By Sebastian Walter, a first-year student from Colombia reading International Development at Kings. Having lived most his life in Colombia and Venezuela, his main interests are Latin American affairs and politics. Sebastian is also Events Officer at KCL Latin American society.
The scars of Colombia’s 51-year long internal conflict run deep. 7 million victims: 5.7 m internally displaced, 10.000 victims of landmines, 25.000 disappeared, 30.000 kidnappings, 2.000 massacres, 220.000 dead. Past the shocking numbers, it is impossible to comprehend just how much individual and collective pain lies behind the statistics. Hope in the form of a peace process that is nearing its end grows by the day, but as the possibility of peace looms larger, calls for justice grow stronger and the issue of punishment divides public opinion. However, Colombian society must understand that before it can even begin to address such suffering, it has to first put a stop to the violence. Cries, stories, confessions, and apologies cannot be heard over the sound of gunfire.
The country is closer to peace than it has ever been. President Juan Manuel Santos’ government is into its third year of talks with FARC rebels during which agreements have already been reached on land reform, political participation, illicit drugs, and transitional justice. Every time FARC and government representatives release a public statement from Havana, there has been reason for optimism. Even a deadline has been set for a final agreement to be signed next spring (March 26th) at the latest. After more than half a century of war, peace is potentially 146 days away.
Each successive step towards peace nevertheless carries more weight than the last, and it is the latest matter of discussion, that of justice, that will always represent the biggest challenge. This is especially true in Colombia. FARC’s brand of indiscriminate terrorism towards the civilian population did away with their political legitimacy a long time ago, and in the eyes of the nation’s 48 million people they are almost universally seen as criminals. This was most evident in the light of the overwhelming support that former president Alvaro Uribe Velez enjoyed in his unrelenting pursuit of a military solution to the conflict. Indeed, Uribe’s efforts reduced the FARC from 20.000 fighters to a mere 8.000, virtually ending their aspirations to take power through force and making their struggle redundant. The view that the war could be won, not negotiated, took hold. Why sit down on equal terms with the FARC and make concessions after bringing them close to defeat? Why not forcibly impose punishment? – These are questions many Colombians ask themselves.
In light of this, opposition to the peace process is significant and rightly so. Ex-president Uribe’s supporters alone number around 10 million people. Voices of opposition can also be heard coming from the left as well as human rights organizations, but concern across the political spectrum is gathered under one main fear: impunity and hence lack of real justice. Whatever apprehensions the general public may have need to be brought to the negotiation table- such input has to be a fundamental constructive element to the peace process. Recent polls show that 23% of the country is against the peace talks entirely. More importantly, at least 78% of the country is against the possibility of rebel leaders not serving jail terms. This ensures that excessive leniency will not be tolerated. At this stage, however, it is almost certain that the top rebel leaders will not be imprisoned in conventional jails. It seems this is a condition that the Colombian people will simply have to come to terms with.
“Transitional justice can be reduced to one decision. How much justice are our people willing to sacrifice for peace? Where do we draw the line? If you ask a victim, they will always want more justice. If you ask a future victim they will want more peace.” With these words Santos highlighted an undeniable truth: future victims would rather not be victims at all. The proposal of transitional justice at which both sides have arrived is a justifiable price to pay when compared to the priceless lives that will be lost if the war drags on. This is the conclusion at which the country must inevitably arrive to if it wants to put an end to the violence. Not unlike the photograph above, Colombians in mass must carry the resentment and torment of so many years up a steep and difficult path of acceptance and finally lay it to rest. Only from the top can Colombian society behold the promising future that lies past this final climb. And what were once rivers of blood so strong that they could flow uphill, will flow down the other side as rivers of hope.
Colombia National Centre for Historic Memory http://www.centrodememoriahistorica.gov.co/micrositios/informeGeneral/
Semana: Critics of the peace process…it’s not just Uribe
BBC World: What have the Colombian government and FARC agreed on so far?
Wall Street Journal: Juan Manuel Santos promises more transparency in the peace process
El Tiempo: Peace Process
El Mundo: Peace at a High Price