Agreement on Disappearances Moving Forward

November 12, 2015

During the “recess” from October 9th and Nov. 3rd. and throughout the 43rd session that began on Nov. 3, the government of Colombia and the FARC-EP parties continued to work on parallel tracks on a number of issues on the peace agenda–namely, victims and the end of the conflict.  Most significantly, on October 17th, the parties issued a landmark agreement that will form part of their comprehensive system to satisfy the victims’ rights to truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-repetition.  This agreement focused on the issue of the disappeared.  Father Pacho de Roux, S.J. called the accord “a qualitative leap in the Havana process,” inspired by the victim survivors who have driven home for the negotiators and the public not only the barbarity of the war, but a sense of “grandeur and spiritual generosity and the capacity to rebuild ourselves.”   In a powerful piece in El Tiempo, de Roux described the practice of disappearances as “the most sinister abyss of our deteriorated war,” explaining that “the dead live within us and they give strength to our determination for peace, but the disappeared, in their empty tombs, are the most unbearable wound from our conflict.” (Read his piece here.)

In another installation, the artist depicts the phenomenon of forced disappearances.

In another installation, the artist depicts the phenomenon of forced disappearances.

Although there are considerable discrepancies in the statistics on disappearances–an issue that is addressed in the agreement–the numbers are in all cases significant.  At a Nov. 3 Congressional hearing in Bogota, the Attorney General’s Office put the total figure at a staggering 117,646.  The National Registry sets the figure at 106,401–of which 22,350 were victims of forced disappearances. The Single Register of Victims (Registro Unico de Víctimas) of the government’s Victims’ Unit has documented 45,515 registered disappearances as a result of the armed conflict. (See “Tras la ruta de los 117.646 desaparecidos en Colombia.”)  The Historical Memory Center, which puts the number of disappeared at  has produced four studies of disappearance in Colombia that are available online and may be found here.)

Colombia has more disappeared than all the Southern Cone dictatorships combined.  SIRDEC (Sistema de Información Red de Desaparecidos y Cadáveres) notes that Colombia has 69,565 persons reported as disappeared, of which 20,944 have been presumed to have been forcibly disappeared.  According to Basta Ya, of the Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, between 1985 y el 2012, there were 25,007 people who were made to disappear as part of the armed conflict.  (See more here.)

The parties have already begun to put into practice some of the measures agreed to on Oct. 17th–in apparent but welcome contradiction to the parties’ original rule that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”  The Oct.17th agreement on disappearances called for some immediate measures.  In particular, it committed the guerrillas to providing information that would help locate those who died and were buried in the jungle, and committed the government to stepping up the process of identifying and returning the bodies of guerrillas who died in combat and are buried in cemeteries in anonymity.  Three hundred fifteen (315) bodies have already been identified in La Macarena, Vista Hermosa, Meta, and Caquetá. (See more here.)

Movement is also being seen øn the longer-term agenda mandated by the Oct. 17th agreement.  On Oct. 28, Sergio Jaramillo, the High Commissioner for Peace and one of the government’s lead negotiators, met with the existing National Commission to Search for Disappeared Persons (Comisión Nacional de Búsqueda de Personas Desaparecidas)–which includes the directors of the Offices of the Attorney General, the Institute for Legal Medicine, the Public Defender, the Comptroller General, the Defense Ministry and victims’ associations.  (For more on the meeting, click here.)

The Oct. 17 agreement on disappearances mandated the Commission to develop within the next four months guidelines to facilitate the search for, and identification and return of the remains of those who have disappeared during the conflict to their family members.

The Commission has stepped up to the plate.  It created an inter-agency working group to assist in fulfilling its charge.  It will review and compare existing data bases on the  disappeared; seek ways to improve procedures for finding, identifying and exhuming remains; and coordinate its work with victims’ groups and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).  It will also hold four regional forums and one national forum to collect proposals from academics, victims, and human rights organizations that will help inform their recommendations to the negotiators.  Such forums have proven invaluable in earlier efforts to engage civil society in developing and sharing their proposals in relation to the particular items of the peace agenda.

Both sides see the benefit of showing that nearly three years of conversations are producing real change in the regions most affected by conflict violence.  Addressing the problem of the disappeared (like the de-mining initiatives being undertaken by the Army and the FARC-EP and other measures to de-escalate the conflict) has broad popular support and contributes to building credibility for the peace process as well as reducing the suffering that has been one of the most painful legacies of war.


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Responses to Justice Accord (continued)

November 11, 2015 (continued from previous post…)

-International Support for the Accord

The announcement by the Colombian government and the FARC-EP on the terms of a new accord on transitional justice made from Havana on September 23 received immediate support from governments around the globe, as well as the UN Secretary General, the Pope, and the European Union.  The International Criminal Court, which has been closely consulted throughout the peace process, showed itself to be favorably inclined toward the formula presented, though will review the final text before making an official pronouncement.

Reactions from international organizations have ranged from enthusiastic to skeptical.  The U.S. Institute of Peace called the accord “a model for resolving conflicts elsewhere in the world,” and noted that the agreement does not offer impunity, but conditions punishment for serious crimes on the levels of truth-telling in which perpetrators engage.  The International Crisis Group declared the agreement to be a “sound, efficient and intelligent step forward,” and “good news for Colombia and the region.”  (See its statement here.)

On the other hand, Human Rights Watch asserted that the agreement was “dealing away justice” by not insisting on jail time for gross human rights violators.  José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, noted that “while the special jurisdiction would encourage confessions, it would also allow those most responsible for mass atrocities to completely avoid prison, denying their victims the right to justice in any meaningful sense of the word.”  Amnesty International expressed concern over how the “most responsible” human rights abusers would be defined, and noted that it could be difficult to obtain convictions for certain crimes, including extrajudicial executions and sexual violence.

Others noted that there may be an inherent bias in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, given that the Attorney General’s Office has investigated in great depth the charges against the FARC, but has been far less efficient with the cases against paramilitaries or against agents of the State.

-USG Responses

The United States government, which has been highly supportive of the peace process, welcomed the “major breakthroughs on the outstanding issues in the peace process negotiations:  transitional justice, disarmament, and a timetable for signing a final agreement.”  In his Sept. 23rd statement, Secretary of State John Kerry noted that “historic progress” had been made “toward a final peace agreement to end more than 50 years of armed conflict.”  Last February, Kerry had named Bernard Aronson as peace envoy to support the Colombian government in bringing the armed conflict to a close.  Aronson was present at the historic meeting of Santos and Timochenko in Havana when the justice accord was announced.  A little over a week later, at an event at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., Aronson echoed Kerry’s praise for the recent progress at the peace tables and discussed some of the pending issues at the table, and for the longer term sustainability of peace in Colombia.

Aronson has also supported the FARC’s legal political engagement in politics (a topic of hot debate in Colombia)–on the condition that the FARC cut their ties with criminal activities.  This political reintegration would serve U.S. interests.

From Capitol Hill, some offices issued statements of congratulations.  In his statement,  Cong. Jim McGovern noted, “If well-implemented, the agreement on transitional justice offers all Colombians, and especially those who have been victims of violence and abuse by parties to the conflict, a path to address the deep wounds of the past, hold accountable the perpetrators of violence and abuse, and break the culture of impunity.  It is important, however, for the implementation of this agreement not to whitewash serious human rights crimes committed by both sides.” (Full text here.)

Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office noted that their support for Santos’s efforts and, depending on how “effective restrictions on liberty” for FARC and military officials implicated in human rights violations, might have an additional 50-100 million dollars in aid for Colombia for the 2017 budget.  (US aid to Colombia was 290 million for 2016).

Public Opinion in Colombia

Public opinion polls in Colombia, highly sensitive to particular political events and the winds of the moment, responded favorably to the news of the agreement.  A poll released by the Centro Nacional de Consultoría on Oct. 8, showed a boost of support for the peace process.  Conducted in 43 municipalities, the survey found that 65% of the respondents were optimistic about the process; 73% believed Colombia would benefit from a peace accord; 87% favored an accord with the FARC; and 73 percent of the respondents approved President Juan Manuel Santos’s decision to launch talks with the FARC.  Perhaps key for any future endorsement mechanism, 79% of the respondents noted they would approve a peace accord.  An interesting new question was added to the roster, that asked respondents if, putting themselves in the shoes of the guerrillas, they would consider it easy or hard to set aside their arms and submit themselves to justice.  Sixty-eight percent of the respondents thought it would be difficult.  This kind of polling that posits questions that encourage empathy can contribute, albeit in a small way, to the more dramatic attitudinal shifts that will be necessary for what the Colombians call “convivencia”, loosely translated as “living together,” in the post-Accord phase.

-Victims’ Groups Respond to the Justice Accord

Victims and victims’ groups, whose voices are perhaps the most important in this equation, appear hopeful that the agreement on justice, which has been a major stumbling block, means that the war will finally come to an end.  Ending the war continues to be the  key ask of all five of the victims’ delegations that presented their testimonies to the negotiating parties in Havana.

In general, the proposals of the victims’ delegations–and others presented at the four forums on victims sponsored by the United Nations and Colombia’s National University– have given priority to truth, reparations, and non-repetition.  Acknowledging that full justice is unlikely, victims’ organizations have nonetheless insisted that there cannot be impunity and that some punishment of the perpetrators and reparations is warranted.  The victim  delegates issued a collective statement on Sept. 28 welcoming the agreement:  “This is a decisive step toward the recognition and full respect for human rights and IHL in Colombia, to the extent that it signifies a model with a restorative justice perspective that can permit the transformation of sanctions into effective contributions to reparations, to non-repetition and to the building of peace.”  The victims’ delegation noted furthermore, “The Justice Accord, like the creation of the Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Conviviality (Convivencia), and Non Repetition, opens the historic opportunity for a full acknowledgement of responsibilities from the State, the FARC, and all the groups and individuals involved in the conflict.  Therefore, its success relies on the serious commitment to truth and to the relevant reforms necessary to consolidate the Nunca Más.”

-A Sampling of Other Responses

Among members of the political class in Bogota, there was a mixture of reactions to the justice accord.   Journalist María Jimena Duzán called the debates “Kafkaesque.”  Everyone seemed to have an opinion, no one agreed on the details of what had been agreed, and there was no way to validate which of the contradictory assertions about the content of the accord were correct, since no one had seen the actual text of the accord.   There was consequently intense but short-lived pressure–especially from exPresident Alvaro Uribe and Comptroller General Alejandro Ordóñez–to release immediately the 75-point version of the justice accord.  These pressures died down considerably in subsequent weeks as it became clear that the parties were still clarifying what had been agreed to.

The Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination Committee, an alliance that groups 265 human rights organizations, expressed its “satisfaction and optimism” on the transitional justice agreement, applauding the restorative justice approach and the focus on “satisfying the victims’ rights to truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-repetition.”   It was also pleased to see the important role that human rights organizations and victims groups were given by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace created under the Justice accord.  Among its concerns, however, were that recent military justice reforms that could “allow agents implicated in grave violations to elude their obligation to appear before the Peace Tribunal”.  The alliance also questioned the lack of specific criteria for the selection of the Peace Tribunal members, and the continued paramilitary threat to citizen participation, democracy, and the success of the peace accords.(For its full statement, click here.)

Jenny Neme, director of Justapaz, while hopeful about the potential of restorative justice to dealing with past abuses, cautioned about the need to build capacity for such processes.  “Facilitating processes of encounters between victims and oppressors is very demanding. … It is hard for victims to look their oppressor in the eyes and envision a shared life.  [These processes] must be accompanied,” she told me.

Women’s organizations in Colombia were pleased that the accord made particular note of sexual violence as a crime that would not be considered for amnesty–a promise that the negotiators had made to Zainab Bangura, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, when she visited Colombia and later Havana this year.  Groups were however  appalled that yet again women were largely excluded from both the ceremonies on Sept. 23 and the justice working group that had crafted the transitional justice agreement.  They were hopeful that any future commissions, including the truth commission and other  bodies created to implement the accords, would have a favorable gender balance.

Final Note

For now, the recent agreements have struck what political analyst Laura Gil called a “coup against skepticism,” and the expectations for peace are mounting quickly.  It is important all the same to keep in mind that what is being negotiated is the end of the conflict and to adjust expectations accordingly.

That said, a successful peace accord will not produce immediate change and change will not happen automatically.  A sustainable peace will depend on the actions of the citizenry to help keep political will strong and consistent.  For this to happen, there is an ongoing need to educate the public about the peace process, what to expect, and the citizenry’s responsibilities for peace-building.  The clock is ticking however and there is little time to waste.

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Electoral Results, Justice Accords Considered

November 10, 2015

The Colombian government and the FARC-EP headed back to the peace table in Havana last week and are scheduled to complete their 43rd round of talks on November 13.  It has been a busy month for politics in Colombia, with a longer than usual pause between cycles to accommodate the country’s October 25 municipal and regional elections.

At the polls, peace and the post-Accord agendas played a relatively minor role in determining the voters’ preferences for mayors, council people, and governors.  Political analyst Alejo Vargas underscored the complexity of the results, in which personalities seemed to triumph over party politics.  In the cases of the mayors of Colombia’s major cities, he noted that “the tendency in nearly every case was to not identify candidates with a particular political force, but to underscore their management skills or their previous experience.”  Minister of Defense Luis Carlos Villegas, for his part, called the elections a “mandate” for “a balanced Colombia, without the extremes,” that should ultimately strengthen the peace talks.

Electoral Violence at All-Time Low

An Organization of American States (OAS) international electoral monitoring mission found that the election was the “most peaceful” in recent years, citing figures from the National Police that showed that incidents of electoral violence had declined by 60% in comparison with the last elections in 2011. (See the OAS preliminary conclusions here.)  The decline in violence can at least in part be attributed to a unilateral ceasefire by the FARC that has been in effect since July 20th.

The elections were not without their problems, however.  According to Al-Jazeera, six candidates were killed in these elections–still just one-seventh of the number killed in 2011.  Furthermore, fraud, corruption, and clientelism was rampant.  More than one thousand candidates were forced to withdraw for lying or financial misdeeds, Al-Jazeera reported, and election officials voided more than 1.5 million ballots for irregularities.  The absentee rate continued to be high at 59.9%, a slight increase from the 57.9% rate in 2011, reported the OAS.

Virtually the only election day-related violence occurred on Monday, Oct. 26, when the National Liberation Army (ELN) attacked and killed 11 Army soldiers and 1 policeman who were escorting the transportation of 242 ballots from the Uwa community.  The attack injured 9 people, and resulted in the kidnapping 2 soldiers–Antonio Rodríguez Claider and Andrés Felipe Pérez Giraldo.  The ELN’s “Domingo Laín” Front, active in the eastern departments of Boyacá, Casanare and Arauca, has confirmed that it is holding and will soon release the two soldiers.  The front is headed by Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo Quinchía, alias “Pablito”, who is also a member of the Central Command of the ELN.  The incident is under investigation, and it appears to have temporarily halted momentum toward the formal initiation of government peace talks with the ELN, which have been in an exploratory phase for almost two years.  An announcement of the launching of formal talks had been anticipated for right after the elections.  A peace agreement with the ELN would help consolidate the agreement with the FARC and increase its chance of sustainability.

The Justice Accords Re-Visited 

The unprecedented meeting in Havana on Sept. 23 between Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC-EP leader “) produced three significant public commitments by the parties.  First,  a final peace deal would be signed in six months, presumably by March 23, 2016.  This was a reversal for the FARC, which had consistently argued that the process should not have a pre-established deadline.  Secondly, the FARC agreed to initiate a process of putting aside their weapons 60 days after the final accord is signed.  Third, the parties announced (Spanish here; English here) that they had reached agreement on a transitional justice formula that laid out conditions for reduced sentencing for abuses contingent on truth-telling, promoted a model of restorative justice, and eschewed amnesty for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide, while allowing it for “political” crimes. ( See my earlier blog posts on the terms of the justice accord.)   According to Colombian government peace commissioner Sergio Jaramillo, the transitional justice formula has been the most difficult theme dealt with to date at the table.

Still, the justice agreement has yet to be finalized.  The joint communiqué read from Havana on Sept. 23 outlined the consensus of the parties on 10 points that form part of a larger document of 75 points that is still being refined.  By the end of the 42nd cycle, which lasted from Sept. 28-Oct. 9th, there had emerged a somewhat heated public debate between the heads of the two peace delegations about what was agreed and what remained inconclusive.  According to Humberto de la Calle, head of the Colombian government delegation, discussions still remained on whether amnesties will be available for the crime of kidnapping, the extent of and conditions under which ex-guerrillas might be extradited, the particulars of the “deprivation of liberty” that will constitute part of the reduced sentencing formula, treatment of State agents who have committed crimes, and the process for electing magistrates for the Peace Tribunal.

Iván Márquez, head of the FARC delegation, sustained on the other hand, that there was no place for substantial modifications as the architecture of the judicial system had already been agreed to and the topic was “closed” for discussion. Carlos Lozano, another member of the FARC peace delegation, warned that opening up the justice agreement could make it difficult to meet the self-imposed six-month deadline for reaching final agreement.  In recent days, Lozano observed, “This is a debate that will have to be analyzed at the table, when we try to see at which moment the theme of justice will be definitively closed.” (See Lozano’s remarks here.)  He proposed that the six-month countdown begin after the justice agreement is finalized.

Third Parties Step Up

Such differences in interpretation are normal in peace processes, though negotiating their resolution through the media has in the past proven counterproductive.  On Friday, Oct. 9, the negotiating parties met with Cuba and Norway, the guarantor nations for the peace process.  The latter quickly helped to define a strategy for moving beyond the impasse.  According to a joint communiqué issued on Oct. 10, the meeting with the guarantor nations took place in a “respectful and constructive environment,” and participants agreed to reconvene the commission of jurists that had helped draft the original justice accord–a team that includes ex-magistrates of the Constitutional Court Manuel José Cepeda and Juan Carlos Henao, international expert Douglas Cassel, Enrique Santiago, Álvaro Leyva, and Diego Martínez.  The commission, half appointed by the government and half by the FARC and authors of the original draft agreement on justice, met in late October and are working to reconcile the differences in interpretations between the parties.  In the absence of a mediator, the Colombian negotiators have relied on committed, independent third parties (both Colombians and internationals) to assist them in breaking through the occasional and predictable impasses that occur in the course of the process.

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World Bank President Calls for New Approaches to Peacebuilding

October 23, 2015

Earlier this month, World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim joined Nancy Lindborg, President of the United States Institute of Peace, for a conversation about development in conflict zones.  I found Dr. Kim’s vision for the future, forged from his experience as a medical doctor, truly refreshing and visionary, particularly in his assessment of the connections between gender, development, and peace.  I commend this dynamic dialogue to my readers (and yes, they do talk briefly about Colombia, beginning at 18:36):

Dr. Kim is particularly eloquent when he talks about the importance of gender .  “Economic growth is about gender equality,” he says.  See the interview here as he teases out his arguments:

And finally, in the following video, Dr. Kim calls for a serious re-thinking of the international community’s approach to peace building:  “Our approach to linking development and humanitarian response to peacebuilding processes has just been terrible… We’ve thought that development is something that happens after the humanitarian crisis and after peace treaties are signed as opposed to something that has to happen at the same time.”  (See related article here.)

In particular, Dr. Kim discusses the need to design new approaches for dealing with refugee crises:  “Refugees are refugees for an average of 17 years now,” he notes. “These are not short-term problems. … We are trying to rethink how we help countries in conflict reestablish the social contract.”  His observations apply equally to the nearly six million internally displaced Colombians, and the need to construct long-term solutions.


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New Agreements on Disappeared Reached at Colombia’s Peace Table


Late Saturday night, October 17, the representatives of Cuba and Norway announced that the government of Colombia and the FARC-EP peace delegations had reached two sets of agreements to address the plight of the tens of thousands of Colombians who have been forcibly disappeared in the course of the war. (See Joint Communiqué #62.)

The first set of measures puts into effect “immediate humanitarian measures for [the] search, location, and dignified release of the remains of persons assumed to be disappeared in the context and because of the internal armed conflict.”  These measures, which include specific commitments by both parties, will be implemented immediately, prior to the signing of a final accord.  They will address victims’  rights and seek to alleviate the pain of those whose family members or loved ones have disappeared.  Likewise, the measures should build confidence among the victims and among the broader Colombian population that the peace process will address the rights of victims and that the war will finally begin to wind down.

The second set of measures will establish a special unit for seeking people believed to be disappeared in the context of the armed conflict. This unit–the UBPD (Unidad de Búsqueda de Personas Desaparecidas)–will be stood up following the signing of a final peace accord.  It will rely heavily on victims’ participation in its design and execution, and will be a part of the peace architecture spelled out in the recent accord on justice.  It will be one of many overlapping components that will form a Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparations and Non Repetition.  The entity will have administrative and financial autonomy.  In the accords, the parties also anticipate the creation of a national plan and related regional plans on the disappeared, to be designed in tandem with victims and human rights organizations.

The parties called on the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to assist in the design and execution of plans to move forward with immediate humanitarian measures, and each side committed to providing the ICRC with relevant information.  A work plan for the ICRC and the National Institute for Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences, drawing also on information from the Attorney General’s office and from organizations of victims will be drawn up, and the current Commission for the Search for Disappeared Persons was asked to draw up a plan within 4 months that will strengthen institutional capacities and rely on the participation of victims’ and human rights organizations as well as other specialized entities.

Humberto de la Calle, head of the government delegation, noted in a statement that the disappearance of persons is “one of the most painful results of armed conflicts.”  He mentioned the variety of circumstances under which these disappearances have occurred in Colombia–“kidnap victims that died in captivity, victims of forced disappearance, victims of massacres whose remains were never found, members of the Armed Forces and members of the FARC who died in combat [and] whose remains were never found, among many other cases.”  De la Calle observed that structures and measures similar to those being proposed in the latest accords have been set up at the end of many conflicts, and noted the examples of the border conflict between Greece and Turkey, the War of the Persian Gulf, and the conflicts in the Balkans, Cyprus, the Middle East, and Kosovo.

“The families of the … disappeared have the right to heal the wounds by finding the remains, and they have the right to know what happened,” De la Calle noted.

CICR Offers Support

The International Committee of the Red Cross issued a press release (read it here) welcoming the announcement and announced its readiness to support the implementation of “Immediate Measures for Confidence Building that Contribute to the Search, Location, Identification and Dignified Release of the Remains of Disappeared Persons.”  The ICRC press release notes that official statistics put the number of disappeared at more than 100,000 people, with humanitarian consequences that are “unmeasurable.”

The new accords, added to the news that FARC leader “Timochenko” has announced the cessation of military training for his troops, and the continuing joint de-mining exercises with the Colombian Army and the FARC, all point to the gradual de-escalation of the conflict. Likewise, it is a good sign that, increasingly, participatory mechanisms for civil society are being built into the agreements.

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Basta Ya! Report Illuminates Issues at Crux of Colombia’s Peace Talks Breakthrough


Colombia’s government and the FARC movement achieved their September 23 breakthrough in peace negotiations by setting down basic principles on the rights of victims to truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-repetition. USIP’s next Colombia Peace Forum, on September 30, will analyze the role of historical memory in these transitional justice issues.

As policymakers and analysts consider how the new breakthrough might be consolidated, Colombian researchers will present a report, central to these issues, to a U.S. audience for the first time. The report—Basta Ya! Colombia: Memories of War and Dignity—was produced by Colombia’s National Center for Historical Memory. Its authors will join other scholars and practitioners to examine lessons that might contribute to the creation of the national truth commission and other architectures as part of the peace process.

The event will be co-sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Washington Office on Latin America, the International Center for Transitional Justice and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The discussions will take place in English and Spanish with simultaneous interpretation in both languages. The event will be streamed live without interpretation; webcasts will be posted later in both languages.

To participate via Twitter, use the hashtag #ColombiaPeaceForum.


  • Ambassador William B. Taylor
    Executive Vice President, U.S. Institute of Peace
  • Virginia M. Bouvier
    Senior Advisor on Latin America Programs, U.S. Institute of Peace
  • Michael Reed Hurtado
    Senior Lecturer, Yale School of Law
  • Kimberly Theidon
    Henry J. Leir Professor of International Humanitarian Studies, Fletcher School, Tufts University
  • David Tolbert
    President, International Center for Transitional Justice
  • Cynthia Arnson
    Director, Latin American Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
  • Carlos Quesada
    Executive Director, International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights
  • David Crocker 
    Senior Research Scholar, University of Maryland, College Park
  • Lisa Laplante
    Associate Professor of Law, New England Law | Boston,  and Director, Center for International Law and Policy
  • Andrés Suárez
    Lead Researcher, National Center for Historical Memory
  • Martha Nubia Bello
    Lead Researcher, National Center for Historical Memory, and Director, National Museum of Memory
  • Anthony Wanis- St. John 
    Associate Professor, American University
  • Elizabeth “Lili” Cole
    Senior Program Officer, U.S. Institute of Peace
  • Adam Isacson
    Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy, Washington Office on Latin America
  • Juan Méndez
    Professor, Washington College of Law, American University, and United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture
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Q&A: Colombia Breakthrough a World Model for Peace Talks; Transitional Justice for Victims Breaks New Ground

September 25, 2015

Yesterday’s breakthrough in peace talks between Colombia’s government and rebels reveals the outlines of a final deal and puts the grueling process firmly back on track, says USIP’s Virginia Bouvier. The agreement may serve as a model for resolving conflicts elsewhere in the world, according to Bouvier, who heads the Institute’s Latin America programs.


Photo Courtesy of Flickr/Alejandro Cortes


Here are Bouvier’ edited comments, in response to questions about the developments:

The breakthrough yesterday involves the treatment of victims in the conflict. Why was that so important and difficult to arrive at?

There are 7.6 million registered victims in Colombia created during a half-century conflict that has touched most households in the country. That is the scale of reconciliation Colombia faces. Public opinion polls have long shown a widespread desire for the FARC [the Spanish-language acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] to serve jail time, demands for the FARC to disarm, and resistance to the FARC’s incorporation into political life. But it has been clear, for example, that the FARC were unlikely to sign a peace deal that would land them in jail. In the joint communiqué, we see a solution that shows important compromises and commitments from both sides.

How did the FARC and the government arrive at this accord? 

The agreement on victims is a clear example of how process affects outcome, and how inclusion of marginalized sectors can improve agreements. The talks included visits by delegations of dozens of victims over the course of six months. The United Nations and the National University created forums, at the behest of the peace table, for victims’ voices to be heard. Some 24,000 victims presented proposals to the talks. In addition, women’s and LGBTI organizations have made their proposals known through a Gender Subcommission and direct participation at the peace table.

These inputs in no small part have shaped the commitment of both sides to accept responsibility for damages inflicted and to promote the rights of the victims to truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition. How these acknowledgements of wrongdoing, which have already begun on both sides, will translate into real reparations, we don’t yet know, although the parties tell us that they have reached important agreements on the issue of reparations that will be disclosed soon.

You have called the agreement historic and innovative. How so? 

There is no other peace process in the world where victims have occupied such a central role. We have here a design for transitional justice that is historic and innovative.  It gives priority to truth-telling, but it does not eschew the need for justice. The model is innovative in its inclusion of restorative justice and its focus on repairing the damages inflicted on individuals and communities through a process of dialogue and healing.  This bears watching as it could provide new models for other conflict zones seeking to find a way out of war.

What are the highlights of the agreement and the implications for a final deal?

Here are the key points:

  • For the first time, the FARC recognizes the authority of the Colombian state and new judicial mechanisms that will be established to address crimes committed as part of the war.
  • The parties agree that the transitional justice regime will apply to all of the actors engaged in the internal armed conflict.
  • The FARC agreed to lay down arms 60 days after an accord is signed. Once that’s done, the government will back the group’s full incorporation into Colombian political life.
  • The FARC has agreed to alternative sentences with yet-to-be defined conditions that will restrict the ex-guerrillas’ movement and guarantee victims will never again face violence.
  • By admitting wrongdoing and contributing to truth-telling, potential defendants can see sentences reduced to five to eight years. Failure to come clean can result in 20-year terms.
  • The agreement underscores the commitment to meet fully Colombia’s commitments to national and international human rights and international humanitarian law standards.

Colombian President Santos said yesterday that it’s impossible the agreement will satisfy those most dedicated to justice and those most concerned about peace. If the deal does bring peace, what kind of justice will victims get?

The proposed justice courts and peace tribunal, in conjunction with other still-undefined structures, will seek to balance the rights of victims to truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-repetition with the government’s obligation to investigate, prosecute, and punish crimes committed as part of the war. But of key importance, there will not be impunity—no pardons or amnesty will be granted for crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes. These are specified in the agreement to include the taking of hostages, torture, forced displacement or disappearance, extrajudicial executions, and sexual violence.

At the same time, there will be generous amnesties for political crimes and related activities. Such activities are in the process of being specified, but could easily include drug trafficking and money laundering. This formula is an advance for everybody—for the victims who will get some justice and whose voices will prevail.

What is the scale of accusations involved? 

In an interview on following the announcements from Havana, Colombia’s Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre, said his office has pending accusations against some 38,000 FARC members for crimes including international humanitarian law, sexual violence and recruitment of minors, and an additional 50,000 cases of forced displacement. Of these, he believes that some 15,000 could be classified as political and related crimes, and that they and an additional 1,689 FARC members who have already been convicted could receive amnesty under the Special Judicial Process for Peace. He announced that his office would continue with investigations, but halt the imputations of charges. Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg, as the Special Process will also have jurisdiction over crimes committed by the Public Sector, including the Armed Forces, economic and political elites who supported the commission of violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws, and other armed groups, such as the ELN guerrilla organization, which is close to being brought to its own peace table.

What are the implications for a successful conclusion of these talks that could end the war? 

The presence in Havana of President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC Commander-in-Chief Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, known as “Timochenko” presents compelling evidence that there is political commitment of both sides to end the conflict once and for all. It underscores the seriousness of the process and should help to erode the skepticism of the Colombian public, which has long complained that it’s taking too long. In light of this agreement, a ceasefire and details for the setting aside of arms should not be far behind. It will make little sense to continue to prosecute a war that both sides have agreed is ending.

What are the remaining issues before the FARC will demobilize and turn in their weapons? 

The parties need to nail down the terms by which the rebels will set aside their arms, demobilize their rank and file, and be reintegrated  into Colombian society. Security here will be key.  There are some pending issues on all of the three provisional accords that have been reached—on land reform, political participation and illicit drugs.

In addition, the terms and mechanisms for the endorsement of the final accord by the Colombian populace still needs to be ironed out.  But, as Humberto de la Calle, the government’s lead negotiator noted yesterday, “We are now in the final countdown of the war.”  Then the real work will begin.

Photo courtesy of AP

Photo courtesy of AP

What was the role of Pope Francis, who during his visit to Cuba this week said negotiators couldn’t afford to let this opportunity slip away?  

The Pope’s words had a strong impact on the people who were sitting at the table and perhaps President Santos and Timochenko themselves, who are ultimately responsible for the final agreement and its implementation. The Pope’s warning that the country and the world were looking on and that the country and the world could not afford yet another failed process on the road to peace and reconciliation undoubtedly hit home and may have given a final push to an agreement that was already well under way.

Re-blogged from U.S. Institute of Peace
September 24, 2015
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