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Peace is more than just silencing guns. That was the upshot when Colombian human rights defenders gathered at USIP recently to discuss the ongoing peace process between the FARC guerrillas and Colombia’s government and how the talks can advance justice in the aftermath of a deal. Days later, in a development unrelated to the gathering, the Colombian government took a step in that direction.

The event at USIP, the latest in a series called the Colombia Peace Forum, was co-sponsored by the Latin America Working Group Education Fund and Peace Brigades International. It convened some 50 policymakers from across the

U.S. government and other interested parties to discuss the link between human rights and the peace process. 

Five Colombian human rights defenders, who were in Washington, D.C. to testify in the annual hearings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at the Organization of American States, proposed a series of measures to advance truth about the violence Colombians have experienced during five decades of conflict and to provide a measure of justice for survivors. They suggested reforms that could help prevent a repetition of violations and forge a more sustainable peace. 

A peace accord could help end a conflict in which some 220,000 people have been killed, more than 80 percent of them civilians, and nearly six million have been internally displaced, according to the government’s Center of Historical Memory. 

Dealing with the past can be a thorny issue.  “The experience of many peace processes is that you have to seriously reckon with human rights issues at the table, or you can’t arrive at a successful peace,” said George Lopez, USIP’s vice president for the Academy of International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding.

All sides in Colombia’s conflict—which includes not only the parties at the peace table, but other insurgent groups such as the ELN as well as paramilitary or neo-paramilitary forces and criminal bands--have suffered losses, and all have inflicted violence on others.  As the peace talks have advanced in the past year, the government and the FARC rebels have become increasingly willing to accept responsibility for their actions, a transformative shift.  Although discussions at the table have yet to begin in earnest on the topic of victims and their rights to truth and reparations, human rights are woven into every part of the framework agreement that defines the terms of the negotiations.

Government Backs Truth Commission

On March 20, the FARC reiterated its call for a truth commission whose goal would be the "clarification of the origins and truth of the history of Colombia's internal conflict.  On Sunday, March 30, lead government negotiator Humberto de la Calle announced that the authorities will support the establishment [of] a truth commission that looks at “all of the truths, without exception” as part of a final peace deal.  

For Liliana Avila of the Inter-Church Commission on Justice and Peace, an organization that supports communities in conflict zones, such a truth commission that examines the violence of all of the armed actors--guerrillas, government forces, and paramilitaries--is essential.  Colombia needs “a collective narrative of the violence,” so that victims’ voices can be fully heard, Avila said during the forum at USIP.

Such a commission should include national and international members; operate throughout the country, not just in the capital city of Bogotá; and be established by national law, Avila said.  Most importantly, victims must have a lead role in the truth commission.  She stressed that the Colombian authorities and other governments that provided support during the conflict should declassify relevant documents.

Jomary Ortegón of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR) said structural and attitudinal changes are also necessary.  Human rights abuses will not stop with the signing of a peace accord, because many abuses did not happen on the battlefield but were committed by illegal armed forces or by government forces against civilians, she said. 

Colombia’s armed forces have viewed opposition members, labor leaders, land claimants, journalist, and human rights defenders as the “internal enemy” that threatens the status quo.  This attitude has led to abuses against those non-violently seeking legitimate social and political change. 

Ortegón advocates for remedial measures such as purging the armed forces of those who engaged in abuses; revising national security manuals to expunge the concept of internal enemies; purging military intelligence files of false documents used to stigmatize activists; and strengthening the rule of law.  In addition to a truth commission, some prosecutions will be necessary to prevent a recurrence of the violations.  The Lawyers’ Collective has proposed establishment of a tribunal to focus on those with the greatest responsibility for crimes against humanity and war crimes, and provide substantial penalties. 

The solution must improve on the 2005 demobilization of paramilitary forces under the Justice and Peace Law, which provided “neither justice nor peace,” argued Ortegón. The law gave benefits in exchange for truth-telling to some 32,000 paramilitaries, but sentenced only 14 leaders. Victims received reparations in only 10 cases.  Furthermore, the failure to dismantle paramilitary structures has meant that these forces continue to exercise control and commit grave abuses in many parts of the country.

Alejandro Malambo of the Colombian Commission of Jurists emphasized challenges faced by the government’s land restitution process.  Only 277 sentences have been produced, he noted, and even within these sentences, many families have not been able to return to their lands, in part due to continuing threats against them.  The restitution process must be accelerated, but it must be accompanied by more effective protection for the returnees. 

U.S. Support for the Peace Process

The U.S. can help by sending a clear message that it is fully behind the peace process, according to Franklin Castañeda, president of the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners, and representative of the Colombia-Europa-United States, a coalition of 245 Colombian human rights and nongovernmental organizations.  Sectors of the Colombian military that do not support the peace process need to be told that they will lose U.S. backing in the event of any efforts to sabotage the talks, he said.

U.S. leaders also should encourage the Colombian government to open negotiations with the largest remaining guerrilla group, the Army of National Liberation (ELN), which has a presence in 20 percent of the Colombian national territory.  If the ELN is not brought into a peace process, it will be difficult to solidify peace on the ground.

“This is an opportunity that cannot be wasted,” Castañeda stated.  His recommendation echoes the findings of a recent International Crisis Group report, “Left in the Cold?  The ELN and Colombia’s Peace Talks,” which underscores that delay in engaging the ELN in a peace process serves no one’s interests.

The U.S. is considered a strategic partner in the transition to peace and democracy.  Castañeda urged the United States to “encourage a peace process that is transformative.”  Such a process should disassemble the structures that caused and perpetuate the violence and should strengthen democratic institutions including the justice system. “This is a historic opportunity to dismantle the mafias” that have caused such harm to Colombian society, “and to build a real democracy,” Castañeda concluded.  “If we fail to take advantage of this great opportunity that history has provided us, many Colombians will continue to be killed.”

Virginia M. Bouvier, who moderated the forum, is Senior Program Officer for Latin America at USIP and blogs at  Lisa Haugaard is Executive Director of the Latin America Working Group Education Fund.  Moira Birss is the Representative in North America of Peace Brigades International - Colombia.

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