Victim Seats in Congress Could Help Advance Peace in Colombia

By Matthew Bocanumenth and Felipe Puerta Cuartas
(Cross-posted from www.wola.org)

(AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

On March 13, the regions hardest hit by Colombia’s internal armed conflict will have the unprecedented opportunity to elect congressional representatives for 16 new, temporary “peace” seats in Colombia’s House of Representatives. Implementing these seats, devised in the 2016 peace accord, has been no easy feat. At the same time, the electoral process has been marred with risks and challenges that are illustrative of the entrenched dynamics of violence, racism, and political exclusion this historic mechanism was designed to overcome

The peace seats represent 16 Special Transitory Peace Districts (Circunscripciones Transitorias Especiales de Paz, CITREP) strategically located in 167 municipalities where central state and institutional presence are traditionally weak. These are regions where armed actors inflicted violence against a high number of victims, multidimensional poverty is substantial, and a dependency on producing illicit crops remains to be a prevalent need for many residents. 

The identified municipalities have rarely had the opportunity to elect representatives in Congress to advocate for their needs. The peace accord sought to rectify this lack of political representation by providing 16 congressional seats over two legislative terms for Colombia’s over 9 million victims, many of whom are Afro-Colombian and Indigenous. In fact, the Truth, Coexistence, and Non-Repetition Commission—a key component of Colombia’s transitional justice system—identified that 17 of the 22 corridors of violence during the conflict are resided mainly by ethnic communities. By changing the configuration in Colombia’s House of Representatives from 171 members to 187 members for the next eight years, the seats are ultimately meant to uplift the voices of these victims in the halls of power and help integrate their needs and territorial perspectives into the national political agenda.

While a noble effort at reconciliation, the mechanism has encountered a series of obstacles from the government itself. In 2017, after months of debates through both congressional chambers, many representatives saw the legislation to create the peace seats as a given. However, in late November of that year, the then-President of the Senate illegitimately blocked the legislation from passing by claiming an insufficient quorum, despite the securing of an absolute majority vote. This move tabled the legislation and prevented the peace seats from operating in the 2018 legislative elections. Obstructing the legislation pushed back the legal codification of this key peace accord commitment by four years. Reviving the legislation was only made possible in May 2021 when the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of a constitutional writ (tutela). On August 26, 2021, the Iván Duque administration finally abided by the ruling and promulgated the law to create the 16 peace seats. Ironically, after having obstructed the legislation, the Duque government now presents itself as having facilitated these seats and utilizes them as an indicator to show its commitment to peace to the international community. 

lack of awareness about the objectives of the seats has made bringing the mechanism to life a difficult undertaking. Delays and obstructions have meant that some of the initially registered 398 candidates had little to no time to prepare their campaigns. Many candidates have yet to receive their allotted state funding to campaign in rural areas. Skepticism around the process has even prompted some candidates to call for postponing the elections

Additionally, paramilitary groups, other criminal interests, and traditional political parties have found their way to continue sabotaging the peace process. Such is the case with Jorge Rodrigo Tovar Vélez, the son of the paramilitary leader “Jorge 40,” whose campaign for the peace seat in Valledupar was approved by the National Electorate Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, CNE). Jorge 40 was recently deported to Colombia after serving 12 years in a U.S. prison for drug trafficking charges. Upon his return, he was sentenced in February 2022 with 40 years in prison for murder and has over 1,400 other pending investigations. Despite this conflict of interest, Tovar Vélez was named the Victims Director in the Ministry of the Interior by the Duque administration. Now, Vélez is running a campaign for a peace seat, with reports indicating that armed actors are intimidating residents to vote for him. Questionable candidates running campaigns for the peace seats raises concerns that this key commitment of the peace accord will not serve its intended purpose.

Alarmingly, the moment is also plagued by a climate of increasing violence by illegal armed groups in the territories these peace seats will represent. Five years after the ratification of the peace accord, the country has broken a five-year record when it comes to the frequency of mass internal displacement. It is experiencing an increase in homicides of different kinds—from targeted killings of social leaders to the massacres of civilians.  

The situation is so dire that Colombia’s Electoral Observation Mission (Misión de Observación Electoral, MOE) issued an alert warning that 58 per cent of the municipalities represented by the new peace districts are at high risk for violence and electoral fraud. This electoral cycle for the peace seats has already seen the kidnapping of a candidate in Arauca department, intimidation of a candidate in North Santander department, at least 347 registered complaints of armed threats and intimidation against almost the same number candidates, and even eight contenders rescinding their candidacies because of a lack of guarantees and for fear of their safety. This violence raises major concerns for the security of the victims running campaigns for the peace seats, as threats and assassinations against political and social leaders were terrifyingly rampant throughout the 20th and early 21st century and persist in Colombia’s post-accord context.

In Colombian politics today, candidates are unable to carry out political activities in many regions due to fear for their lives. There is also a lack of accountability against alleged corruption and fraud in elections. This political arena has impeded the country from further democratizing, ensuring the rule of law and social justice, and overcoming economic inequality, all of which have worsened during the ongoing pandemic and have further suffered from the lack of the 2016 peace accord’s implementation.

Given the current security conditions in territories throughout Colombia, the government may arbitrarily suspend the elections for these peace seats at its own disposition for reasons related to public order. Ensuring the security and safety of the candidates running for the peace seats is vital for democracy and peace in Colombia. Evidenced by the historic difficulties for alternative political movements throughout the country to safely participate in traditional electoral structures, this violent legacy of political and social exclusion has strained Colombia’s efforts at peacebuilding.

Colombia’s next Congress will have to commit to advancing peace accord implementation. After years of efforts to obstruct legislation that sought to advance peace and starving the process of adequate funding, bold steps are needed to get peace back on track. The new Congress will also need to pass a tax reform. Given how Duque’s proposed tax reform pushed the country to the brink of crisis, this will need to be done in consultation with civil society. The police repression with which the national protests were met is yet to be adequately investigated or prosecuted and should also lead to serious security sector reforms. 

With the introduction of these 16 new peace seats, there is hope for a legislative environment that advances progressive reforms for Colombians. While representing the diverse interests of Colombia’s victims won’t be easy—if supported by the government, the public at-large, and most importantly fellow congressional representatives—the presence of these peace seats in Congress could provide impetus for a legislative agenda centered around human rights and one that tackles Colombia’s structural problems of socioeconomic exclusion and racism—all core objectives of the 2016 peace accord. If the peace seats are able to serve their intended purpose, they ultimately represent a step forward for political participation as a means of reparation.

Tags: Congress of Colombia, Elections, Politics of Peace, Special Congressional Districts, Victims

March 14, 2022

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