proposed truth commission, which should be impartial and independent, has three main aims: 1) the clarification about the past (although the exact dates of the investigation are not mentioned), 2) the recognition of the crimes committed by all sides (including the government) and particularly of the victims of the armed conflict (with the aim of non-repetition), and 3) the peaceful coexistence in all territories of Colombia, particularly in the periphery that is mostly affected by violence, which should include a democratic culture and social justice. The negotiating parties are very much aware that any success of the truth commission will depend on the support of civil society. Therefore, they want to actively integrate it, although the control and set-up of the truth commission will remain within the conflict actors.

Debates and criticism

Some questions are still unanswered. A key challenge is how to involve the military that very much likely will be a potential spoiler of the truth commission as the Colombian website La Silla Vacía reminds us, fearing that many of their crimes will be revealed. Other challenges include whether or not the archives will be opened for the truth commission, a key demand of the FARC as it can reveal the systematic human rights violations of Colombia’s security forces. Already now though, Colombia is a very divided society and the work of the truth commission can further bring about upheaval. It will depend on the exact mandate and the independence and authority of the commissioners as well as the inclusion of Colombia’s civil society that the truth commission can be a success.

The work of the Colombian truth commission, in contrast to some other countries, will not be used as evidence at courts; thus, it will be an extrajudicial body. Therefore, the controversial issue about sentences of high-ranking FARC members, but also possibly military personnel is not resolved. In fact, Alejandro Ordoñez, the country’s Inspector General who is known for his extremely conservative views and is officially opposed to the peace process, claimed that a truth commission would “dilute” the crimes of the FARC and that truth cannot be negotiated. Surely, Ordoñez has not studied truth commissions well, because the aim is not to create one truth but show the complexity of past events, including the crimes of the state that he would like to ignore.

The debate about amnesties will continue to divide the conflict actors at the negotiation table as the FARC demands full blanket amnesties that the government surely will not grant, nor will the Colombian public allow such a move. At the same time the government is very reserved about jailing members of the armed forces, not least fearing that the military could spoil the peace process (as they have done in the past three peace processes with the FARC during the past 30 years).

Colombia’s achievement in memory politics

basta ya
The report “Basta Ya” (2013) is the most comprehensive report of Colombia’s efforts in historical memory so far.

In comparison to other countries that come out of violent conflict, Colombia has done an enormous effort during the past 10 years to give voice to the victims. First it was the Group of Historic Memory within the framework of the 2005 Justice and Peace Law and since 2011 it is the National Center for Historic Memory (CNMH) that carries out the very important work to publish reports about massacres that are all available on their website (in Spanish), giving voice to the victims by telling the events through their eyes. Moreover, the CNMH provides for symbolic reparation to the victims, an integral part of a wider frame of comprehensive reparation. The most important publication has been the 2013 report Basta Ya (“It is enough,” clearly giving a reference to Argentina’s famous report Nunca más). Besides the official efforts, numerous victims networks across the country have contributed to clarify the past, often under the most difficult circumstances.

As the NGO ICTJ points out, the truth commission should not be seen as an “obligation” towards the international community, nor should it produce too much expectation in the larger public. The idea should be to reflect about the armed conflict and the violence, it should be the very reason why deep structural reforms of the Colombian state are necessary to overcome inequality and decade-long violence, may it be physical or structural. And despite the fact that much work has been done already, ICTJ confirms that “there is still great demand in the country for knowledge and recognition of the truth about the armed conflict.”

Step in right direction

The agreement to establish a truth commission is a further step towards the right direction: a peace agreement is one step closer, despite difficult circumstances in the field and a divided country. The Colombian government and President Santos have to finally prepare the Colombian people of what is going to await them after the accords are signed. So far, Sergio Jaramillo, Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace, has given fantastic speeches at Harvard University and LSE and had great showings at Hardtalk and Amanpour, but it is about time that all around Colombia a dialogue is starting to get ready for a possible post-conflict situation.

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