27th Cycle Closes with Unprecedented Advances

Friday, August 22, 2014

There is hardly time to read about all that is happening with the Colombian peace talks, let alone write about it.  The summer pace in Washington is inversely proportionate to the relatively rapid pace of developments in Havana.

After a wave of violence in recent months that caused President Juan Manuel Santos to warn on July 30 that the FARC were “playing with fire and the process could end,” (a concern he repeated again last week), the talks between representatives of the government of Colombia and the FARC-EP moved into high gear, belying the fears that the peace process could come grinding to a halt.  It is worth noting that violence often spikes in peace processes at critical moments of progress at the peace table, and it appears that the Colombian peace talks have entered such a stage.

Talks Finish their 27th Cycle

On August 22, the peace talks in Havana finished their 27th cycle.  In the past few months, particularly in this most recent cycle which began on August 12th, the negotiating teams have adjusted their methodology to streamline work on the remaining agenda items (victims and ending the conflict).  Following four preparatory sessions that culminated in an intensive working meeting from August 3-5, the parties announced  procedural agreements on four fronts:  victims, a historical clarification commission, ending the conflict, and gender. (For details of each, see especially the August 5th joint communiqué here.)

Following the most recent round of talks, the parties disclosed progress on the first three topics.  Of particular note, the parties established a mechanism for unprecedented direct conversations with victims at the peace table and received their first delegation of victims in Havana on August 16th.  Also of note, on August 21, the Historical Commission on the Conflict and its Victims (CHCV) was appointed.  Finally, on August 22, the parties installed a technical sub-commission on ending the conflict, and the first active-duty military officers from Colombia briefly joined the table in Havana for the installation.   On the final point, the anticipated constitution of the gender sub-commission, no mention was made of advances.

The CHCV and the technical sub commission will work in parallel as the delegations move forward simultaneously on the issue of victims.  One senses the transcendental importance of each of these developments, as they collectively edge the process closer to completion.  This is also a time that is highly vulnerable to violence, so the parties should take care not to let themselves be sidetracked, and civil society leaders must be prepared to weather any storms on the horizon.

Addressing the Issue of  Victims

The emotionally charged issue of how to repair the victims and satisfy their rights has become central to the conversations in Havana and increasingly important within Colombia.  This is one of the most difficult items on the peace agenda because of the large number of affected persons and communities, the range of victimization acts, the harm and deep-seated trauma incurred, the tremendous displacement and interruption of livelihoods caused by the violence, and the variety of perpetrators.  How these ongoing patterns and legacies of violence are dealt with–the seriousness with which the victims’ proposals are treated, the level of respect given to victims in the discussions, and the willingness of victimizers and their representatives to face the victims, accept responsibility for wrongs incurred, ask forgiveness, accept responsibility, and provide guarantees of non-repetition–have enormous repercussions for the prospects of peace and reconciliation in Colombia.

The parties in Havana have made substantial progress in recent months in laying out a  framework for addressing these difficult issues. (See my earlier post here.)  Their June 7th joint declaration of principles on victims–based largely on principles of human rights and international humanitarian law, satisfying victims’ rights, and guaranteeing non-repetition of the conflict–continues to be an important touchstone and may prove to be a model for other conflict zones.  (See the declaration of principles here in Spanish and here in English.)  In addition, the parties have created mechanisms and opportunities for victims to be heard both directly at the peace table in Havana and in other forums.  On July 17, the parties recognized that the voice of the victims “will be a fundamental input (insumo) in the discussions” on victims, and announced more specific details for how victims would participate in the peace process, including directly at the peace table.  (See the joint communiqué here.)

Third Parties Tapped

The parties in Havana charged the UN system in Colombia and the Center for Thought and Monitoring of the Peace Process of the National University–in consultation with the different victims associations in Colombia, and with the Episcopal Conference as guarantor of the process–with organizing five delegations of up to a dozen victims each to  travel to Havana to participate in the 27th cycle and each of the subsequent four cycles of talks.  The parties also called on the UN and National University to organize four forums of victims to generate inputs for the process (as they had done on earlier agenda topics).  The UN and the National University accepted the mandate, and under their auspices in July and August, thousands of victims participated in a series of three closed regional forums in Villavicencio, Barrancabermeja, and Barranquilla, and a national victims’ forum in Cali.  From these forums, the organizers have now synthesized and presented to the table more than 3,000 proposals on how the peace accords might help satisfy the victims’ rights to truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition.  A further 5,000 proposals on the theme of victims have been sent to the table in Havana for consideration by the negotiating teams.  (See Comunicado Conjunto 41.)

On August 15, the organizers released the names of the 12 victims selected to participate in the first delegation to Havana.  In a press release that day, they discussed how they had interpreted the mandate given to them by the government and FARC negotiators, as well as the criteria they had used to select delegation members.  (See their statement and the list of delegation members here.)  Recognizing the difficulties inherent in selecting a dozen victims who could represent a universe of 6.7 million victim, the organizers admitted, “Any selection can be debated, and … criticized.”   The negotiators in Havana had asked the UN and the National University to pay particular attention to questions of “balance, pluralism, and sindéresis” (defined by the Dictionary of the Royal Academy as “discretion and natural capacity for good judgement”) in carrying out their task.

There were criticisms of the process, particularly before it took place.  (See “Doce víctimas que todos hirieron.”) The question of inclusion of victims by groups other than the FARC was not to the liking of many FARC victims, including Rep. Clara Rojas.  ExPresident Alvaro Uribe and the Democratic Center Party roundly condemned the process and the broad interpretation of victims of the conflict as opposed to victims of the FARC.  (See former President Alvaro Uribe’s statement on “Las víctimas y sus victimarios.”).  “Iván Márquez,” the FARC delegation head, noted that the FARC delegation appreciated the effort of the organizers to ensure that the entire universe of victims were heard, but noted that the delegation included a disproportionate number of FARC victims, while the preponderance of victims were perpetrated by the State and paramilitary forces. (See Márquez’s press statement here.)

Likewise, there was some debate over whether the military, police, and insurgents, could be appropriately considered as victims of the conflict.  Members of ACORE, the retired military officials’ association, participated in the recent victims’ forums sponsored by the United Nations and the National University.  There ACORE members discussed their sense of victimization and presented their proposals for the peace table.  In the forum that I observed in Barrancabermeja, one ACORE official acknowledged openly that he had been terrified to attend, and he was surprised that he had been listened to and treated with respect by the other victims.

President Santos defended the table’s mandate for a broad, inclusive delegation of victims.  Santos said, “If we want peace in this country, we cannot begin to divide (segmentar), only these victims, or these yes and those no.  The conflict is one conflict, and the solution to the conflict is one solution.  Therefore all of the victims must be heard… if we want peace we must listen to all of the victims.”  President Santos applauded the selection process, and underscored the meed for all of the different victims to travel to Havana and “say what they want, how they see the process, how they would like to see their condition of victimhood recognized and their rights defended.”

Historic Meeting in Havana

The historic encounter between the victims and the negotiators began at 9 am on Saturday, August 16.  It opened with a prayer and a moment of silence to remember all of the victims of the conflict.  The two heads of the peace delegations–Humberto de la Calle for the government and Luciano Marín (“Iván Márquez”) for the FARC–made initial remarks, then each of the victims had 15 minutes to present their individual testimonies, proposals, and recommendations for the final peace agreement.  The session lasted nearly 9 hours.  For some victims, it was the first opportunity to face their victimizers or their representatives, and the reverse was also true.

In a powerful press conference at the end of the day, the twelve victims read from a joint statement they had prepared.  They were united in their call for peace and reconciliation, underscoring their disposition for unity–“without exclusions or silencing”–and their belief that truth will form the foundation for peace.  Watch the press conference in its entirety here:

The complexity of the conflict was reflected in the complexity of the victims’ delegation.  The delegation was characterized by its diversity and pluralism.  It included seven women and five men from a multiplicity of backgrounds, social sectors, ethnicities, political ideologies, and eight regions plus Bogotá.  The delegation included victims of abuses by all of the armed actors in Colombia’s internal armed conflict–insurgents, paramilitaries, drug traffickers, State, security forces, and unknown assailants.  Delegation members or their relatives had experienced assassination, displacement, torture, extrajudicial execution (falsos positivos), gender violence, kidnapping, massacres, and disappearance.

Deftly finessing the debates around whether the military, police, or guerrilla members could be considered victims, the organizers noted, “Members of the Armed Forces (Fuerza Pública) and their relatives, as well as members of the guerrilla groups and their families,” can be considered as victims, provided “they suffered damage of substantial injury to their rights as a consequence of manifest violations of their rights or international humanitarian law.”  (See “Doce víctimas que todos hirieron se fueron a Cuba“).

One victim of the delegation, Alfonso Mora León, was a retired sub official of the Army whose son was a FARC member, assassinated in a massacre perpetrated by the State, after having been kidnapped and tortured with 5 other youths.  Nelly Gonzalez was the mother of a police commander who was assassinated by the FARC and was a victim of forced displacement.  María Eugenia Cruz was a victim of gender violence, forced displacement, and persecution by different armed groups for her work on women’s rights and victims of sexual abuse.  Debora Barros was an indigenous survivor of a massacre by paramilitaries that claimed five women in her family and forced her displacement.  Angela María Giraldo lost her brother in a kidnapping of 11 Congresspeople in Cali.  Constanza Turbay, had lost 8  family members, including two brothers and her mother, at the hands of the FARC.

While in the Colombian press, attention in recent weeks has focused largely on divisions and differences among the victims, what was striking about the victims’ delegation in Havana was not their differences, but what they had in common.  All could reach beyond their pain for a greater vision of a country at peace.  UN Coordinator Fabrizio Hochschild noted that all twelve victims were united by their pain and as survivors, and that, as citizens, the victims “had demanded that the signing of a peace accord stop the cycle of violence that continues to produce new victims every day.”  They also demanded that victims should not “be stigmatized, discriminated against, divided, or used.”

In answering questions from the press, Constanza Turbay told of her encounter with “Iván Márquez,” the head of the FARC delegation.  Márquez had approached her after the session and said that what happened to her family members was a mistake, and he asked for her forgiveness.  Turbay called Márquez’s act of recognition the “most important” and “transcendental” meeting in her life, and she called for a deeper commitment to resolving the conflict.  “If we, who have been affected by the violence, can take this determined step, why can’t the rest of the country?” she asked. (See “‘Si nosotros damos un paso, por qué no el rest del país’: víctimas.“)  José Antequera, another victim, son of an assassinated leader of the Unión Patriótica party, spoke of evolving interest among the victims in establishing a broad-based victims’ movement that would unite victims across the political spectrum in an alliance for peace. This kind of alliance of victims of the different armed actors was what opened the possibility for negotiations in the Basque Country between ETA and the Spanish government.  Such an alliance could be significant in forging the path for broader reconciliation within Colombian society.

Reactions to the Meeting 

All those engaged in the process appear to have been deeply moved by the delegation’s visit to Havana.  In a joint statement, the peace delegations thanked the victims for their “testimonies, opinions, and proposals that were expressed with great courage and candor.”  (See Comunicado Conjunto 41) “We received their demonstrations of pain and their demands as an ethical and moral imperative to successfully conclude these [peace] talks.”  (See more on their visit here).

Humberto de la Calle noted following the meeting, “The visit of this first delegation of victims was perhaps one of the most transcendental moments of the process, and in any case, the most emotional.  Their testimonies brought home why Colombia deserves and needs us to end the conflict, why we must unite to confront the past, overcome it, and work for the construction of a stable and lasting peace, and thus contribute to reconciliation.”  (See De la Calle’s statement here.)

The FARC delegation issued its own response, noting also the “transcendence” of the meeting, “in which the protagonists, supported by their own pain, generously opened  their hearts to the most beautiful sentiment of peace.”  (See statement by FARC delegation here.)

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called the peace talks between the first victims’ delegation and the parties “unprecedented.”  Pillay noted that empowering victims as agents of social change is a process that is transforming the power dynamics in Colombia and transforming victims into survivors and subjects with rights.  Those who violated the rights of victims are now obliged to restore those rights.  Pillay said, “Listening first-hand to their [the victims’]  pain is a very good start, because it demonstrates the significance of assuming responsibilities, putting an end to the violations, and restoring the rights of the victims.” (See interview with Pillay here.)

Victims hold hands at encounter in Havana.  (Photo courtesy of Prensa Latina)

Victims hold hands at encounter in Havana. (Photo courtesy of Prensa Latina)

The delegation was accompanied by civil society representatives from the United Nations system in Colombia (including the resident coordinator Fabrizio Hochschild, and Belén Sanz, head of UN-Women in Colombia), the National University (including Alejo Vargas and Marco Romero), and the Colombian Episcopal Conference (including the president of the bishops’ conference, Msr. Luis Augusto Castro, and Dare Echeverri).  Hochschild noted that the victims’ visit to Havana had been “one of the most moving experiences” in his 30 years of accompanying peace processes in conflict zones on every continent.  (See “‘Si nosotros damos un paso, por qué no el rest del país’: Víctimas.“)

Concluding Remarks

The impact of the Havana meeting should not be underestimated.  It has provided the negotiators with moral and ethical support for their work and a mandate to recommit to a successful conclusion of the peace process.  It brought home to all of the negotiating team members the tremendous pain that the conflict has inflicted upon a wide variety of Colombian citizens, and the urgency of ending the conflict once and for all.  It also provided the negotiators with a range of new ideas to be considered as they craft their final agreements.

For the victims too, the visit was important.  Their participation in the process constitutes a form of symbolic reparation and a recognition of their moral authority by the broader Colombian society.  For some, their participation restored or strengthened a sense of personal dignity, the hope that their voices matter and will be heard, and that they have a role in bringing peace to their country.  The visit provided victims with an opportunity to share their grief with others across the political divide who have also experienced deep loss.  Participation in the delegation has also planted the seeds for a broad coalition of victims that could be critical in a longer-term reconciliation process.

[Author’s Note:  Future posts will analyze the new Historical Commission on the Conflict and its Victims and the technical sub commission on the end of the conflict.]

About Ginny Bouvier

Love reading, writing, thinking, and working with people to make the world a better place. Family and friends, yoga, travel, photography, perusing dessert menus keep me sane. Latin American enthusiast. Peace practitioner yearning for justice. Heading up the Colombia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, but tweets and posts are my own.
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2 Responses to 27th Cycle Closes with Unprecedented Advances

  1. Dear Ginny, This is an invaluable service that you provide to those of us who are not party nor privy to the talks, allowing us to look at the substance and the issues instead of the lamentably ridiculous and shallow press coverage, whether in the USA or in Colombia. Also, the developments that you report are deeply encouraging. However to paraphrase, “we give you a peace process… if you can keep it!” Congratulations to the Civil Society Victims reps and the Negotiating Parties – and to you for keeping us informed.


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