“Instead of making the puzzle pieces, we’re now putting them together”

The Colombian investigative website Verdad Abierta published an interview with legal expert Rodrigo Uprimny that has been getting a lot of attention on social media. Uprimny, director of Dejusticia, a Bogotá-based justice think-tank, is close to the peace negotiations going on in Havana.

His message here combines optimism and alarm. A peace accord could come sooner than we think, he says, because negotiations are advancing fast. However, Colombia’s legal system is not prepared either to ratify or to implement it, and the government has not won the fight for public opinion.

Here are excerpts in English; the whole interview in Spanish is at Verdad Abierta. Emphasis in blue boldface is ours.

Verdad Abierta: This isn’t the first time that the government has tried to put forward a mechanism for ratification [of a peace accord]. It had already done so in the bill that would have allowed a referendum alongside the [March 2014] congressional and presidential elections. What’s the hurry?

Rodrigo Uprimny: Contrary to what many people think, I believe an accord could come quickly because the discussions are now happening in parallel. Instead of making the puzzle pieces, we’re now putting them together and creating the pieces that are still missing. What would be very problematic is an accord being reached without a mechanism to ratify or implement it.

VA: Do you think time is being wasted?

RU: If everything is to have a solid legal underpinning, the foundation must be a prior reform. …The best outcome would have been for the people to vote this October [alongside scheduled local elections] in a referendum to say whether or not they approve of that reform. It’s a shame that it hasn’t been done because the problem now is one of timeframes. Now it may have to come through legislation, and that takes a year plus the time taken up by possible constitutionality challenges [in Colombia’s Constitutional Court]. That’s why I think the issue must start being discussed at the [negotiating] table and in society.

VA: But the response in Havana is that they still haven’t come to this point of the discussion, that it’s the last point.

RU: They have to discuss it. Just like they’ve started discussing at the same time the issue of victims along with that of justice and that of the end of the conflict, they should start with a subcommittee on ratification and implementation.

VA: What is the other option to gain time?

RU: Preparing a special mechanism [like a small congressional committee to handle constitutional reforms]. Something that should be flexible and open, foreseeing the options of the government and the FARC, but one that people can be assured is not a blank check. That is done by saying that the citizens will approve everything at the end.

VA: And if they disapprove it?

RU: I start with the assumption that if we don’t manage to win the peace politically, the peace is already lost. Colombian society is divided in three. Some are enemies of peace due to ideological stubbornness or specific interests. Others are very much in favor and are willing to do almost anything for peace. And in between are some skeptics who sometimes are more in favor and at other times more against. The point is that those of us in favor of peace must win over the skeptics with formulas that are appropriate for a negotiation. Peace will not materialize without 70 percent in favor of the final formula.

VA: How can those skeptics be convinced?

RU: It’s crucial that in a sensitive topic like justice, the government and FARC come out with an accord that Colombian society, and especially that skeptical 30 percent, considers to be acceptable. Another method is that, as the war’s de-escalation yields results, the dynamic in favor of peace could be expected to grow.

VA: You say that [peace accord] implementation should be in phases, and that it is important to leave the most difficult issues to be dealt with in a few years. Why?

RU: Let’s suppose that peace is approved, the accords are ratified, the legal formulas are defined for the FARC and the military. At that point, the atmosphere will become relaxed. But if the most radical points are voted on immediately, it’s likely to become polarized again. It’s better to wait three or four years for the benefits of peace to begin, to show that this isn’t “Castro-Chávezism” [a term often used by the rightist opposition] but a more robust democracy, that the non-repetition guarantees are functioning.

VA: Beyond ratification and implementation, another point to discuss is how to guarantee that what was agreed doesn’t fall apart over the ensuing years. How can this process be hardened?

RU: The idea of ratification has three purposes. That the citizenry says yes or no in a democratically legitimate way, to generate agile implementation mechanisms, and finally to put a padlock on the peace process. The only thing that can give the peace process a padlock in a divided country with a long war, is the combination of: the maximum possible political accord, certain legal formulas, and international legitimacy. Without that, it’s possible that peace could be reversible.

VA: And how are those three pillars going?

RU: Pretty well with regard to international support and the construction of ideas for legal security, but only so-so with regard to political construction. The risk now is that of trying to use legal maneuvers as a way to avoid building political consensus around peace.

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