In many conversations in Cuba and Colombia earlier this month, the word I heard most often to describe Colombia’s long and complex dialogue for peace was “crisis.” Just as often, I heard about hope: that this process and others will bring about greater social justice in Colombia—and about fear that systemic injustice, violence and exclusion will continue.

Musicians from the Pacific coast city of Buenaventura at opening of Encuentro

Musicians from the Pacific coast city of Buenaventura at opening of Encuentro

Near the end of two weeks of United Church partner visits, I travelled to Medellín to join a three-day ecumenical meeting of peace activists from many parts of Colombia. This was the III Encounter of the “Mesa Ecuménica por la Paz” (a process that is partly co-financed by the United Church and by KAIROS Canada).

Despite a unilateral ceasefire declared on July 20 by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, and despite having reached agreements on three major themes in the official dialogue in Havana, Cuba, government military forces (often allied with paramilitary death squads) continue to harass FARC fighters and attempt to encircle them. This is an effort to gain a military advantage ahead of an expected bilateral ceasefire, but the strategy runs the risk of provoking a serious incident that could derail the entire process.

Moreover, civilian populations in contested areas (and there are many) are subjected to unreasonable restrictions on their freedom of movement and access to markets.

Even so, the Havana talks continue, and there is hope for a parallel conversation between the government and a second guerrilla movement, the National Liberation Army (ELN).

While most people hope the talks succeed in ending the “armed resistance,” I also heard fierce resolve not to abandon the issues at the heart of the conflict a half-century ago: the urgent need for land reform, for policies that address needs of those who have been impoverished, and for democratic reform to end 500 years of “señorial” rule—the wealthy, feudal-style “lords” who continue to rule the country.

Encuentro ptp

The Encuentro was a time for debate and for new proposals to emerge

To achieve those goals, there is a strong proposal third table: for government dialogue with social movements.

Another persistent call from many sectors (perhaps especially the churches) is for support to civilian observation teams (“veedurías”) for the implementation of the peace accords. Some teams already function, drawing attention for example to Colombian army pressure on FARC positions.

Progress to date

When talks between the government and FARC negotiators began in Havana in November 2012, there were five major points on the agenda. Agreements have been reached on three of them:

  • Agrarian reform and land issues
  • Political participation
  • Justice (An arrangement for transitional justice and search for disappeared persons. Despite the agreement, the government has sought to re-open negotiations on some specific questions—and that is also considered a threat to the overall peace process).

Two areas are still incomplete and to some extent tied to achievement of a bilateral ceasefire:

  • Solution to the conflict and re-incorporation to civilian life
  • Issues related to victims of the war.

There is also a partial agreement on the problem of illicit drugs that will see growers treated differently from the criminal organizations that benefit from trafficking.

But, despite a lengthy, complex and in many ways very rich process of hearing from 60 “representative” victims over five months in late 2014 in Havana, details of subsequent negotiations remain secret. An obvious challenge is that Colombia’s war has more than eight million direct victims!

Transitional justice

I think the hardest aspect of the justice agreement was achievement of language around what we might call transitional justice. It is NOT an amnesty (despite the assertions of conservative politicians in Colombia); in fact, that was what was avoided.

Specifically: “The two sides agreed to create special tribunals, which will include international judges, to prosecute and judge crimes related to the conflict committed by both members of the FARC and state agents, as well as non-combatants. Those who immediately confess to the crimes will face confinement—though not jail—of between five and eight years. Those who confess once a trial has started will be eligible for reduced sentences to be served in jail. And those convicted, without having confessed, face up to 20 years in prison.”

More briefly: The two sides agreed to a form of “transitional justice,” creating special tribunals to judge crimes committed by both members of the FARC and by state agents.

Under international law that has come into force since the South African experience in 1994, a full amnesty would not be legal. For an in-depth explanation, please see the International Crisis Group statement.


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