Peace and Justice at the Negotiating Table: Colombia Talks Peace with FARC

An end could be in sight for the longest-running armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere.

Peace negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels have begun on 17 October in Oslo, Norway, and will continue in Havana, Cuba. The issues to be addressed show the interest of both parties to examine the root and continuing causes of conflict in Colombia, such as the politics of land and agriculture, possibilities for FARC’s political participation, and trade of illegal narcotics.

Over the last five decades, Colombians have endured successive waves of confrontations among leftist guerrillas, the Colombian armed forces and right-wing paramilitary groups, long allied with the State, each bringing devastating levels of violence directed at civilians and destruction of property and infrastructure.

Colombia’s guerrilla groups formed more than five decades ago in a Marxist-inspired political struggle for socialism, but over time transformed into a brutal fight for control of territory and resources. The later involvement of drug traffickers and right-wing paramilitaries further entrenched a cycle of violence that multiple attempts at peace have failed to end.

Although the political and military contours of the conflict remain complex, the war’s devastating impact on civilians is clear: hundreds of thousands of civilians have suffered massive patterns of violence, such as forced disappearance, extrajudicial and summary execution, sexual violence and forced displacement. Thousands of children have been recruited to guerrilla or paramilitary groups.

Justice Key to Durable Peace

Colombia’s attempts at a transitional justice process have been sparked by demobilization efforts that began in the 1990s. The most recent phase of demobilization took place between 2003 and 2006, when the government documented the demobilization of more than 30,000 right wing paramilitaries as a result of a political pact put in motion by former President Álvaro Uribe.

The Justice and Peace Law (2005) established special criminal trials for demobilized fighters, with a maximum sentence of eight years for those who fulfill requirements, like confessing to crimes and paying reparations to victims. Civil society organizations in particular objected to an aspect of the process that allowed for perpetrators of serious crimes to enjoy lenient sentences in exchange for confessions, and civil society groups took legal action to have these declared unconstitutional.

The peace negotiations will face the challenge of addressing the role of judicial recourse during transition, especially as it pertains to FARC’s senior leadership, who are likely to seek future political participation.
    The demobilization of paramilitary groups between 2003 and 2006 did not translate into the violence ending for Colombians: some of those groups have reorganized, the FARC and the leftist insurgent group ELN are still active, as are the criminal gangs, or neo-paramilitary groups, made up largely of former members of the right-wing AUC or demobilized guerrillas.

The peace negotiations will face the challenge of addressing the role of judicial recourse during transition, especially as it pertains to FARC’s senior leadership, who are likely to seek future political participation. The Legal Framework for Peace, passed in June, 2012, provides a framework for Congress to pass several additional laws, including legislation to redefine what conduct is to be considered allowing former insurgents to participate in the political sphere.

It incorporates provisions for the strategic prioritization and selection of criminal cases for investigation and prosecution, and it determines the creation of a truth commission, among other measures. It is hoped that this reform will help provide some of the required legal framework for a peace treaty with FARC.

For a comprehensive and durable peace in Colombia, a number of factors will have to be addressed beyond FARC, including the presence of the ELN, the violence generated by numerous illegal armed organizations acting in the interests of the drug trade, the continued influence of extreme right-wing ideologies and their associated armed groups, and other criminal gangs.

Various peace-making and justice initiatives have so far shown that a piecemeal approach to justice is unable to break the cycle of abuses in Colombia. An integrated approach to justice should work to address past abuses while strengthening the rule of law and civic trust. Such an approach could employ a wide spectrum of justice measures, including criminal accountability, truth seeking, reparations, and institutional reform.

In addition, a lasting process that represents the strengthening of Colombian democracy requires an effective exposition of the corrupted nature of the Colombian state.

The process of paramilitary demobilization has been instrumental in showing exactly how the government and the rule of law in Colombia have fallen victim to the conflict. Two scandals eat at the heart of the state. The first is that the massive paramilitary movement became a socio-political phenomenon. Business and political leaders actively engaged with it as supporters and members, instigating, encouraging, or assisting massive crimes against civilians who got in the way. Related to this is the “parapolitics” scandal, whereby hundreds of mayors, governors, and members of Congress have been accused of direct participation in the crimes of paramilitary organizations, with several already convicted. Confidence in the state and its political officers could scarcely be lower.

There is also the problem of “false positives,” which refers to the practice of armed forces murdering civilians or prisoners and presenting them as casualties of armed engagements. Thousands appear to have been murdered by the army in return financial rewards and extra leave.

In addition, the constitutional reform provides a framework for Congress to pass several additional laws, including legislation: to redefine what conduct is to be considered as actions connected to political crimes (and thus potentially subject to some form of amnesty or pardon) for the purpose of allowing former insurgents to participate in politics; to establish differential treatment for the different parties in the conflict; to create new judicial and non-judicial mechanisms to guarantee the state’s obligations to investigate and punish crimes committed during the conflict; and to create a truth commission.    
The durability of peace will depend largely on a belief among citizens that the state is strong enough to guarantee fundamental rights.

The durability of peace will depend largely on a belief among citizens that the state is strong enough to guarantee fundamental rights and able to provide the conditions for economic development for its entire people.

The peace talks are also an opportunity to cast new light upon the nature of the crimes and the extent to which Colombian society has been affected. Truth-seeking processes could not only provide a space for victims voices on the conflict, but could also identify and assess the responsibilities of multiple actors in the conflict, including those of the Colombian state.

Background: the FARC

FARC emerged in 1964, after decades of violence in Colombia involving armed political confrontation between liberals and conservatives that began in 1946. At that time, according to conflict expert Vincenç Fisas, the country saw a proliferation of insurgent groups who turned to armed struggle as a way to confront “politics in the service of the interests of the elite, social exclusion and the lack of democratic options for opposition.”

FARC strongholds are primarily in the southern part of the country in the Andean mountains and the Amazonian jungle, although their presence has been felt in all regions of Colombia. Much of their base has been among poor peasants and settlers in remote areas. There is no clear figure for the number of fighters in its ranks. In his Guide to the Peace Process for 2009, Vicenç Fisas claims the group has 17,000 guerrillas. Meanwhile, the Colombian Agency for Reintegration lists 9,000 since 2002. Nowadays it is estimated that there are about 8,500 fighters in its ranks. The process of dialogue initiated this month between the government and FARC-EP (a name it adopted in 1983) is the fourth formal attempt to reach a negotiated political solution to the conflict since the 1980s.

Peace Talks To Date

1984: Betancur’s Ceasefire

In 1987, three years after the ceasefire agreed with the Betancur government, various insurgent groups—M-19, part of EPL, ELN, PRT, Quintín Lame, and FARC-EP—formed the Simón Bolívar National Guerrilla Coordinating Group to negotiate jointly with the government La Uribe, Meta. However, the truce with FARC-EP broke down 1987, and the war to flared up again. Shortly after, in private peace talks at the end of the Virgilio Barco government and the beginning of the César Gaviria government, peace agreements were signed with M-19, EPL, PRT, and Quintín Lame.

1991: The Caracas and Tlaxcala Peace Talks

The peace talks resumed in 1991, with meetings in Mexico and Venezuela between the government and the Simón Bolívar Guerrilla Coordinating Group, which at that time consisted of FARC-EP, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL). These lasted one year, but broke down due to the failure to reach agreements and the death of Argelino Durán, a former minister of state who had been kidnapped by EPL.

1998: The Caguán Peace Talks

During the 1997 presidential election, 10 million Colombians went to the polls and added their own demand for “peace, life and liberty.” The massive vote for peace created an obligation for the presidential candidates of the time. The president-elect, Andrés Pastrana, opened peace talks with FARC, which were held in the Caguán region of Colombia. To do this, he created a zone of détente covering five municipalities, from which the state withdrew its institutions and security forces. The meetings between the government and members of FARC’s leadership took place there, with widespread participation from civil society and the international community. The government’s negotiating team included representatives from the private sector, the church, and different political parties who focused their efforts on creating a National Table for Dialogue and Negotiation. The negotiators signed a first substantive agreement, which became the first concrete agenda for negotiation.

2002- Present

After the Caguán talks broke down in 2002, many Colombians lost confidence in a negotiated settlement to the conflict, and for the next 10 years, the state focused increasingly on defeating the FARC militarily, while isolating them politically. President Álvaro Uribe denied the existence of an armed conflict and denounced the guerrillas as terrorists. Likewise, the European Union and the United States government included FARC on the list of terrorist organizations in 2001. Meanwhile, state security forces were strengthened, and since 2002 they have reduced FARC’s area of action and dealt it some powerful blows, such as the death of various FARC commanders, among them their top leader, Alfonso Cano, in 2011.

Read a recent interview with the head of ICTJ's office in Colombia here.

Photo by cuerpo_espiralad