In September, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the Marxist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), reached a historic agreement on the issue of transitional justice. A symbolic photo shows Santos, FARC leader Timoshenko and Cuban President Raul Castro shaking hands in Havana. But the most important step — and the most thorny — toward a political solution to the armed conflict remains: justice and reparation for victims.
This is the fourth leg of the negotiations, which began in 2012 with the support of Norway and Venezuela. Previously, it had progressed in the areas of land and rural development, political participation of the guerrillas and combating drug trafficking. In this new phase, a delegation of 10 victims of the 50-year conflict traveled to Cuba.
At the end of hostilities, under International Humanitarian Law, the Colombian government will apply amnesty for political crimes but not for crimes against humanity, rape, genocide, torture, expulsion and forced disappearance, and extrajudicial executions. For this, it plans to set up special courts which have the ability to apply amnesty or, alternatively, custodial sentences of up to eight years. After the agreements are signed, in March 2016 under the proposal, FARC has two months to lay down its arms.
The negotiations provide for the safe return of the militants to political life. The massacres that followed previous attempts at peace have made both sides cautious. In spite of all agreements, paramilitarism has always been a heavy and ominous component of Colombian politics. The main supporter of the paramilitaries in politics, former President Alvaro Uribe, now a senator, is still active. And, again in this case, he expressed his opposition.
Guerrillas and the government, however, say they are convinced a peace agreement is forthcoming. The United Nations coordinator in Colombia, Fabrizio Hochschild, described the agreement as “the most important step” toward a political solution.
Meanwhile, repression, largely at the hands of paramilitaries, continues against popular organizations. Farmers, activists and journalists are frequently murdered in Colombia. After a long hunger strike by imprisoned FARC members, Santos pardoned 30 of them late last month. The fate of guerillas detained in the United States is still on the table.
Santos wants the agreements to be ratified by popular vote. Congress has already approved the referendum, and now it is up to the Constitutional Court. The text gives the president the power to convene the poll after receiving support of all his ministers. The turnout must be at least 13 percent of eligible voters, or more than 4.5 million Colombians, to be legitimate.
The left and the guerrillas (even the ELN is backing the agreement) are instead calling for a constituent assembly. Santos rejected that possibility again last month. But the structural deficiencies of a sick democracy like Colombia must be tackled at the roots, to solve the problems that produced the armed conflict.