Peace in Colombia, and victims’ participation in the process

Bombed church

In 2002, the town of Bojayá was the scene of one of the most brutal massacres in five decades of conflict between the government of Colombia and the FARC rebel group. Government forces failed to intervene as the FARC and paramilitary combatants fought in the middle of the town. About 500 locals sought refuge in the community church, but a mortar launched by the guerrillas hit the church roof, killing 80 civilians, mostly children. On that day, many of the people of Bojayá joined the millions of Colombians displaced from their homes.

Bombed church
The church in Bojayá, after the attack. 80 people, mostly children, were killed in the explosion. Photo:

Thirteen years later, in December, 2015, the FARC returned to the town. This time, the FARC’s presence was part of an arranged symbolic event. Victims and families of the Bojayá massacre came back to the same destroyed church to listen to the FARC and the Colombian government representatives recognize the atrocities and apologize for the horrors they committed. 

Felix Antonio Muñoz, known as “Pastor Alape,” is a guerrilla leader who participated in the symbolic ceremony. In this event, he described the Afro-Colombian village and its members as important participants of the national peace process:

“Bojayá is a seed grain of the reconciliation which we are sure will germinate into the peace of Colombia. Full of hope that peace in Colombia is possible and seeking reconciliation, we stand before the women, men, elders, children, and youth of Bojayá.”

The Peace Process

This symbolic act of recognition is part of the ongoing peace process. It started in 2012 when the government of President Juan Manuel Santos launched discussions with the FARC, which lead to the establishment of a comprehensive negotiation agenda. Nonetheless, the complexities of the conflict, in which 260,000 people were killed, presented several challenges to the peace process.

An initial agreement was submitted to popular ratification in October, 2016, but failed to be accepted with 50.2 percent voting against 49.8 percent in favor. In December, a revised agreement was ratified by the Colombian Congress. While the agreement addresses many of the concerns raised by the first agreement, public opinion is polarized and its legitimacy still challenged.

Peace agreement is signed
President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC’s leader Rodrigo Londono Eheverri (“Timochenko”) sign the initial peace deal, which was renegotiated after its rejection in the national plebiscite. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

The Dilemma: Justice or Peace?

Opposition to the peace agreement stems from the dilemma of justice versus peace. Amnesties and special punishments are used as bargaining chips to allow the progress of the negotiation and encourage the involved sides to put down their arms. Those who had committed crimes were permitted to cooperate and in exchange for reduced or alternative sentencing, such as community service to help victims.

This may be seen as unfair by the victims of crimes committed by those who benefit from an amnesty. Ultimately, dissatisfaction among large sectors of the population can erode the legitimacy of the agreement, limiting the effectiveness of its implementation, and potentially leading to new conflicts or awakening old ones.

The Victims’ Agreement

Focusing on victims as the center of peace building is a transitional justice principle which the Colombian peace process has significantly applied so far. The process tries to address the “justice vs peace” dilemma by including victims in the negotiation process. This has been done through the welcoming of propositions from victims themselves who were able to express their opinions, ideas, and expectations. As stakeholders of this process, some individuals and groups of victims sent letters to the government and FARC and/or participated in regional and national forums. They also took part in multiple victims’ delegations that went to the negotiation table in Havana and talked to each side face to face.

Juanita Goebertus is a legal expert who, for four years, coordinated the direction of transitional justice for the office of the government High Commissioner for Peace and was part of the government delegation at the negotiation table, providing legal support. In an interview for this article, she said that the participation of victims, particularly the victims who traveled to the negotiation table was a landmark for the peace process.

“Listening to victims was transcendental. An example is when High Commissioner Sergio Jaramillo mentioned how, as negotiations faced deadlocks and many saw them as already failing, the victims’ demands to continue negotiation and achieve an agreement to end the conflict was the necessary push to continue the negotiation process and not give up.”

The participation of victims in the process led to several gains for human rights advocates in various aspects of the agreement such as the Integral Transitional Justice System (ITJS). The ITJS seeks to satisfy the rights of victims, find the truth about what has happened in the Colombian conflict, and hold accountable those responsible for human rights violations in order to establish trust in the peace process and ultimately achieve reconciliation and a stable peace.

Professor Pilar Rian Alcala of the University of British Columbia is an expert on the collective memories of communities who have been victims of ongoing violent conflicts and displacement. She formed part of the truth commission created to reconstruct the historic memories of the conflict that was part of the 2005 Law of Justice and Peace, passed by the Colombian Congress to facilitate the demobilization of paramilitary organizations. Today, she continues to work alongside several of the victims’ communities such as that of Bojayá who have had an active role on the ongoing peace process.

In a conversation about the impact of victims’ participation in the Colombian process, she said that victims’ engagement was crucial for the achievement of a comprehensive and inclusive agreement that truly reflected the perspective of those who have suffered the most and not just the political agendas of the Colombian government and the FARC.

“It is clear that without the participation of victims’ social organisations and their thousands of propositions at all points of the negotiation agenda, the process would have been a negotiation between two armies,” she said. “The participation pushed both sides of the negotiation to include the perspectives of these social groups.”

Gender Perspectives

One of the major victories for human rights advocates in this peace process, according to Professor Alcala, was the inclusion of gender perspectives and approaches. Initially, gender issues such as sexual violence against women and girls were largely ignored by both sides of the negotiation table, despite the substantial evidence of such crimes conflict. Indeed, for the entire first year of negotiation there were no females at all in the government delegation. Nonetheless, the massive mobilization by women’s groups led to women taking a active role in the peace process.

Esther Polo
Esther Polo actively advocates the perspectives of women in the Colombia process. Photo: Jesus Reyes

Esther Polo is a Colombian lawyer heavily involved in the protection of women social, cultural and civil rights. When we discussed participation of women in the Colombian peace process, she identified the first National Women and Peace Summit of 2013 as a milestone moment for the Colombian civil society involvement in this process.

“It is the first time that, during negotiations, women from different organizations decided to gather in a summit that resulted in the inclusion of women into the government negotiating team,” she said. “When the process started, no women had been consulted, thus the government side did not include women’s perspectives.”

Polo said that another major victory for Colombian women and girls was the creation of specialized groups to investigate violence against women. These groups were designed with the participation of women and will be part of each mechanism of transition such the Truth Commission and the Especial Justice Jurisdiction. Ultimately, the organized mobilization of women who continue to seek a peace that respects them, and that integrates their views and experiences, is one of most important gains for Colombian society in the peace process.

Challenges ahead

While the significant involvement of victims’ organizations is an indication of a healthy transition to peace, the rejection of the agreement by many in Colombia exposes the great distance that the society has yet to go before a stable peace is achieved. The voting pattern of the plebiscite which narrowly rejected the first agreement shows a divided nation. On the one hand, it was the rural poor regions most affected by the conflict the ones that largely supported the agreement. Both Professor Pilar and Esther Polo said that this is because overall victims groups have been strongly engaged in the peace process from day one of negotiations. On the other hand, the most urban and well-off regions which experienced the violence less directly were the ones that mostly rejected the agreement. Some of the explanations for the failure of the agreement pointed at misinformation about the agreement in large segments of the Colombian population. While some people did not vote because the “victory” of the agreement was seen as certain, many voted against based on false and negative information being spread about the agreement.

It is clear that, despite the large support of a majority of victims, the peace process is being opposed by strongly influential political figures. Moreover, lack of security continues to be a concern, especially for human rights advocates such as Esther Polo who are targeted by neo-paramilitary groups.

“What those of us who are still alive demand, pushing for peace in Colombia, is that we be allowed to keep fighting, that our lives be respected,” she said, “Those who have worked for peace have the right to see it, and feel it, at least a bit.”

Leon Perez

Leon Perez is a Colombian McGill student who recently concluded an honors degree in political science. He started a B.C.L/ LL.B degree in September 2017. His academic research is focused on human rights advocacy, particularly the protection of the rights of refugees. He is researching multiple human rights issues in Latin America and in summer 2017 will be interning at a local NGO in Quito, Ecuador. He plans to write about Colombian refugees in Ecuador.