Colombian peace talks advance, but raise difficult justice issues

Last week, I had the honor of addressing the assembled Colombian judiciary on how comparative experiences can help inform the difficult choices the country will need to make in order to finalize a peace deal with the armed insurgents (FARC and ELN) and bring an end to over 50 years of armed conflict.  As part of the meeting, the chief government negotiator in the talks now being held in Havana, Cuba, outlined the points of agreement and difficulties to date.  The process has raised difficult debates over how to take advantage of the best opportunity for peace in a generation while meeting the country’s international legal obligations, in a world where blanket amnesty is no longer an option.

Unlike earlier peace initiatives – and unlike the deals negotiated in Central America more than a decade ago – the current talks focus almost exclusively with ending the war, leaving political and social reforms to later discussion.  There is one major exception:  an agreement on rural development, based on a shared understanding between the parties that structural inequalities in the countryside are fueling the conflict, and that while the urban middle class has increased and agribusiness is flourishing, small farmers have suffered.  The agreement creates a Rural Land Bank, tax incentives for small farmer development, land surveying and titling, better access to credit and technical assistance, and improved government services in rural areas.  Whether any of this will make enough of a difference in the face of simultaneous widespread African palm and export agro expansion remains to be seen.

Its success may also depend on how well the country’s ambitious land restitution scheme ends up working.  Colombia has up to five million forcibly displaced people. In its first six months, newly appointed restitution judges have issued 270 decisions, most of them in favor of people forced off their land by armed groups.  While impressive, this is only a small part of the cases of forced dispossession.  To complicate matters, judges are finding that land was often taken by force more than once during the course of the conflict, leading to multiple claims and contestation by different groups of victims.  The security situation in parts of the country has also impeded implementation of these early decisions, as litigants and judges are threatened and some community leaders have been killed.

The rest of the peace negotiating agenda includes political participation, demobilization, relation to narcotrafficking, victims, transitional justice and the form of citizen approval of whatever deal is reached.  Transitional justice is proving one of the more difficult – and interesting – aspects of the discussion.  There is little talk of amnesty, and a broad understanding that neither the Inter-American Court of Human Rights nor the International Criminal Court (Colombia is a state party, and the Prosecutor has had a preliminary investigation open since 2004) would countenance an amnesty or pardon that included war crimes or crimes against humanity.  At the same time, there are an estimated 10,000 fighters, many of whom have played a role in kidnappings, extortion or military operations.  The Colombian state has neither the ability nor the resources to investigate, much less prosecute them all.

It also has some experience with creating alternative justice procedures, gained in the demobilization of right-wing paramilitary groups starting in 2005.  The Justice and Peace Law 975 promised conditional suspension after a hearing of the normal sentences for murder and other serious crimes, to be replaced by an alternative 5-8 year sentence.  In exchange, the applicant committed to demobilize, give an unsworn public statement detailing his crimes, and turn over any lands or other property stolen as a result of paramilitary activities.   Unfortunately, after years in operation and 4000 demobilization applications, the Law as of 2012 had yielded less than 20 convictions and little asset recovery, in part due to the difficulty of investigating the statements.  There is a widespread sense among judges that the judiciary would get equally swamped were the insurgents included in a similar process.

Arguing that it was needed for peace talks, the government earlier this year passed, and the Constitutional Court approved, a constitutional amendment, known as the Framework Law of Peace.  It allows the Chief Prosecutor to determine criteria to prioritize and select cases for prosecution that involve those most responsible for international crimes.  It also, more controversially, allows for conditions under which sentences can be suspended, alternative sanctions or special modalities of serving the sentence imposed, and some cases not prosecuted at all.  After a challenge, the Constitutional Court upheld the law, reading it, however, as requiring investigation of all grave violations, if not necessarily punishment of all those involved.

 

The FARC have until now rejected the Framework Law because it was unilaterally decreed.  Nonetheless, there seems to be agreement that the shape of a deal will require some form of conditional pardon or suspended sentence for the rank and file, many of whom were recruited as child soldiers.  There also seems to be broad agreement on a Truth Commission that would examine all the actors in the extended conflict, including the state and economically powerful forces.  The big question remains whether some form of conditional suspended or reduced sentence for the top leaders can be crafted in a way that passes muster.  What is clear is how far the region has come since the last wave of post-conflict or post-dictatorship transitions in terms of agreement on the primacy of the obligations towards victims and the rejection of blanket amnesties.

 

The question of how any agreement is ratified by the population is also contentious, with the government proposing an up-or-down referendum and the insurgents leaning towards a constitutional convention.  The idea is that civil society, which has been largely excluded from the talks, would weigh in at that point.  It is unfortunate that, for example, there are no female negotiators on either side (although there are key female advisors), so women’s groups will only be able to raise concerns late in the day.  There is also a determined effort on the part of the right, led by former president Alvaro Uribe, to scuttle the talks and insist on a military victory. Nonetheless, the talks present the best chance in years to finally put an end to Latin America’s longest-running conflict.

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