The FARC, Its Victims, and the Peace Process

An October 27 gathering of FARC victims in Bogotá.

On October 30 Colombia’s FARC guerrilla group made its clearest recognition that it owes something to its victims. It came in a statement issued during the 30th round of peace talks between the FARC and Colombia’s government in Havana, Cuba. These talks are on their fourth agenda topic, “Victims.” The statement came on the eve of a fourth of five planned visits to Havana of conflict victims.

“It is evident that we have intervened actively and we have impacted our adversary, and in some way affected the population that has lived immersed in the war,” read guerrilla negotiator Pablo Atrato.

“We make ourselves expressly responsible for each and every one of the acts of war executed by our units in conformance with the orders and instructions imparted by our command, and we assume its derivations. We are conscious that the results of our actions have not always been foreseen or expected by the FARC-EP, and we assume the consequences, as could not be otherwise. The FARC-EP will assume responsibility for what concerns us.”

Pablo Atrato reads the FARC statement about victims on October 30.

This sounds sensible, but still modest given the FARC’s treatment of civilians in Colombia’s long conflict. Though pro-government paramilitary groups committed a majority of massacres, extrajudicial killings, and forced displacement, the FARC is responsible for a significant share of these. For their part, the guerrillas dominate categories like kidnapping, child recruitment, use of landmines, indiscriminate bombings of civilian populations, and attacks on civilian infrastructure.

When confronted with the group’s victimizer status, FARC leaders’ usual response has been defiant: to avoid the issue, to insist that the government recognize its own victims, or even to say that FARC members themselves are victims.

Some observers applauded the latest FARC statement’s acceptance of reality. “The 30th round of peace dialogues between the government and the FARC produced the event that the country has most been expecting in the two years of negotiations in Havana: the recognition of responsibilities on the guerrillas’ part,” read an analysis in the Colombian daily El Espectador. “For the first time in its history,” read the newsweekly Semana, “the FARC guerrilla group admitted… that its actions have affected the civilian population throughout the armed conflict.”

Others noted that FARC negotiators had said similar things in the past. “Without a doubt there has also been cruelty and pain provoked by our forces,“ FARC Secretariat member Pablo Catatumbo had said in August 2013. ”We must all recognize the need to take on the issue of victims, their identity and reparation with total loyalty to the cause of peace and reconciliation.” Before a group of visiting conflict victims in Havana three months ago, chief FARC negotiator Iván Márquez had asked for forgiveness and signaled an intention to make amends.

The October 30 communique was “a first step,” Congresswoman Clara Rojas, who spent six years as a FARC hostage, wrote on Twitter. Though it was “an important step toward full satisfaction of victims’ rights,” chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle said, the FARC statement wasn’t enough.

“Historical reflections about the conflict’s origins and development, or statements about the characteristics and military consequences of the so-called asymmetry of war, or attribution of the adversary’s responsibility, the ‘you too’ excuse, may make sense as analysis, but shouldn’t be used by any of the actors [in the conflict] to diminish the solidity of recognitions of responsibility for serious crimes.”

Then, on November 4—five days after the negotiators’ statement and two days after the fourth meeting with victims in Havana—the FARC’s 6th Front created two new victims. In Toribío, a hard-hit municipality in the southwestern department of Cauca, the guerrillas killed two leaders of the Nasa indigenous community. The unarmed leaders had just helped take down a FARC billboard. Guerrillas shot at a third indigenous community leader, and when Manuel Antonio Tumiñá and Daniel Coicué pursued the shooters, they were cut down. In recent days, the same 6th Front installed explosives in a health post, and laid landmines in a school playground, in the nearby municipality of Inzá, Cauca.

One of the FARC billboards that indigenous communities in Toribío were attempting to dismantle.

The United Nations, WOLA, Colombia’s National Indigenous Organization (ONIC), and other groups condemned this attack. “We hope that the FARC clarifies its position on this crime, and rejects this sort of conduct by its members,” said Colombian Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo. On November 8, the FARC negotiators posted a statement expressing "grief and concern" about an incident that "could have been resolved through dialogue."

The Toribío incident called into question the guerrillas’ commitment to victims at a time when the peace talks hinge on this question. Pressure is growing on the FARC to make a more explicit, unvarnished statement about its responsibilities and its intentions to make amends.

Álvaro Sierra, the editor of Colombia’s Semana magazine, had entitled his October 30 column in the daily El TiempoWhy the Process is Going Better than It Looks.” A week later, his tone was darker.

“Bad news for the negotiations in Havana. As long as the FARC fail to make a categorical recognition, without nuance, of their responsibility as victimizers, their declarations—and their actions—are only going to contribute to strengthening disbelief, skepticism, and distrust in the process, which are already quite broad. And the negotiations will remain as they have for three months: stuck.”

Colombia’s Procurador, or internal affairs chief, Alejandro Ordóñez, struck a similar note in a column published in the same newspaper: “Only with an authentic recognition and repentance from the FARC can Colombian society forgive and begin the construction of a stable and long-lasting peace.”

If it’s obvious that the FARC must show more contrition and more commitment to help their victims heal wounds, why are the guerrillas delaying? The most plausible explanation has to do with FARC leaders’ need to maintain the morale and loyalty of their fighters, including the 6th Front in Cauca, who may be skeptical of the negotiations, unwilling to abandon arms, and growing distant from the negotiators in Havana. Many mid-level commanders may be in no mood to admit mistakes.

The FARC doesn’t want to lose command and control over these units. Ironically, the Colombian government doesn’t want them to lose control over them, either, because it wants them to demobilize after an accord is signed. Many of the FARC’s most aggressive and hardest-line messages are no doubt intended for the troops, just as Colombia’s defense minister uses hard-line, red-meat rhetoric in his statements before a skeptical military.

To the extent that FARC leaders have a plan to show real contrition to victims without demoralizing their cadres, it involves the Historical Commission on the Armed Conflict and Its Victims. This body, proposed by the FARC and accepted by the government, is an ideologically diverse group of 14 scholars—12 writers and 2 editors—whom the negotiators charged in August with drafting a report on the reasons for the armed conflict’s origin and prolongation.

The FARC’s October 30 statement says, “We recognize in the results of the ‘Historical commission on the conflict and its victims’ the contextual, reference, and analytical framework to advance in the definition of responsibilities to the conflict’s victims.” In other words, the guerrillas are waiting for the Commission’s report before they say more about responsibility to victims.

This report is due in December. It’s likely to tell the FARC what everyone knows: that it has tens of thousands of civilian victims. That result, though, could give the FARC’s leaders the cover they believe they need to alter their rhetoric, to say what they have been unwilling to say, and to make concessions on the “Victims” accord at the peace table.

Once the FARC crosses this difficult line—with the Commission’s report helping its leaders save face before their troops in the field—the talks will not only be close to reaching an accord on “Victims.” They will have reached a point after which it is difficult to imagine the peace process breaking down.

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