Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS

Justice in Colombia Redefined

Justice in Latin America is no longer as black and white as putting the guilty behind bars, especially when impunity and corruption is rife. Across Central and South America unionists, victims and international human rights agencies have endured years of long suffering and neglect in a painful search for the truth. They are seeking out persons guilty of crimes such as genocide, kidnapping and rape in countries like El Salvador, Argentina, Guatemala and Colombia just to name a few. Latin America has also faced the delicate issue of how to rebuild economies and governments after decades of internal armed conflict, as well as how to reintegrate those affected into society, victims and perpetrators alike. Transitional justice, an approach to achieving justice in times of transition after violence and state repression[1] to a peaceful society, has shed new light on how to overcome these difficult obstacles. What it means to achieve justice in Latin America has been redefined. 2015 saw this new definition of justice in action in Colombia when a peace deal ending the world’s longest on-going war[2] with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army, was praised internationally as a new model for ending conflicts of a similar nature and magnitude in other Latin American countries.

Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS
Image courtesy of Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS, © 2015, some rights reserved.

The Colombian Civil War can be traced back to an outbreak of violence beginning in 1948 and the complex mosaic of issues were never addressed, which resulted in nasty violence persisting into the 21st century. Because of rampant impunity and corruption, justice seemed a far off nirvana rather than an achievable goal. The guerrilla insurgencies such as the FARC which formed in 1964 were born out of social exclusion in rural zones and on-going structural factors including but not limited to poverty, high levels of inequality, unequal distribution of land and after a few years of low-level political violence, a staleness that pervaded the citizens and the state. A severe gap between the citizens and the state led to a lack of meaningful access to political institutions. Unions called out for agrarian reforms to deaf ears, and Colombians were left feeling hopeless with no option but to turn to guerrilla warfare to get through to the state. The insurgencies were deeply intertwined with drug trafficking and ‘narco-terrorists’, figures like Pablo Escobar rose to unimaginable popularity. The state responded brutally. The Colombian government waged a ‘dirty war’ against the guerrilla insurgencies, and thrust the South American country into a conflict where no man was safe from either state brutality or guerrilla attacks. Living in fear for decades, achieving peace in Colombia necessitates moving past negotiating with the warring parties and must endeavour repairing a broken society with a history of fear and political violence embedded into every day life.

The ‘General Agreement to end the Conflict and Building a Stable and Lasting Peace’, a six-point detailed agreement between the FARC and the Colombian government, was created in 2012 in La Habana, mediated by Cuban President Raul Castro. The much anticipated announcement of the final negotiations of this agreement saw FARC leader Rodrigo Londono ‘Timochenko’ Echeverri and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos shaking hands with smiles on their faces—after 68 years of conflict and bloodshed, a truly momentous occasion. The General Agreement focuses on achieving peace by addressing the six key issues created by the internal armed conflict inclusive of the laying down of arms, building economic and social equity in Colombia, land reform, reintegrating guerrillas into society and allowing for political participation, expanding democracy in Colombia, addressing the problems of illicit drugs, fighting impunity and corruption, and perhaps most importantly (or certainly most highlighted by the media) redressing victims by examining truth and human rights issues that brought the Colombian conflict into the international spotlight over the last few decades.[3] This is not the first time a Latin American country has seen the unprecedented integration of the guerrilla into contemporary politics. The current president of El Salvador, Sanchez Ceren, was the first former guerrilla leader to fairly win a presidential election in 2009[4]. In a similar vein, the FARC hopes to retain political influence through lawful means in Colombia. Make no mistake, these agreements seek to discipline the guerrillas guilty of criminal activity in the past years. The very involved civil society in Colombia will not allow for amnesties to be granted or for the guilty to get away scotch-free, and will continue keen observation of the institutions put in place by the General Agreement to ensure commitment to its policies.

Alongside human rights, non-repetition is at the core of the General Agreement. As a result, transitional justice in Colombia will be two-fold: those who ‘recognise their responsibility in an early fashion for the most serious crimes [will have access to the special justice treatment]’ and will face ‘alternative sanctions’ instead of jail time.[5] Those who fail to recognise this responsibility and are found guilty will face jail sentences for up to twenty years. This rather elegant agreement satisfies the need for justice to prevail in Colombia while persuading the FARC leaders that laying down arms does not mean being put behind bars indefinitely. Such a delicate compromise means neither victory nor defeat for any party involved: simply peace.

The General Agreement is a major accomplishment for the institutions involved as well as for transitional justice itself. One of the major struggles the Colombian government has faced when trying to negotiate with guerrilla insurgency groups is that a trial and error application (of a traditional Western model for conflict resolution) was not only mismatched to the judicial needs of the Colombian conflict, but counterproductive. It built tension and hostility between the government, guerrillas, civil society groups, and international human rights organisations. This ‘peace from IKEA’ focused on establishing institutions in Colombia and neglected the regeneration and transformation of social relationships that Colombia needs.[6]

The role of civil society in Colombia, that is the aggregate community of ‘charities, non-governmental development, human rights, and peace organizations, community groups, women’s organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations (such as lawyers groups), trade unions, social movements, coalitions and advocacy groups’[7] have played a major role in pushing for transitional justice that allowed for a FARC leader to happily shake the hand of a Colombian president. With the help of the media and the driving force of post-Cold War globalisation, Colombian civil society shed light on the human rights atrocities that occurred for decades in their country. They sought help from international agencies to apply pressure strong enough to break the government’s silence, and force the state out of its stale and stagnant position. Civil society is a very important part of the reason why the General Agreement focuses on human rights and non-repetition at its core.

Looking forward, Colombia still has a little way to go before all the terms of the General Agreement can be implemented over the next few years. By May 2016 the FARC will formally begin ‘laying down its arms’, not to be confused with disarmament which implies defeat or surrender, but as a voluntary act and a symbol of cooperation. The General Agreement stresses this ‘laying down of arms’ as a necessary condition for guerrillas to have access to legal resources during judicial processes, and to achieve a level of convivencia (coexistence) with Colombian society. Detailed operational and technical planning will need to be carefully outlined so as not to run into delays or disruption during this sensitive process. Civil society and international actors will continue to play the important role of observers, in order to keep in check the balance of power between the negotiating parties, and to ensure tendencies of impunity do not creep back into the reconstruction and peace processes occurring. In the meantime, Colombians are, somewhat prematurely, celebrating the announcement of final agreements of the General Agreement. A guerrilla leader shaking hands with the Colombian president is surely a sight for sore eyes and a positive step in the right direction.

[1] “What Is Transitional Justice? | ICTJ.” International Center for Transitional Justice. 2011. Accessed February 08, 2016. https://www.ictj.org/about/transitional-justice.

[2] Vulliamy, Ed. “Colombia Peace Deal with Farc Is Hailed as New Model for Ending Conflicts.” The Guardian. 2015. Accessed February 08, 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/26/colombia-farc-peace-santos.

[3] http://www.lse.ac.uk/IDEAS/images/events/15-05-12-Colombian-Peace-Event/3-General-Agreement.pdf

[4] “El Salvador’s Guerrilla President Marks 1 Year in Office.” El Salvador’s Guerrilla President Marks 1 Year in Office. Accessed February 08, 2016. http://www.telesurtv.net/english/analysis/Salvadoran-President-Prioritizes-Education-Poverty-Reduction-20150531-0013.html.

[5] Vulliamy, Ed, op. cit.

[6] MacGinty, R. ‘The pre-war reconstruction of post-war Iraq’, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4, 2003

[7] “Colombian Civil Society.” Colombian Civil Society. Accessed February 08, 2016. http://www.abcolombia.org.uk/subpage.asp?subid=314.

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