Peace Talks Clear a Path to Justice in Colombia

The government and rebel leaders have set a March 2016 deadline to reach a final peace agreement, but disarmament, demining, and justice for victims of the conflict will take much longer.

By Alex Schlaifer,
Program Associate

Photo: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

The government and rebel leaders have set a March 2016 deadline to reach a final peace agreement, but disarmament, demining, and justice for victims of the conflict will take much longer.

For generations, Colombia has been embroiled in violent conflict. Leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and at times government forces have used brutal and indiscriminate techniques during Latin America’s longest-running civil war, which has left an estimated 220,000 people dead and more than 5 million internally displaced.

However, recent government promises and a unilateral cease-fire declared by the rebels could signal an end to the region’s last Marxist insurgency and an opportunity to deliver justice for victims.

Fifty years of terror

Originally established in 1964, the Marxist rebel group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, has terrorized the Colombian government and its citizens for over 50 years. It is the oldest, largest, and best-equipped guerrilla group in the Western Hemisphere. The FARC has long financed its campaign against the government through kidnapping, extortion, and drug trafficking, earning an estimated $500 million a year from the drug trade alone. This has earned several key commanders a spot on the U.S. Treasury Department’s “specially designated nationals” list as narcotics kingpins.

The FARC has never shied away from the use of extreme violence and terror. It has notoriously conducted indiscriminate bombings, assassinated high-level politicians and members of the judiciary, and associated with the Lebanese Islamist militant group Hezbollah. Human rights defenders have consistently been subjected to violence during the civil conflict, with 34 activists and journalists slain in the first half of 2015, though most of those are thought to have been killed by paramilitary groups. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department has identified the FARC as a foreign terrorist organization since the listing began in 1997. Members of the U.S. intelligence community and military have actively assisted in the capture and extradition of suspected FARC terrorists.

A human rights tragedy

While the intensity of the conflict has waxed and waned over the years, the one constant is civilian casualties. Perhaps the most effective, and indiscriminate, weapon in the FARC’s arsenal is the antipersonnel landmine. Since 1990, some 10,900 deaths and injuries have been attributed to landmines or similar explosive devices. Improvised bombs are often placed in bottles or other objects in rural areas, attracting curious children. While the FARC has been responsible for a majority of the atrocities over the years, the Colombian government is far from innocent. In its 2015 Freedom in the World report, Freedom House noted blatant rights violations on both sides of the conflict, including a 2008 scandal over government forces’ systematic killing of civilians to fraudulently inflate FARC death tolls. Colombian army officers and others have been accused of forming paramilitary groups and “hit squads” to combat the FARC without restriction or accountability, leading to flagrant human rights abuses. Although these groups were supposed to have been demobilized in 2003, reports show that some continue to operate, and that former members are involved in organized crime.

Negotiating with the enemy

In 2012, representatives from the FARC and the Colombian government began holding peace talks on a semiregular basis in Havana, Cuba. In September 2015, the two sides signaled that a definitive agreement would be finalized within six months, bringing an end to one of the world’s longest ongoing conflicts. The FARC has agreed to lay down its arms within 60 days of the final agreement and halt drug-trafficking operations. Although these are certainly victories worth celebrating, access to justice for victims of the conflict will be limited, and the road to lasting peace will be a long one.

Thousands of landmines still cover large swathes of the countryside and will require a painstaking removal process. In an attempt to expedite the effort, some belligerents convicted of crimes will be forced to clear landmines instead of serving a prison sentence. The process of disarmament will also be slow and arduous due to concerns about the stability of the agreement and an inherent lack of trust between the former adversaries.

As part of the planned treaty, victims of violence can bring their cases before tribunals to prosecute perpetrators on both sides of the conflict. Those accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity will face trial, but under the current conditions, many FARC leaders who sanctioned atrocities and conducted brutal campaigns will not face actual jail time. In the spirit of reconciliation, only those who refuse to admit to the crimes committed will be given lengthy prison sentences; the others will be eligible for alternative sentences such as supervised community work. While the FARC’s agreement to participate in these trials is a step in the right direction, the deal will apparently not provide full access to justice for the millions of people who suffered during the conflict.

Cautious optimism

The United States will play a critical role in the success of this peace agreement. Between 2000 and 2011, Washington provided more than $8 billion in mostly military aid to the Colombian government to fight terrorism and narcotics trafficking. Until it is clear that the FARC has permanently abandoned its terrorist and criminal activities, the group should remain on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations and its leaders should retain their special designations. The United States should certainly support an end to the conflict, but it is imperative that the FARC leadership understand the U.S. commitment to assist the Colombian government if the agreement crumbles.

In the end, however, responsibility for the outcome of the accord lies with the Colombian government and the FARC leaders. Only through fair trials, appropriate sentencing, and respect for the rule of law will victims begin to find justice. Local-level prosecutors will require greater resources, and the government will have to invest in real, substantial judicial reform. The process of reconciliation will not be quick or easy, but there is reason to hope that respect for justice will triumph and the country can finally clear the path to peace.