Colombia peace negotiators announce breakthrough on victims rights

December 16, 2015

Colombia and FARC negotiators announce deal recognizing victims of half-century conflict

Authorities say deal could open door for a definitive ceasefire in January

Victims groups endorse plan but say they still need details

BOGOTA, Colombia – Ever since Colombian authorities and the nation’s largest guerrilla group began trying to hammer out a peace pact more than three years ago, a looming question has hung over the talks: how to reach a deal that would satisfy the millions of victims of the half-century conflict?

On Tuesday, they provided an answer, reaching an accord that will establish a truth commission and a special unit to search for the thousands of disappeared. They also agreed to provide both symbolic and real reparations to the victims.

The breakthrough also ratified a decision made in September to establish special peace tribunals that will sentence all of those who have committed crimes in the context of the conflict: from guerrillas and policemen to politicians and businessmen who might have provided support to the warring factions.

Both the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) touted the deal as a major advance in the talks that are taking place in Havana, Cuba.

“This is, perhaps, the most important of [all] the points we’ve discussed to put an end to this conflict of more than 50 years,” President Juan Manuel Santos said during a meeting with Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa.

The administration’s chief negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, said the sub-agreement could open the doors for a bilateral and definitive ceasefire in January. And he reiterated the government’s aspirations to reach a comprehensive peace pact in March.

“This is a day of great celebration,” de la Calle said. “This is the best news for Colombia and the world.”

Esther Polo, 25, is a member of group of women from rural Cordoba department who were forced off their land and saw their husbands, sons and brothers murdered during the conflict.

Polo said her group was “hopeful” about Tuesday’s announcement and eager for the truth commission to shed light on crimes and allow the women to confront their tormentors.

“We’ll never be able to get our dead back,” she said. “But maybe we can recover the memory of our dead and honor the memory of those who are absent.”

Others said they endorsed the plan but were worried about its implementation.

Jineth Bedoya, who read a statement on behalf of 10 victims who were in Cuba for Tuesday’s signing, said they backed the peace process but still didn’t know the details of the agreement.

She also said the government already seemed to be falling short on its pledge to keep victims from being re-victimized. Bedoya said many of her colleagues who had participated in talks in Havana had received death threats, but that there hadn’t been any serious police follow up.

“By accepting to be here today we’re assuming a responsibility that may have unknown consequences for us when we return to Colombia,” she said.

Since talks began in 2012, negotiators have cleared four out of six points, including the FARC’s participation in politics, agricultural reform, the fight against narco-trafficking, and now, victims. Still on the agenda are ending the conflict, and implementing and verifying the deal.

Tuesday’s agreement is “the most important step” in the process because it was the single most contentious and politically charged issue of the negotiations, the Conflict Analysis Resource Center (CERAC), a Bogotá-based think-tank, said in a statement.

Under the “Integrated System for Truth, Justice and Reparations” the administration will create a truth commission tasked with shedding light on those who participated “directly and indirectly” in the conflict.

The government will also establish a team to find the tens of thousands disappeared, whether living or dead.

It will also create a special unit to “investigate and dismantle” criminal organizations linked to the conflict, including the gangs considered the successors to disbanded paramilitary groups. The CERAC said that initiative might help avoid the spike in violence that followed peace talks in places like Guatemala, El Salvador and Northern Ireland.


Special Justice

Much of what was announced Tuesday had been telegraphed in September, when the parties announced they’d reached an accord on justice — a crucial sub-item under the victims category.

That agreement establishes specialized courts and prosecutors to try war crimes and other human rights abuses committed by both sides, including rape, extrajudicial killing, kidnapping and forced displacement.

Those facing the most severe crimes, but who cooperate with the courts and provide testimony to the truth commission, will face five- to eight-year sentences under special conditions other than prisons.

Those who don’t cooperate with the justice system and are found guilty of serious crimes can spend up to 20 years in regular prison.

But those accused of “rebellion” and connected political crimes might be eligible for amnesty under the deal.

On Tuesday, the FARC’s lead negotiator, Iván Márquez, underscored that all the actors in the conflict would be subject to the new courts.

“We’re not interested in applauding that our adversaries in this prolonged war might end up in jail. We will not enjoy seeing an army officer, a policeman, an important government official, or a a member of the private-sector who might have financed the violence put behind bars,” he said. “We prefer to work with them…with the intention of satisfying the rights of the victims and the affected communities.”

He also said guerrillas who are in jail on charges of “rebellion” should be released.

The deal will undoubtedly raise alarm in some corners. On Tuesday, former president and opposition senator Alvaro Uribe said he would continue studying the document which he said “subjugates the state.” The popular politician has said he supports peace but not at the expense of letting the FARC leadership off the hook. And he’s accused Santos of undermining the armed forces by putting them on par, legally, with the guerrillas.

His stance is likely to become even more prominent when an eventual peace deal faces a national referendum.

During a speech Tuesday night, Santos said that peace talks had not devalued the country’s democracy, political system, economic model or military.

“What we’re searching for is a way for thousands of guerrillas to lay down their weapons…and reincorporate themselves into society so they can defend their ideas through democracy and not violence — with votes and not bullets,” he said.

Ever since the September announcement, questions have swirled about what the “special” confinement might look like. On Tuesday, de la Calle reiterated that those convicted would have their movements restricted and be monitored, but he stopped short of providing specific details, suggesting those would be determined by the courts. However, he said the restrictions need to be flexible enough to allow imprisoned guerrillas or soldiers to make reparations to victims, which might include helping rebuild villages, clearing minefields or asking for forgiveness.

Authorities have made clear that, while the military and the guerrillas will face similar conditions of confinement, they will not be detained together.

Colombia’s long-running conflict has left more than 212,000 dead, six million displaced and scores disappeared.

On Tuesday, members of the U.S. House introduced a bipartisan resolution supporting the peace agreement.

“Colombia is engaged in a historic, difficult and complex negotiation to end the longest armed conflict in the hemisphere. It deserves the support of the U.S. government, the U.S. Congress and the American people,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), one of the sponsors of the initiative. “Billions of U.S. tax dollars having been invested in Colombia’s security, institutions and the protection of human rights. It is now time for us to demonstrate that same support for the peace negotiations and, if successful and an agreement reached, their implementation.”

On Tuesday, Santos asked his countrymen to give peace a chance.

“2016 will be the year Colombia sees a new dawn, a dawn without war, without conflict,” he said. “Peace will not only transform our country, but it will transform the lives of each and everyone of us.”