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The search for truth and reconciliation in Colombia

By Stephen Buchanan-Clarke

Negotiators from both sides of Latin America’s longest running war met in Havana, Cuba, recently. In an encouraging movement towards a final peace agreement, which could help bring to a close a conflict that has claimed an estimated 220 000 lives, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) have agreed to form a truth commission. The commission is intended to bring clarity to the extensive atrocities committed during the 50 years of fighting. As the country begins the formidable task of exposing and documenting a concealed history, lessons can be learnt from both the successes and failures of the South African experience.

Provided a final peace agreement is signed, eleven commissioners are expected to complete the commission’s mandate within three years. This will be an exceedingly difficult task given that this has been a long war that has seen gross human-rights violations committed by multiple actors in shifting alliances and antagonisms. Still, it is a crucial endeavour in order to ensure the future coexistence between rivals, non-recurrence of conflict, and ultimately, reconciliation. The former adversaries need to view a truth commission not as mechanism for the vindication of cause and attribution of blame but as an opportunity to see in the “other” the mutual loss and suffering such a war has wrought on all.

The current social climate in South Africa — with its heated contestations around cultural symbols, outbursts of xenophobic violence and malignant political stage — may encourage one to overlook the immense successes of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Without some ordering of the past, former belligerents cannot begin to look to developing a peaceful and shared future. In this regard, the TRC was successful in beginning the important project of creating an authoritative historical record. It brought long-standing enemies together to the same table, provided an important platform for victims to tell their stories, and was responsible for providing a measure of accountability to victims. The TRC also provided us insights from which to build more nuanced corrective structures and legislation. Two clear markers of its success are that firstly, no civil conflict has broken out. And secondly, the TRC has become a model for a number of African states trying to transition to and consolidate their own democracies.

Colombia could stand to learn a lot from these successes, but the most important lesson to be learned from South Africa may be on the issue of amnesty. A crucial decision Colombia will have to make is whether those found responsible for newly revealed atrocities by the truth commission, should be granted amnesty. There is a natural trade-off between the need to encourage national unity on the one hand and fighting impunity on the other. As Farc still holds considerable military power (having agreed to a cease-fire but refused to disarm), it seems unlikely that it will keep the peace if the government seeks prosecutions. South Africa pioneered a third way where instead of a blanket approach, amnesty was only granted on the condition that perpetrators fully disclosed their crimes.

In acknowledging the TRC’s successes, there is a lot Colombia can also learn from its failures. Firstly, the South African truth commission had the challenging mandate of uncovering the truth pertaining to decades of violence and injustice in a limited time frame. The decision to not keep the commission operative in an ongoing capacity therefore means that thousands of important stories will never be told. This closed an important avenue for social dialogue around contentions issues, which is still very much needed.

In giving the truth commission only a three-year mandate Colombia risks rushing a process that should be seen as open-ended. Secondly, the TRC failed to give enough attention to the underlying socio-economic conditions created by centuries of inequality. While the focus on overt forms of violence and civil conflict is understandable, creating lasting peace through inclusivity cannot truly be achieved without giving proper attention to the conditions which generate antagonism and are often themselves implicitly violent. Colombia’s truth commission will therefore have to find a way of addressing Farc’s key grievances around land ownership. Third, recommendations from South Africa’s TRC were largely ignored by the government. Colombia will have to find a way to maintain the political will needed to support their truth commission and fulfil its recommendations.

Stephen Buchanan-Clarke works at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation based in Cape Town, South Africa. His field of research focuses primarily on security issues in Africa and the Middle East. Follow him on twitter:@stephen_bclarke

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