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Colombia-FARC peace talks: evaluating the transitional justice agreement

By Amaury A. Reyes-Torres

After years of conflict and failed attempts to reach a peace agreement, there was a significant breakthrough in the latest round of negotiations, which began in 2010, between the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest rebel group.

On Sept. 23, Juan Manuel Santos, the President of Colombia, and Rodrigo Londoño Echeveri, FARC’s high commander who is also known as “Timochenko,” released a joint declaration outlining an agreement on transitional justice, victims’ rights and reparations, the most contentious negotiation point of the ongoing peace process. This step brings Colombia closer to a comprehensive peace agreement, which would mean the end of one of the longest-lasting conflicts in the region.

Despite this significant progress, there have been mixed feelings about transitional justice agreement reached between the government of Colombia and FARC. On one side, people are supportive and hopeful about what a peace deal may actually bring to Colombia; but on the other side, critics of the agreement have been skeptical about the content and practical challenges of the transitional justice deal. Nonetheless, the outline is a step towards legal accountability, reparations and reconciliation. But two questions remain unanswered: will FARC comply with the final peace agreement? And will this recent breakthrough truly serve the principles of transitional justice?

TRANSITIONAL JUSTICE: TRUTH, JUSTICE, REPARATION AND NON-RECURRENCE

According to the United Nations Guidelines on Transitional Justice, transitional justice is a conglomerate of judicial and extrajudicial mechanisms that help societies come to terms with widespread rights violations. These tools serve to facilitate the prevention of future conflicts or repressive rule through the promotion peace, reconciliation and rule of law. Transitional justice seeks to understand the roots of conflict, to adopt the necessary measures to prevent new ones and to pursue accountability.

Any process of transitional justice should be carried out in accordance with the principles of truth, justice and reparation, including institutional reforms, effectively addressing the need of the victims and the reconstruction of a country’s social fabric. Furthermore, the victim’s right to know the truth should carry great weight in this process. According to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, states have an obligation under the American Convention on Human Rights to guarantee the right to know the truth. This may entail the creation of a truth commission to preserve historical memory and ensure accountability. After all, justice can only be served and due reparations awarded if the truth is uncovered.

Recently, a new principle has emerged that was arguably already implicit in the other three principles: the principle of non-recurrence. According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, a “general commitment to adhere to a right involves making efforts to ensure that its violation ceases and is not repeated.” Thus, ensuring non-recurrence should be part of a comprehensive transitional justice strategy. This may require substantial institutional transformations to prevent new recurrence of future conflicts and with them, new human rights violations. While truth, justice and reparations serve a contributive function, the guarantee of non-recurrence serves a preventive function.

Transitions take quite some time and the peace process in Colombia is a good example of this. The Colombian conflict has been ongoing for more than 60 years. Although there have been several failed attempts to reach a peace agreement, it has only been in the last few years that substantial progress has been made, and peace may finally be a reality.

THE JOINT DECLARATION ON TRANSITIONAL JUSTICE

The latest agreement on transitional justice places victims at the forefront of the peace agreement. Both parties believe that the victims should be compensated and by no means left out of the peace deal that is being negotiated. The agreement would establish a special jurisdiction for peace within Colombia’s justice system. Adopting the form of an international mixed tribunal, the jurisdiction will be integrated with Colombian and international judges in order to ensure its independence and impartiality. It will serve three main functions: 1) to end impunity for crimes committed during the conflict or in connection with the conflict; 2) to uncover the truth; and 3) to investigate, judge and sanction those responsible for the gravest crimes committed during the conflict, including those who participated directly and indirectly in the commission of gross human rights violations, regardless of whether they are FARC combatants or state agents. The sanctions system must satisfy the rights of victims, help consolidate peace and have an effective reparative and restorative effect

The special jurisdiction for peace will follow two different procedures depending on who will be tried within it. One procedure will apply to those who recognize and admit to their actions. The other procedure will apply to those individuals who would claim that they have not perpetrated any crimes, and will be subject to a full trial before the tribunal. The legal consequences will vary as well. Those who recognized and admit their actions will face a sentence between five and eight years in “special conditions” that restrict their liberty, but will not be sent to regular jail. However, those who deny their responsibility, but are found guilty, will face a sentence up to 20 years in prison.

Furthermore, amnesty will be granted for political and other related crimes. However, genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and other related crimes, as defined under Colombia’s national law, are not eligible for amnesty. The tribunals created under the special jurisdiction for peace will hear these cases.

Another interesting point in the joint declaration is how special treatment within the special jurisdiction for peace is regulated. Any special treatment will be afforded as long as the offender tells the truth, compensates the victims and guarantees non-recurrence.

Finally, the agreement imposes an obligation on FARC. If they want to pursue any political aim of their own in Colombia, they must lay down their arms as soon as the peace agreement is signed. If they adhere to this, FARC will be transformed into a political movement that the government will support.

CRITICISM, PROBLEMS AND CHALLENGES

Though the transitional justice agreement is a monumental step forward for peace negotiations, it is not without its own set of issues. For instance, only a 10 point outline of the agreement was publicly released. The formal agreement covering all the aspects of the new special jurisdiction, are undisclosed, unknown to the Colombian people.

The secrecy surrounding the final draft of the agreement has brought about public opposition. The Colombian Attorney General, Alejandro Ordonez, and the President of the Council of State, Luis Rafael Vergara, have called for the full disclosure of the text. To calm public dissatisfaction, Ivan Marquez, the Chief of the Peace delegation for FARC, recently stated that the agreement is a document of 75 points that includes restorative sanctions. Though this was a step in the right direction, it does not make the peace process fully transparent.

Furthermore, some fear that FARC’s potential transition from guerilla group to political party may foster impunity and social divides. Under the agreement, there will be no extraditions to the U.S., and former fighters will be allowed to run for political office. The former President of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, now a Senator, worries that Timochenko, the leader of FARC, might be able to run for president, exacerbating social tensions and divides. Similarly, others fear that those who committed crimes may be able to hold political power and sway, an affront to the victims of abuses. According to the Joint Declaration, the possibility that the FARC may be allowed to pursue their goals through the political system will be detailed in the final peace agreement.

Another important question is whether the accountability and amnesty provisions as proposed in the agreement will deepen impunity. José Miguel Vivanco, the Director of the Americas Division at Human Rights Watch, stated that the agreement may allow those most responsible for human rights atrocities to escape accountability. By allowing those who committed human rights abuses to avoid time in prison, this agreement fails to administer proportionate punishments to the perpetrators of human rights abuses. Furthermore, the amnesty provision, which is meant to be broad, will extend to crimes connected to rebelling against the state, potentially including extortion, narco-trafficking and kidnapping. This, too, could contribute impunity and lack of justice.

CONCLUSION

The recent agreement on transitional justice constitutes a breakthrough that might close a complicated chapter in Colombian history. However, how both parties conduct their relations during the rest of the peace process and the implementation of the agreement itself will be crucial for justice to be ensured. Moreover, it remains to be seen if the final peace agreement will put a permanent end to conflict and paramilitary violence in Colombia, or if only FARC will be covered, among all the other paramilitary groups.

Camilo Sánchez, research coordinator of DeJusticia, said that this is not a perfect agreement but it is an agreement that will keep Colombia away from the perfect war. The agreement, however, must be as comprehensive as possible in terms of securing the rights of victims and holding those responsible of gross violation accountable. Only by doing this, Sánchez argues, can the two sides truly guarantee non-recurrence.

Time will tell if both sides are committed to truth, justice, reparations and non-recurrence. It is up to the public to demand a just and transparent peace process. Although peace is a complicated goal to achieve, it is a worthy one. However, peace without justice and accountability means nothing for the reconciliation process in the heart of any transitional justice paradigm.

Amaury A. Reyes-Torres is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo credit: Pedro Szekely/Creative Commons

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Colombia: the peace talks hit a bump, but move forward

By Guillermo Farias

On April 15, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) attacked a group of Colombian army soldiers in the department of Cauca, in the southwest of the country. 11 soldiers died and another 20 suffered injuries, according to official reports. The attack broke the unilateral truce implemented by the FARC since last December.

At first glance, it would be easy to interpret this development as catastrophic or even fatal to the peace process. That is not the case. While the attack by FARC and the government’s subsequent decision to restart airstrikes against the rebels will have serious consequences and might change the dynamics in Havana, Cuba, where peace talks are taking place, the talks will go on. In fact, the government will likely be in a stronger negotiating position going forward.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, both sides sought to frame the events in a favorable way by using the language of human rights and the laws of war. So far, the government’s version of events seems to have gained more traction with public opinion in Colombia and the international community.

FARC attempted to frame the events as a defensive action, and were quick to point out that the government has continued offensive actions even after the guerilla group declared a unilateral ceasefire. FARC negotiator Félix Antonio Muñoz, who goes by the nom de guerre Pastor Alape and is in Havana for the negotiations, repeated FARC’s claim that the flare-up showed the need for a bilateral ceasefire.

The government, on the other hand, has presented some evidence that the soldiers were ambushed. Relying primarily on forensic reports, the government claims that the soldiers were attacked with explosives and high velocity rounds fired from various angles, all of which point towards offensive action on the part of the guerillas. The Attorney General, Alejandro Montealegre, said that the soldiers were attacked while they were resting and that the attack qualifies as a war crime due to the use of unconventional weapons.

So far, it seems like the government has succeeded in discrediting FARC’s claims that its fighters were defending themselves from offensive action by the military. As a result, FARC has fallen back to claiming that its high command, which has representatives in Havana, did not play a role in planning the attack.

The attacks complicate life for both sides. FARC must address the uncomfortable reality that it is not in complete control of its forces. Further, with the government going on the offensive and restarting air-strikes, the rebel group does not have time on its side.

The government, for its part, once again finds itself having to defend its decision to negotiate with FARC in the face of a public whose patience was running low even before the attack. The political opposition, including former President Alvaro Uribe, lost no time accusing the government of being soft on the guerrillas and falling into a trap by negotiating with them. However, President Santos seems to have found a way to turn the situation in his favor.

On April 18, three days after the attack and immediately after attending a ceremony for the fallen soldiers, President Santos gave an impassioned speech in which he made clear that he understood the rage Colombians felt towards FARC and put pressure on the guerrilla group to speed up the peace process. President Santos also called for the imposition of a clear time frame on the negotiations.

The implications of a demand for a time frame are clear. The government is not willing to remain at the negotiating table indefinitely, and FARC needs to seize the moment and end the conflict now, while it still has a chance to gain concessions from the government.

Guillermo Farias is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo Credit: n.karim/Creative Commons


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BRIEFING: Everything you need to know about Colombia’s peace process

FARC

Memorial to the victims of FARC violence.

By Guillermo Farias

The government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest and most-organized rebel group, started holding peace talks with the government in November 2012 in Havana, Cuba. The talks have the potential to end the longest armed conflict in the western hemisphere.

In the past few weeks, the talks have entered a crucial stage and gathered momentum. In late February, the United States appointed a special envoy, Bernard Aronson, to the peace talks. Prior to Aronson’s appointment, the United States had only been peripherally involved in the talks. Adding to the momentum, on March 2, President Santos announced that five Colombian army generals would join the negotiations in Havana. While the generals won’t take part in the negotiations directly, their arrival marks the first time that active duty members of the military attend talks. At this stage, the generals’ role is to develop a framework for discussion on a permanent and verifiable cease-fire that would go into effect if the talks succeed. Most recently, the two parties agreed on a joint-program to clear landmines. Colombia is one of the world’s most heavily mined countries. Over the past 15 years, 11,000 people have been killed or injured by landmines. Unarmed guerilla fighters will work side by side with the Colombian military and Norwegian advisors will oversee the mine-clearing program. These developments indicate that an agreement, while far from certain, is within grasp.

BACKGROUND

Territorial disputes among the Colombian military, leftwing guerrilla groups, and rightwing paramilitary groups have left more 220,000 dead and 5.7 million internally displaced people (IDPs) over the past fifty years. According to the latest annual report from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), only Syria has more IDPs than Colombia.

FARC and National Liberation Army (ELN), the two main rebel groups operating in Colombia, were founded shortly after a period of civil unrest and war known as La Violencia. The civil war, in which the Liberal and Conservative parties battled for control of the country, lasted from 1948 to 1958. La Violencia ended with a power-sharing agreement. However, both the FARC and ELN were excluded from the deal and took up arms against the new government.

The FARC and the ELN share some broad aims but draw support from different sectors of society. The ELN was made up primarily of Catholic radicals inspired by the Vatican II Conference, students and intellectuals inspired by the Cuban Revolution. FARC, on the other hand, draws support from rural areas and is composed of peasant self-defense groups and communist militants. Despite their different support bases, both the ELN and FARC oppose the privatization of natural resources, American influence in Colombia, right-wing paramilitary groups and claim to represent the oppressed rural population in its struggle against the wealthy elite.

Both FARC and ELN have lost significant strength over the last decade. Former President Alvaro Uribe, in office from 2002 to 2010, took an aggressive stance against the rebel groups. Uribe’s aggressive efforts to weaken FARC were supported by the United States, which trained, equipped and provided covert support to the Colombian armed forces. The aggressive military strategy, despite carrying high costs, succeeded in weakening the rebel groups.

According to Colombian government statistics, the FARC had around 7,000 members in 2013, which is a steep drop from 16,000 in 2001. And the ELN is has approximately 1,400 members, significantly less than its membership in the 1990s when it was at its peak. Despite their diminished ranks, both FARC and ELN continue to attack civilians on a routine basis and continue to use antipersonnel landmines. Both groups are also involved in drug-trafficking and other organized crime activities.

The conflict in Colombia also triggered the formation of right-wing paramilitary groups. Most of these groups were demobilized in 2003, when the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the largest group, entered a peace deal with the government. Under the deal, paramilitary leaders surrendered in exchange for reduced jail terms and guarantees that they would not be extradited. The framework for demobilizing paramilitary fighters has so far, over 10 years after it came into effect, allowed those responsible for atrocities to escape prosecution and punishment. Only 37 out of the more than 30,000 members of paramilitary groups who demobilized have been convicted of crimes under the framework as of September 2014, according to Human Rights Watch. Further, many members of demobilized paramilitary groups reorganized into new, less cohesive groups that routinely commit serious abuses, including disappearances, sexual violence, and killings.

PEACE TALKS

The current peace negotiations began in secret in 2010 and were made public in 2012. This is not the first time that the government and FARC have sat at the negotiating table. Several previous efforts at peace have failed. However, this round of peace talks has gathered more momentum than previous efforts.

Who are the participants?

Humberto de la Calle, a former Vice-President, leads the government’s negotiating team. The government’s team also includes retired generals from the armed forces and former police officers. The FARC party is led by Ivan Marquez, a member of the FARC secretariat, and includes other high-ranking members of the guerilla group.

Cuba is hosting the talks. Norway, Chile and Venezuela are acting mediators and observers.

The recently arrived active-duty generals won’t take part in the negotiations directly, as they are in Havana in an advisory capacity. Bernard Aronson, the United States’ special envoy, will also play a behind-the-scenes role.

How are the talks structured?

In 2012, at around the time the talks were made public, the two sides agreed to a five-point negotiating agenda that covers:

  • Land reform
  • Political participation
  • Drug trafficking
  • Victims rights and reparations
  • Disarmament and implementation of the peace deal

The talks have two key structural features. First, the government has refused to agree to a bilateral cease-fire until the agreement is finalized. Allowing for a cease-fire before then, it argues, would incentivize the rebels to extend the talks. In December 2014, FARC declared a unilateral cease-fire. Second, there will be no partial implementation of the agreements. If the sides fail to agree to a resolution on all the agenda points, no part of the agreement will not go into effect. President Santos believes that unless the agreement completely ends the conflict, voters will think that the government made unnecessary concessions to the guerrilla.

After both sides reach an agreement on all five agenda items, they will review and finalize the agreement. The final agreement would be ratified by in a popular referendum.

What has been agreed so far?

The two sides have so far reached agreement on the first three points of the negotiating agenda: land reform, political participation for the rebel groups and drug trafficking.

The land reform agreement focuses on improving the economic and social conditions of Colombia’s beleaguered countryside and on providing land to poor farmers. The agreement on counter-narcotics policy is centered on a promise to eliminate drug production, the rebel group’s main source of resources. The partial accord on political participation provides FARC with an opportunity to enter into formal politics. The rebel group aspires to become a political party after the deal is signed.

Details of the agreements have not been released and the two sides have not been widely available to the media. This is likely an effort to limit posturing and the pitfalls that have doomed previous peace efforts.

What remains to be negotiated?

Transitional justice, the fourth agenda point, is extremely sensitive and the two sides appear to have found little common ground. The FARC has so far insisted that its members serve no time in jail. The government, on other hand, has publicly stated that it will not guarantee impunity as a condition for peace.

Former President Cesar Gaviria, who was in office from 1990 to 1994 and later served as Secretary General of the Organization of American States, has issued a proposal that centers on a transitional justice model. Gaviria’s proposal would exempt non-combatants from prosecution if they confessed their involvement in human rights abuses. Lower-ranking officers of the Colombian military and those that committed crimes by “omission” would also avoid prosecution and jail time.

While Gaviria’s proposal is worthwhile and has attracted significant attention in Colombia, it has also raised some thorny and difficult issues as analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America’s (WOLA) points out. For example, why should all non-combatants avoid jail time? Many civilians were extensively involved in the conflict and likely bear responsibility for serious abuses. Should crimes of “omission” go unpunished? Many massacres committed by paramilitary forces appear to have been enabled by military inaction. Finally, lower ranking soldiers acting on their own are likely responsible for serious crimes, why should they avoid jail time simply because of their rank?

The debate over transitional justice has just begun and is likely to prove extremely complex.

CONCLUSION

The Colombian peace process has made significant progress. Peace, long outside the realm of the possible, is now within the grasp of both parties. Not only is a negotiated peace the best solution to Colombia’s deep structural problems, many of which were at the core of the conflict. It is also the best way to avoid renewed violence. If the peace talks were to collapse at this stage, the Colombian government would likely embark in a new all-out offensive to defeat FARC. That would inevitably bring new bloodshed and suffering to a country has already been through more than enough.

Guillermo Farias is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.

Photo credit: Natalia Diaz/Creative Commons