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 ElTiempo.com 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

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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8 Responses to Q&A: Colombia Breakthrough a World Model for Peace Talks; Transitional Justice for Victims Breaks New Ground

  1. daniel says:

    Peace cannot be won with a paper. Unless the underlying causes of the war, of why people join the rebels, of why the rebels exists are addressed, Peace will never come.

    They should focus instead of how to prepare the Colombian society for peace.
    Focus on education to give people opportunities.
    Focus on investment to give people job opportunities.
    Focus on security to give people peace of mind.

    Signing a piece of paper in Habana will not address any of those. This peace will be short lived.


    • I agree. Once a paper is signed the real work begins. The people of Colombia need to make peace happen. They need to hold the parties accountable to their commitments. The agreement will only make a difference if it is implemented, if the government truly seeks to transform the countryside and attend to the basic needs of the people. With peace, investment in areas that have suffered state neglect will be needed. The accord is just a start, the responsibility must be assumed by everyone.


  2. Candace FALK says:


    Candace Falk, Ph.D. Editor/Director, The Emma Goldman Papers University of California, Berkeley 2241 Channing Way Berkeley, CA 94720-6030

    cfalk@berkeley.edu 1-510-642-0658 http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/goldman/ Support the Emma Goldman Papers The Emma Goldman Papers Video


  3. This is a good and summarized overview of the complexities of a conflict that extends far beyond the two parties that have been mainly involved in the talks. Even though signing a peace agreement seems to be an undeniably necessary step in the restructuring of Colombian society, there are several reasons to be skeptic about the fulfillment of justice, in all the sense of the word.

    The government’s participation in the conflict through the armed forces, support of paramilitary groups, and in the mere roots of the conflict -which involve the continuing oligarchic rule of the country, the unfair distribution of land, and the continuing neoliberalization of the country -hasn’t been fully addressed. If historically the FARC emerged as a response to the rising inequality in terms of access to land and resources, it seems as though the substrate of what made such a long lasting and bloody conflict possible, is only worsening.

    I’m afraid of the conversations and debates that this peace process will foreclose, and I can’t help but think of it as a political move by the side of Santos, who had promised that he would bring about peace in his term. This could also be a way to ensure the continuity of certain economic and political policies that are masked under “national unity”, but that have actually followed a US-centric model that has led to an increasing accumulation of wealth by the urban elites.

    It’s really hard to summarize all my concerns, but I just wanted to let you know that even though, as a Colombian, your read seems very hopeful (and, to some extent, necessarily so), I can’t help but feel it’s a naive and blind read on the huge social, ecological and economic disaster that face a country that has been attempting to create historical memory, without even starting to heal the wounds of an ongoing conflict. It all seems tinted with clever, yet vain political rhetoric.


    • Thanks for your comment Juan. The peace agreement is still not completed, and the conflict continues, although violence is declining. The question I think is whether the mechanisms will be created to continue to negotiate solutions to the rampant injustices that you mention. These have been consolidated over centuries through control of small and powerful elites. If the terms of the peace accord (especially the earlier accords on agrarian development, political participation, and illicit crops/drugtrafficking) are fully implemented –and I recognize that this is a big “if”–the debates over economic and political policies should not be cut short, but should be expanded. Historical memory is one step–and a critically important one–to recognize the nature of the wounds. Naming the problem is usually the first step to finding a solution. In Colombia’s case, the problems are multiple, complex, and intertwined. Thus all the focus on historical memory…
      I am hopeful, but I recognize that the hardest part of the peace process comes after the signing of the accord.


      • juanppacheco says:

        All you say is very true. However, I think that the term “historical memory” is as epistemologically ambiguous as it is politically dangerous. Examples such as Spain, Argentina and many Eastern European countries, are some cases in which we can see the deployment of such term as a populist rhetoric tool of both the political right and left, in order to get votes or as means for achieving certain political ends. I’m always skeptical when very complex processes become almost like marketing material for nationalist and state-centric propaganda. In the case of Colombia, two centers for historical memory in Bogotá, as well as a “comprehensive” book, were created by the government, promulgating very particular narratives about the conflict’s history. When it comes to “historical memory”, one must always be careful about who is doing the history and who is doing the memory, but specially what types of institutions mediate between both. Again, I wish I could be as hopeful as you are, I just see many gaps and inconsistencies.

        Also, I see that you will be in the SF Bay Area sometime soon? I’m a Colombian artist based in San Francisco currently, and my work deals very much with these issues of memory and history. I would be interested if there’s any sort of conference happening at UC Berkeley, or if there is any other way to hear you talk/exchange ideas.



      • Of course these are all contested terms. You can tune in to the USIP event on historical memory and transitional justice tomorrow (Wed., Sept. 30) at our website (www.usip.org) from 9-5 pm EST.


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