After more than 220,000 killed and 5 million internally displaced in over 50 years of conflict, a peace agreement may finally be reached between the Colombian government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos began talks with the FARC in 2012, in Havana, Cuba, but only now has an end to the longest conflict in the Western hemisphere been within sight.
A final peace agreement has not yet been signed, but a historic benchmark was reached two weeks ago when both parties agreed on a deal for transitional justice – one of the most complex issues in the negotiations. Some of the issues addressed include conflict-related crimes such as kidnapping, murder, forced displacement, disappearance, and torture. Previously, FARC commanders had vehemently denied the commission of any crimes, and therefore refused to agree to any deal with prison time. Government officials, however, made it clear that Colombia had to adhere to international humanitarian law and prosecute those suspected of committing war crimes.
Importantly, under the agreement, amnesty will be granted for the political crime of rebelling against the state and its “connected crimes.” Connected crimes have not yet been defined, however. The amnesty will not extend to more serious crimes such as crimes against humanity, forced disappearance, or sexual violence. Defendants who acknowledge their crimes committed in the context and for the purpose of the conflict will be sentenced to five to eight years of “restriction of freedoms” but not prison sentences. Those who don’t take responsibility for serious crimes will be tried, and if found guilty, could receive up to 20 years in prison.
Vague definitions and potential amnesties have alarmed human rights groups. They fear that not all human rights abusers will face justice. This is very likely, from the beginning the process will only focus on “the most serious and representative cases” and, in the case of the FARC, only on those deemed the “most responsible.”
The recent agreement together with other positive developments, have been welcome in a country tired of decades of war Last year FARC declared a unilateral cease-fire in December and shortly thereafter Santos declared a ban on bombing FARC camps (the talks nearly ended in April after FARC rebels killed 11 army soldiers who were taking cover during a rain storm). Most importantly, an agreement had already been reached on the issues of rural land reform, political inclusion of rebels, and drug trafficking.
In conjunction with The Transitional Justice Accord, Santos and the top FARC rebel commander, Timochenko, pledged to sign a final deal within six months, in March 23, 2016. Two months after that, FARC will lay down its arms But Timochenko expressed some doubt about the tight deadline saying “If there’s a political will, we can do it earlier, but six months may also be too short.” Santos admitted in July that he “like all Colombians, began this process with great skepticism.” Yet he has continued to urge people to give peace a chance, saying, “I believe that ending a 50-year war isn’t gong to be simple; surely there will be problems. But the general tendency is that we are taking steps, each time more seriously, towards peace.”
Not everyone is optimistic. The former president Alvaro Uribe has been sharply critical of the peace talks and the agreements. Uribe and his political party have refused to participate in the peace talks, accusing the government of “surrendering the country to terrorism.” Santos accused Uribe of opposing the peace process for personal gain. “Mr. Uribe does not like the peace process because he lives off fear and war mongering. War is the best environment to create more fear,” said Santos.
In reality, Uribe may simply be trying to avoid prison. Colombia’s prosecutor general stated Uribe could be called to appear at the post-war tribunal over ongoing accusations he colluded with paramilitary death squads while he was governor. As Uribe’s defense minister at the time, Santos might also have to appear in court.
The conflict has been marked by violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, which have disproportionately affected the Colombian population – 80% of the 220,000 victims killed in the armed conflict were civilians. A peace deal would likely encourage foreign investment and with it higher income levels. Colombia’s economy has been growing at about 4% in the past decade, but analysts say that the growth could have been double if not for the armed conflict. If the final deal is signed on March 23 next year, it could signal more stability and peace in Colombia’s future – there is a growing expectation that the country’s second largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), will begin official peace talks with the government in early 2016. If all goes well, Colombia’s wars may soon be over.