On Thursday June 4, the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombian (the FARC) agreed to form a Peace Commission to investigate abuses and crimes carried out during Colombia’s five-decade long war. Both the government and the insurgency agreed to set up an ‘independent and impartial body’ as soon as the final peace settlement has been reached.
Agreeing to establish a Truth Commission is a further step forward in this current round of negotiations, and demonstrates that talks are still on track. Thus far, the two parties have tentatively agreed to other elements on the 6 point agenda, including issues pertaining to agrarian reform and compensation, illicit drug policy and the nature of political participation. Moreover, in late May the FARC and the government commenced the removal of land mines– an imperative move as Colombia is one of the most mined countries in the world.
The FARC has been calling for the establishment of a truth commission since the early phases of negotiation. Iván Márquez, the FARC’s chief negotiator, stated–
‘We wonder: how to establish responsibilities, or how to address the issue of victims at the peace talks, repair them, and make a commitment of ‘never again’, if we don’t establish how the violence, which resulted in six decades or more of armed conflict, began?…without truth, there’s no history; without history, there’s no national consciousness. If the truth of the past is not known, we won’t be able to build a lasting peace’
The latter point in Márquez’s statement holds truth in the Colombian context. As in other countries that have established truth commission post-conflict, the intention is to construct an in-depth history of the conflict spanning over fifty years. These are generally implemented after the political and social conflicts have been resolved. Whilst other Latin American countries, such as Peru and Argentina, have created truth commissions in the past to build peace, no country in the region has had to contend with such a protracted conflict. The Colombian conflict has its roots in La Violencia, a period of violent conflict that occurred from 1948-1958 that swept across much of Colombia. Many non-state actors that the Colombian government has traditionally faced can be broadly linked back to this period, particularly in terms of the development of ‘self-defence’ enclaves and ‘independent republics’. The FARC is one such movement, as is Colombia’s second largest insurgency, the National Liberation Army (the ELN).
The FARC has argued that the state’s role in the conflict needs to be more closely examined, particularly in terms of the responsibility to the victims. Whilst the FARC sees itself as a victim of systematic violence by the state (just as the government sees itself as a victim of systematic violence by the FARC), the role of paramilitaries will be a likely issue engaged with during the commission. Like the FARC, paramilitaries (autodefensas, ‘self-defense’ groups) within Colombia have partial roots within the ‘self-defense’ units that were established within the rural communities during La Violencia. Formed partly as a response to government policy, many paramilitary groups espouse a narrative that they have taken up arms to defend against the insurgents. Whilst paramilitaries were legalised by adoption of Law 48 in 1968 as part of the broader US-sponsored National Security Doctrine, the use of paramilitaries by the military, drug traffickers and large landowners expanded significantly during the 1980s and 1990s.
As a result of various massacres and human rights abuses, President Virgilio Barco Vargas (1986-1990) rendered these private armies as being temporarily illegal through Decrees 815 and 1194. However, segments of the Colombian state (with pressure from the US) successfully reformulated the legislation. In 1991, the Ministry of Defense issued Order 200-05/91 and these private armies were reinstated into the army’s intelligence apparatus, albeit based on an illegal, covert partnership. In 1997 the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (the AUC) was created and can be thought of as an umbrella organisation of a loose coalition of private armies. The AUC was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation by the US in 2001, and subsequently delisted in 2014 after the Uribe administration ‘successfully’ negotiated a mass demobilisation of over 30,000 paramilitaries beginning in 2003. Despite this, the legacies of the AUC and other paramilitaries have provided Colombia with a host of other security issues, with the government expressing concerns regarding former paramilitaries joining BACRIMS.
Both the Colombian government and the FARC will need to be culpable for their actions in development of ‘the truth’. This is particularly important in terms of victims coming forward for reparation, and also in terms of the admission of gross human rights violations during the conflict. Moreover, it is key in building ‘peace’ throughout Colombian society. This commission will have a incredibly complex task in constructing a history of events, particularly in terms of attributing responsibility to all actors involved.