The “Transitional Justice” Debate Heats Up

César Gaviria’s “transitional justice for all” proposal has generated a lot of discussion.

The Colombian government-FARC peace talks have begun to tackle what could be their most difficult subject. Transitional justice, especially the question of what to do with the armed conflict’s worst human rights violators, dominated coverage of the talks in Colombia’s media during the break between their 32nd and 33rd rounds (February 13–24).

This period was punctuated by two statements, both publicized on February 22.

  • The FARC’s lead negotiator, Iván Márquez, told an interviewer, “For the guerrillas, zero jail. No peace process in the world has ended with the insurgency’s leaders behind bars.” Márquez has said almost the same thing before, but his words hit harder now because the talks have now begun tackling this issue. The Colombian government’s high commissioner for peace, Sergio Jaramillo, responded, “The guerrillas think that if we don’t guarantee them impunity, they won’t put down their weapons. If that is their thinking, there won’t be an agreement, there won’t be peace.”
  • Cesar Gaviria, Colombia’s president from 1990 to 1994 and later secretary-general of the Organization of American States, issued a proposal to impose “transitional justice for all.” Gaviria suggests requiring not just guerrillas and soldiers, but also politicians, businesspople, landowners, and civilian officials, to confess their involvement in the most serious human rights abuses committed during the conflict. In exchange for such confessions and efforts to make amends to victims, Gaviria’s proposal would exempt non-combatants from serving prison sentences (it is vaguer about combatants). Among the Colombian military, the proposal would exempt lower-ranking officers, as well as those who committed crimes by “omission” (deliberate failure to prevent a human rights abuse committed by others).

Let’s look at these two statements.

Iván Márquez may technically be right when he says FARC members won’t spend a day in “jail.” The worst human rights violators among its members might not end up in regular prisons administered by Colombia’s National Prisons Institute. Nonetheless, guerrillas most responsible for the most serious abuses may end up in some sort of facility that deprives them of liberty. This facility might not be administered solely by the Colombian government: in order to avoid the appearance of “surrender,” some international involvement could be involved. While FARC leaders held there would be confined to the facility, the length and austerity of their detention would probably be significantly shorter than a normal criminal prison sentence for such serious crimes.

Last week, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan visited Colombia and spoke to the FARC negotiators in Cuba. Rodrigo Pardo of Semana magazine asked him whether he thought the International Criminal Court would require prison for guerrilla leaders responsible for the worst human rights crimes. Annan more or less said yes:

“I think the determination here—obviously, judges will have to make it—but the determination will be to bring to account all those who are most responsible for the most serious crimes. So it will not be for the organization you belong to, but have you committed a crime or not? Obviously one is not going to be able to bring everyone to trial, but those most responsible will have to be held to account.”

Former President Gaviria’s proposal, meanwhile, made big waves in Colombia: it’s highly unusual for a heavyweight of the country’s political class to recognize that civilian elites bear some judicial responsibility for crimes committed during the conflict. (“My surprise was enormous,” wrote León Valencia, a demobilized ELN guerrilla leader who is now one of Colombia’s most-cited conflict analysts.) FARC leaders “hailed” the proposal as a good starting point.

Gaviria deserves praise for seeking to extend accountability to Colombia’s ruling elite. Civilian non-combatants played a large role—often larger than that of combatants—in ordering, planning, funding, and preparing some of the worst abuses committed during Colombia’s conflict, and they shouldn’t avoid accountability. Their participation in confessions, amends, reparations, and truth-telling could help Colombia make a historic break with generations of political violence.

Gaviria’s “transitional justice for all” proposal raises three questions, though:

Washington Names a Special Envoy. What Can He Do?

On February 20, Secretary of State John Kerry presented Bernard Aronson, the United States’ first special envoy to the Colombian peace process. This is a welcome move.

Since talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas began in 2012, U.S. support has been consistent, but distant. Its usual manifestation has been public declarations of U.S. backing—a general statement every two months or so—from a high-ranking official. But with Aronson’s appointment, a senior official will be engaged with the process on a full-time basis. U.S. support for the talks is likely to take a qualitative leap forward.

A Colombian Request

The move, Secretary Kerry said, is the result of a direct request from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

“In December I met with President Santos in Bogota, and he asked me directly whether or not the time had come for the United States to perhaps take a more direct role, and be more directly supportive of the peace process.”

What prompted President Santos to make this request in December is unclear. Timing was a likely factor: the FARC’s quick November 30 release of a captured Colombian general, and its mid-December declaration of a unilateral ceasefire, gave fresh momentum to the talks, leaving a clear impression that they had moved to a more advanced phase. President Santos no doubt calculated that a more explicit show of U.S. backing was appropriate at this stage. But it is uncertain what additional roles or duties he wishes U.S. diplomats to fulfill at this time.

A change in U.S. posture

Even six months ago, in our interactions with U.S. officials, the idea of a special envoy to the peace talks didn’t quite fail the “laugh test,” but was certainly viewed as premature. A series of recent events—Santos’s reelection victory, the captured general’s release, the ceasefire, steps toward de-escalation of the conflict—changed that calculation.

Changed U.S.-Cuban relations

The December 2014 diplomatic opening to Cuba also likely made the idea of a special envoy more practical. It eased, both politically and diplomatically, the presence of a U.S. government representative in Havana on a mission unrelated to the bilateral relationship with Cuba.

A qualified envoy

Bernard Aronson served as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs during the George H.W. Bush (41) administration. There, he oversaw a shift away from the Reagan administration’s opposition to negotiations in El Salvador, toward a stance of support for UN-brokered peace talks.

The choice of Aronson is, on balance, smart. He is experienced with U.S. support for peace negotiations in Latin America. And, since he served in a Republican administration (though himself active in Democratic politics), he has more credibility with Republican legislators, whose support is important as they now control both houses of Congress.

Aronson’s efforts were vital to encouraging El Salvador’s rightist government to stay at the negotiating table. But he is not a reserved, conciliatory career diplomat. Álvaro de Soto, the UN official who mediated the El Salvador peace talks, described Aronson as “browbeating me” about issues like negotiation deadlines and imposing a cease-fire, and criticized his State Department for the impatience with which it approached the talks and occasionally undercut his work. Investigative journalist Juanita León, meanwhile, points out that Aronson’s private-equity firm, which he founded in 1996, has investments in oil extraction projects in Putumayo and Meta, two conflictive zones with a heavy FARC presence.

The FARC is delighted

In Havana, guerrilla negotiators quickly issued a statement “hailing” Aronson’s appointment as U.S. special envoy. They voiced a view that more direct U.S. involvement in the peace process is “a necessity, given the permanent presence and impact that the United States has in Colombia’s political, economic, and social life.”

Prison, or “Deprivation of Liberty,” for Human Rights Violators

International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has warned Colombia against amnesties or suspended sentences for serious guerrilla human rights violators.

In December, FARC peace negotiators met in Havana with representatives of Bojayá, a town in northwestern Colombia. There, during a 2002 confrontation with paramilitary fighters, the FARC had catapulted a homemade bomb into a church where much of the population was hiding, killing 119 of them. Following the Havana meeting, the guerrilla negotiators issued a humbly worded apology, in which they committed to

“seeking ways we can possibly compensate, not just by recognizing the damage caused then, but by developing a series of proposals directed toward dialogue, acts of reparations, and to offer and agree on non-repetition measures.”

The December document was important, not only as the FARC’s most explicit expression of contrition to date, but because in it the guerrillas recognized their responsibility to tell victims the truth about their own human rights abuses and to contribute to reparations.

The statement said nothing, though, about punishment. The FARC continues to insist that it not be, in President Juan Manuel Santos’s words, “the first [guerrillas] in history to hand in their weapons only to go to a prison.”

An Emerging Consensus on “Deprivation of Liberty”

However, the FARC—or at least some of its members—may end up having that distinction. Those in the group most responsible for serious human rights violations could end up spending some time in prison, or in something like prison.

A few possibilities have been tossed about for how to hold demobilized guerrillas accountable for their human rights crimes. Virtually all agree that ex-guerrillas must engage in truth-telling or confession, usually as part of a formal trial or tribunal, along with amends or reparations to victims, and guarantees of non-repetition.

On punishment, though, a variety of views exist. The FARC continues to insist on its leaders avoiding punishment. “We haven’t fought our entire lives for peace with social justice and the dignity of Colombians only to end up locked up in the victimizers’ jails,” chief negotiator Iván Márquez said in 2013.

For his part, Colombia’s prosecutor-general (fiscal general), Eduardo Montealegre, has floated the idea of suspended sentences or “substitution of sentences that deprive liberty for other types of alternative penalties, like clearing landmines.” Communications from the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor have suggested that Montealegre’s proposals would not satisfy Colombia’s international human rights commitments.

Away from the negotiating table, though, a consensus is emerging that crimes against humanity and serious war crimes can neither be amnestied nor pardoned following a trial. The length and severity of punitive detention can be reduced after truth-telling, reparations, and non-repetition guarantees. But there must be some “deprivation of liberty.”

“The particularities of the Colombian case suggest that those maximally responsible for the most serious and representative crimes should have a dose of punishment that implies an effective deprivation of liberty,” reads a 2013 monograph from DeJusticia, a Bogotá-based legal think-tank that has extensively explored this question.

“From the philosophical perspective, specifically with respect to reflections about the purposes of the punishment, it becomes necessary to have a minimum of retribution as a recognition of the suffering of the victims, and as an affirmation of the values that were negated by the serious human rights violations.”

Even if consensus is emerging around the “deprivation of liberty” issue, though, at least four questions remain.

1. How to select cases?

Interview on Colombia’s Peace Process with Danny Ramirez of the National Conference of Afro-Colombian Organizations

(Versión en español)

There are few Colombians whose lives have not been directly or indirectly unaffected by the armed conflict between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). However, throughout more than 50 years of conflict, the damages have disproportionately affected a particular segment of the Colombian population, as national and international human rights organizations frequently indicate in reports. These reports unanimously agree that it is Afro-Colombians who have borne the greatest cost of Colombia’s bloodiest war. To illustrate, two million out of the six million people who are currently internally displaced by the conflict are Afro-Colombian. This statistic is especially troubling considering that Afro-Colombians compose only 10 percent of Colombia’s total population. Given the magnitude of this disproportion, it is vital that the concerns and interests of this historically marginalized people are taken into consideration at the peace negotiations that are currently occurring between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC in Havana, Cuba if lasting peace is to be achieved.

For this reason, WOLA interviewed Danny Maria Torres Ramirez, Coordinator of Women and Gender component of the National Conference of Afro-Colombian Organizations (Conferencia Nacional de Organizaciones Afrocolombianas, CNOA), a social organization working to protect human rights and to further the collective interests of Afro-Colombians. We had the opportunity to talk with Ramirez after her presentation, “Women and the Peace Process in Colombia”, at the United States Institute of Peace on 25 June 2014 in which she discussed the importance of addressing gender issues during the peace process. As a person with extensive knowledge of the problems affecting Afro-Colombian people, we interviewed Ramirez to learn more about the interests of Afro-Colombian communities in the peace process, the strategies that the CNOA is using to prepare communities to face the challenges of post-conflict, and the organization’s recommendations to President Santos’s administration to successfully overcome the major challenges facing Afro-Colombians.

Could you tell us about CNOA’s mission, and of the women’s component in particular?

The CNOA is the coming together of 246 organizations, which form a series of national support networks. Its members include organizations of women, youth, displaced persons, community councils, and urban organizations. Our mission is to protect the human rights of the Afro-Colombian people and to further their collective interests. We articulate these organizations’ proposals into political and legislative advocacy, organizational strengthening, advising on strategic communications, and territorial strengthening. All of these efforts are done with particular attention to gender issues (women’s rights) and generational issues (children and youth). In that sense, the women’s component focuses on constructing public policies that attempt to transform the adverse reality of Afro-Colombian women. Afro-Colombian women are a population that has been historically impoverished and marginalized; even by the armed conflict. CNOA’s work strategies vary widely, but its advocacy role in the executive and legislative levels of government is of high importance. Through advocacy, we seek to promote positive policies that help us solve structural problems such as political exclusion, lack of education and discrimination. We also work closely with our Afro-Colombian population base to help them develop their own proposals for local government and thereby bring about positive change.

As an organization that works with some one of the most vulnerable people to the conflict’s violence, what is the role of CNOA in building a sustainable peace process?

One of the most important roles of CNOA is to act as a bridge between Afro-Colombians and the state in order to establish a positive and constructive dialogue aimed at overcoming inequality gaps. We must continue to inform the government about many of the issues that affect our communities. A signed agreement will resolve a major social problem that has disproportionately affected our communities; we understand that a ceasefire between the government and the FARC will not end all problems, but it will lift a large burden of oppression and subjugation from our communities’ shoulders. CNOA continues to work to prepare communities to face some of the challenges what will arise in the post-conflict. If these challenges are not addressed adequately, their damage can be as bad as the war itself. In order to achieve this goal, we must conduct the relevant contextual and territorial assessments. For example, we have to be able to handle the reintegration of former combatants into civilian life. Similarly, we must prepare for the countersignature of the negotiation points because it is important to know, in the territories is where the war has been fought, how the final agreements have been established established. These are some of the challenges on which we must focus if the agreement is to be an actually framework for a sustainable and lasting peace, from this point onwards other challenges will unfold with time. Of course we must also continue to educate the general public on issues affecting Afro-Colombian communities and address the lack of economic and social opportunities that strip away our livelihoods and that continue to push us into the systematic violence that we have faced for many years.

Colombia’s Military and the Peace Process

President Santos and government peace negotiators meet with the high military and police command on January 23.

“Fifty-one years of war and we’re going to reach peace, a peace that is your victory,” President Juan Manuel Santos told Colombia’s army in a pre-Christmas speech. “That courage, that determination, have been responsible for us talking about peace, because the enemy finally noticed that you are invincible, and today we have the best Army in our history.”

President Santos, who served as defense minister in the previous administration, regularly offers effusive praise to the armed forces. Except on December 2, when he appeared on the TV station of Bogotá’s left-leaning city government and warned, “People who aren’t acting with loyalty are coming out, and any officer, no matter how important, showing the slightest sign of disloyalty or lack of discipline will be out of the military.”

This comment, which came a day after the resignation of an Army general who had been captured and released by the FARC guerrillas, raised eyebrows in Colombia and reportedly angered the military.

Santos’s words drew attention to a concern brewing below the surface of Colombia’s peace process: that a significant sector of the armed forces and its leadership disagrees with the civilian government’s handling of negotiations with the FARC.

It is impossible to know how large this sector is, as active-duty officers usually respect their constitutional mandate to be “non-deliberative,” avoiding public criticism of civilian leaders. We must rely on off-the-record comments, some of them made to us and some of them reported by a small number of Colombian investigative journalists, as well as the public words of retired officers and of politicians believed to be close to the military.

These comments indicate that military leaders and rank-and-file who are unhappy about the Havana talks aren’t opposed to “peace” or agitating to prolong the conflict. Their likely concerns, listed below, have more to do with the design of the process, or its implications for their institution.

Military discontent is important. Colombia’s armed forces have grown rapidly in this century: today, about 450,000 Colombians wear a military or police uniform, up from less than 300,000 in 2000. While the possibility of a military coup is near zero, opposition from the armed forces could manifest itself in ways that make peace negotiations, or subsequent accord implementation, inviable. Analysts cite military resistance as a key factor in the failure of a 1980s attempt to negotiate with the FARC and mid–1990s efforts to get negotiations started.

Elements in the armed forces can hinder or derail peace talks through what longtime Semana magazine columnist Antonio Caballero called “sometimes quiet and sometimes open opposition, sometimes almost en bloc and sometimes, like now, in the form of surreptitious ‘loose wheels’” within the institution. Methods can include private communications to politicians opposed to the process, incomplete compliance with orders, filtration of damaging allegations (true or invented) by military intelligence, or politically damaging public statements which, as they are rare, often come with high officers’ resignations. In extreme cases, some officers’ opposition could even be expressed through uncredited threats or intimidation against civilians involved in, or supportive of, negotiations.

Evidence of Military Unease

Military commanders insist, and some analysts agree, that the armed forces have stolidly supported President Santos’s peace effort. “The Army’s support for the peace process is proved, clearly, by our work,” Gen. Jaime Lasprilla, the chief of Colombia’s army, told El Espectador journalist Cecilia Orozco in November. “The fact that the transfer of 30 terrorists to Havana has occurred without any incident is a concrete and forceful piece of evidence.”

While the institution as a whole has gone along with the talks, there have been troubling incidents.

Bilateral Cease-Fire: What Must Be Negotiated?

President Santos last night, announcing his intention to negotiate a bilateral cease-fire with the FARC.

“I have given instructions to the negotiators that they start, as soon as possible, the discussion on the point of the bilateral and definitive cease-fire and cessation of hostilities.”

That was Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, making a rather surprising announcement in the first moments of his televised 2015 new year’s address.

In the nearly two and a half years since peace talks began, the Colombian government had refused the FARC guerrillas’ calls for a bilateral cease-fire, insisting on fighting while negotiations proceeded. Now, one month after the FARC declared a “unilateral, indefinite” but conditional cease-fire, President Santos is talking about making it bilateral. The talks are in such a mature phase, it seems, that the guns and bombs may soon go silent as both sides abstain from offensive actions.

This is a transcendental step. But one might reasonably ask: “If the FARC already wants and has declared a cease-fire, what is there to negotiate?”

There is much to define. “Cease fire” and “cessation of hostilities” are vague terms. When they return to the table on January 26, negotiators—especially the “end of conflict subcommittee” made up of Colombian military personnel and FARC leaders—will have to consider questions like the following.

  • Who would verify it? If the parties at the table in Havana lose time arguing over alleged cease-fire violations, the negotiating agenda could get derailed. Some trusted third party, perhaps an international entity, may be needed to investigate and rule on such allegations.
  • Can the Colombian security forces go after non-participants? In many areas, the FARC are not the only active armed or organized-crime group. The Colombian government is charged with protecting its citizens throughout the national territory and will insist on being able to confront these groups—as well as to confront FARC elements that, in its view, have gone rogue or broken away.
  • Will this be a “cease-fire in place?” The government might suggest that, in order to verify the cease-fire more easily, the FARC concentrate its members in specific locations. The guerrillas will reject this.
  • If guerrillas are not concentrated in specific locations, can the security forces carry out arrest warrants for wanted guerrilla leaders? If the authorities locate or encounter a known and wanted FARC leader, Colombia will insist on the ability to arrest that leader despite the cease-fire.

“There Are Other Circumstances Now”

Yesterday, from left to right: lead government negotiator Humberto de la Calle, President Juan Manuel Santos, and High Commissioner for Peace Sergio Jaramillo.

With his declaration about the FARC peace talks yesterday, President Juan Manuel Santos took a big step toward de-escalating Colombia’s conflict.

Santos was indirect, but hinted that—as long as current conditions prevail—the government and guerrillas are approaching a sort of undeclared, de facto cease-fire. Or at least, that the government is no longer insisting on total war on the battlefield while talks proceed at the table.

A translation of the key section:

Of course, we have taken very much into consideration the unilateral and indefinite cease-fire that the FARC declared. And on this point we must recognize that the FARC have complied.

We want to invite the ELN to join the initiative of a unilateral cease-fire, as the FARC did.

Until now, we have followed that maxim made famous by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, where he said that we must negotiate as though the war or conflict didn’t exist, and we had to maintain the military offensive as though the peace process didn’t exist.

But the advances in the negotiations indicate to us that there are other circumstances now, and that this disconnect is no longer applicable.

Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper explained:

Sources close to the peace process confirmed to El Tiempo that, while this doesn’t refer directly to a “bilateral cease-fire,” which would imply a halt to the security forces’ offensive actions against the FARC, the message of “de-escalation” will begin to be reinforced so that society may understand that a definitive stage of the negotiations has been entered.

El Tiempo noted that the armed forces’ high command asked for clarification last night from Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón. The response came this afternoon in a tweet from the President: “Instructions to the Armed Forces have not changed. Bilateral cease-fire will be discussed when the appropriate moment arrives.”

If this sounds a bit contradictory, so is the situation on the ground. While not quite a bilateral cease-fire, the de facto battlefield status can be summed up in two events that took place on December 31:

  • That day, Colombia’s CERAC think-tank, which monitors conflict activity, reported: “CERAC’s violence monitoring has not registered a single offensive act attributable to the FARC that would violate its cease-fire. Nor have we registered any offensive action against the FARC on the security forces’ part.”
  • That evening, Army soldiers, police, and Prosecutors’ Office police captured Carlos Andrés Bustos Cortez, alias “Richard,” identified as the second-in-command of the FARC’s powerful Teófilo Forero Column in the southwestern department of Huila. “Richard” was located by a joint intelligence operation, and captured after a brief firefight in which he was wounded.

At Year’s End, It’s Clear: This Peace Process Is For Real

In the weeks before Christmas 2001, the FARC broke Colombia’s heart.

Andrés Felipe Pérez, a 12-year-old boy in a Bogotá hospital’s cancer ward, transfixed the country with his dying wish: to say farewell to his father. Police Corporal Norberto Pérez had spent the previous two years as one of dozens whom the FARC were holding hostage in Colombia’s jungles. As three-year-old peace talks with the government floundered, the guerrillas refused Andrés Felipe’s dying wish. The boy died a week before Christmas. He never saw his father. The next year, months after the peace talks’ collapse, FARC captors killed Corporal Pérez during an escape attempt.

A month ago, the FARC had another military captive, a far bigger prize: a Colombian Army general who wandered right into the guerrillas’ clutches. This time, though, the FARC let him go after just two weeks. Gen. Rubén Darío Alzate will spend Christmas at home with his family.

Why did the guerrillas’ behavior shift so radically? Again, they are in peace negotiations with the Colombian government. But this time, unlike 2001, they really don’t want them to end. A government suspension of the talks forced the guerrillas to choose between holding a general and continuing to talk peace. They chose peace.

This would seem like ironclad proof that today’s peace process is for real. Colombia has tried and failed to negotiate with the FARC three times in the past thirty years. But the current attempt in Havana, with three of six agenda items concluded in an orderly manner, might really be the one that ends fifty years of fighting.

Still, Colombian public opinion isn’t so sure. While polls show a clear majority of Colombians supporting the dialogues, a similar majority still doubts they will succeed.