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Peace at last? Colombia’s new Transitional Justice Accord

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BristoLatino features editor Georgina Turner asks whether the recent agreement on justice made at the Havana peace talks can be considered the beginning of the end of the Colombian internal conflict.

Everybody is talking about the recently released Netflix series Narcos, which dramatizes Pablo Escobar’s long reign as head of Medellin’s infamous drug cartel and his criminal methods of control.

As highlighted in a BristoLatino article published earlier this week, giving such attention to a notorious terrorist and murderer is problematic for many Colombians who lived through this dark period. Nonetheless, the series has at least pushed Colombia and its war on drugs into the spotlight at a crucial moment in Colombian history.

On the 23rd September the government finally revealed a potential solution to Colombia’s tangled civil war. The justice agreement, which will be signed early next year, will allow Colombia to take the first steps towards securing peace at last.

For years, Colombian officials have been in and out of negotiations and peace talks that have broken down time and time again. In what seemed a promising first attempt in 1984, the FARC guerrillas declared a ceasefire and launched a legal political party. It was soon clear, though, that the truce was an opportunity to build up their arms and a political base. Further talks in 1991-2 and 1999-2002 were equally fruitless. But this time Colombians can dare to hope.

The negotiators mean business. On the government’s side: former Vice-President Humberto de la Calle and peace commissioner Sergio Jaramillo. Across the table: FARC number two Iván Márquez and a rotation of most of the FARC’s senior leaders. Some of the country’s most influential figures have finally formulated a tightly defined agenda that will restructure Colombian society in a way that should enable unity and reconciliation.

Firstly, both the government and the FARC have agreed on an accord on rural development that will broaden access to land and issue legal title for properties. Secondly, they have come to an agreement on political participation, which secures some guarantees for opposition parties. Finally, they have agreed on a joint effort to tackle drug trafficking, and to form community-based voluntary programmes that strive to find legal alternatives to coca production.

What has complicated the peace negotiations is the difficult task of finding ways to deal with the scars that half a century of violence, corruption and terrorism has left on the nation. Unlike in the past, international law no longer provides universal amnesty for crimes against humanity. As a result, lawyers have proposed a program of ‘transitional justice’ as a means of dealing with the perpetrators.

This means that a ‘special jurisdiction for peace’ will investigate the most representative and grave crimes committed by FARC officials, and they will be punished accordingly. A sentence of 20 years imprisonment will be given to those found guilty, while those that confess will be spared jail but will receive 5-8 years of community work and ‘effective restrictions on liberty’. The FARC’s common soldiery will not be prosecuted.

For many whose lives have been irrevocably devastated by the FARC, this is seen as far too lenient, a view that ex-president Uribe (known for his anti-FARC stance) publicly contends. But the Colombian government has to find a way to quell ongoing fighting and achieve a truce at long last. What Santos has achieved is momentous. Thousands of rural Colombians might finally be able to lead lives that are free of vulnerability and instability, provided that the government manages to turn the agreement into effective law and create a genuine harmony among its citizens.

The government’s first attempt at this is the creation of the Victims Unit, something that around 7.5 million people have already signed up to. The unit is a government agency with 800 staff and another 3000 under contract that provides reparations for victims in the form of cash, rehousing and psychological support. In recognising and directly addressing the many victims of the civil war, the Colombian government is already showing promising signs of how the country will move forward in the immediate future.

But to attain more long-term progress, Colombia must face up to its alarming social inequality. Despite it being Latin America’s most enduring democracy and having a stable and growing economy (at least on the surface), Colombia’s income distribution is exceeded only by Haiti and Honduras within the region. Rural and urban Colombia are worlds apart, and if peace is going to last, this needs to be addressed.

It is no surprise that it was in impoverished rural areas that the FARC thrived and exerted most control, so this economic disparity will need to be the government’s priority as it moves to put peace into action. With a stronger, more developed rural Colombia, September’s agreement has far more hope of success.

For further reading see the Economist’s special report on Colombia.

Header photo by Alejandro Cortés/ CC BY-SA