Violence, lasting peace and the Truth Commission: what could be its realistic impact for Colombian society?

In early June, the Colombian government and the FARC agreed to form a Truth Commission should a final peace settlement be reached between the two actors.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the general purpose of truth commissions in post-conflict environments is to construct an in depth history of the conflict, including addressing crimes and mass atrocities that have been carried out by actors involved.  In the context of Colombia and due to the nature of the conflict’s protraction, one of pertinent issues will not only be an examination of government, FARC and ELN activities, but also an investigation into the relationship between the Colombian military and paramilitary groups.

An article published by Vice news entitled ‘Can a Truth Commission in Colombia help heal the wounds of wars atrocities?’ caught my attention the other day.  Within the article, there were references to an interview Vice had conducted with Colombian senator Sofia Gaviria, who is the sister of Guillermo Gaviria.  A former governor of Antioquia, Guillermo Gaviria was kidnapped in April 2002, which inevitably led to the final cessation of peace negotiations with the FARC under the Pastrana administration (1998-2002).  After an unsuccessful rescue mission carried out by the Colombian armed forces, Gaviria was killed alongside eight other hostages.

A supporter of the peace process, Sofia Gaviria is quoted as saying-

‘I do not believe in relativism of truth, I believe there is only one truth, but several ways of accepting it or not…but the truth is that such a person was taken from home, abducted, killed, or displaced by a group that operates outside the law. All victims want that truth’

Gaviria is referring to the FARC in the later part of this statement, a truth for victims is key in aiding lasting reconciliation.  However, what originally brought my attention to the article was an assumption behind that title- can a Truth Commission in Colombia help heal the wounds of war’s atrocities.  The establishment of a commission was announced in terms of the agenda item dealing with victims, specifically their rights to justice, reparation, and truth.  In dealing with the Colombian conflict, there is an assumption that a Truth Commission will investigate the incredibly long period of serious mass human rights violations carried out throughout the conflict, and a micro-examination of these crimes.  Overlaid onto the notion of constructing a history of the conflict, there is a further assumption that there will be a investigation into the structural causes of this. What role did all actors play in the exacerbation of violence, and what led to their emergence?

It is highly unlikely that a Truth Commission will be able to achieve all that is expected, particularly due to the nature of the Colombian context.  Apart from the complexities in forensic evidence, the general attribute of responsibility for perpetrated violence is far from clear cut.  For example, there is a significant degree of autonomy amongst most armed actors in the Colombian environment.  Whereas the ELN’s command-and-control structure has always been much stronger than the FARC’s, FARC fronts have operated with a higher degree of ‘flexibility’, particularly throughout the 1990s with the coca boom.  There have been incidents where attacks were carried out by fronts that the FARC leadership didn’t take responsibility for, and whilst this may be deliberate denial by the insurgency, forensic truth regardless will be incredibly difficult to establish. In a similar fashion, whilst there has been evident collusion between the Colombian military and paramilitary groups that operated throughout the country, these groups were also privatised and utilised by an array of actors with differing stakes in the conflict, including large landowners, drug trafficking organisations and business owners.  Whilst a Truth Commission should deal with the shadowy issue of paramilitaries, attribution of responsibility will again be difficult to establish. For a Truth Commission to demonstrate signs of success, there needs to be a realistic expectation of its function.  It can not be considered as a mechanism to facilitate judicial processes, and as a means of attributing legal responsibility for actions. What it should be considered as is a mechanism to provide formal recognition of the atrocities carried out against victims of the conflict. It is a imperative means of having their experiences heard and recognised, and can play a role in contributing to the establishment of lasting peace constructing historical memory.

I state, ‘can play a role in contributing to the establishment of lasting peace’ very deliberately.  A Truth Commission will be but one factor that is important for building peace in Colombia.  Recently, the Observatory of Democracy at the Universidad de los Andes published an excellent report on the Political Culture of Democracy in Colombia for 2015.  Extensive interviews were conducted with 1390 people in 40 municipalities on a range of issues including democratic attitudes, governance, participation, confidence in local institutions, insecurity and corruption, the protection of rights, armed conflict and the peace process.  In terms of FARC demobilisation, Colombia Reports has provided a breakdown in English of key observations in terms of combatant reintegration back into Colombian society. This report provides so many telling findings, but for my own research purposes on legitimacy, I found Chapter Two on democratic attitudes, governance and political participation to be quite interesting- particularly in terms of findings throughout other chapters, and issues that are being brought to the forefront of media currently.  These reflect on the complexities of the Colombian conflict environment, but also those of the overall Colombian state.

Marcha en Colombia: no mas FARC

Colombians march against the FARC insurgency. Photo courtesy of AlCortés, Flickr

Whilst Santos’ approval rating continues to sink in urban areas, perceptions of the Colombian political system’s overall legitimacy has risen since the beginning of Santos’ term.  Whilst political tolerance and satisfaction with democracy are not as strong, Santos’ overall approval level has increased quite substantially since 2011 in areas experiencing violence.  Having said this, according to these surveys, Santos is far from the high levels of approval that Uribe enjoyed during his eight year term.  In contrast to Santos, Uribe pursued a strong policy of securitisation and ‘state-building’ without negotiations with the FARC and ELN, yet was unable to defeat the insurgencies by military means alone.  In terms of conflict and the peace process, the report demonstrates that support for the negotiations themselves is much higher in the municipalities experiencing violence, in comparison with the rest of the country.  At the same time, there are low expectations that talks will result in lasting peace.

This is not surprising, and is a realistic observation.  A Truth Commission will provide a mechanism for mass human rights violations to be discussed, and their effects on victims recognised.  However, two facets that are critical in the maintenance of peace will be the two hardest- the provision of security to all areas of the state, most pressingly those affected by violence, and the enhancing popular perceptions of state legitimacy.  Whilst Uribe was perceived as a strong leader and arguably demonstrated some success in his ‘securitisation policies’, his term was also marked by mass human rights violations, ‘false positive killings‘, and ties to paramilitaries.  Moreover, despite expanding the Colombian military and police forces, both insurgencies survived with substantial numbers of combatants still mobilised.  Successful negotiations and demobilisation of both the FARC and ELN will be the best start for the achievement of peace, where resources can then be turned towards dealing with, amongst other things, the issues of neo-paramilitaries, BACRIMS, and general crime and corruption still plaguing Colombian society, contributing an environment of insecurity.  ‘Healing wounds’ will require much more than a Truth Commission.  Should the current round be successful, it will even require more than a peace settlement.  Long-term, lasting peace requires more than just successful negotiations- it requires the development of state legitimacy, of which the provision of security throughout the whole country is a critical starting point.


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