Colombia and the search for truth in Latin America’s longest running conflict: lessons from the South African experience

Negotiators from both sides of Colombia’s longest running war met last month in Havana, Cuba, for the 37th round of peace talks. The primary outcome of these talks was an agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group to establish a truth commission, an agenda point which has been in discussion for approximately a year.

The agreed upon mandate of the commission is for it to facilitate the “construction and preservation of historical memory and achieve a broad understanding of the multiple dimensions of the truth of the conflict” and “lay the foundations of coexistence, reconciliation, and non-repetition.” Uncovering truths buried by 50 years of war, which has claimed an estimated 220,000 lives, will be a formidable task. Moreover, the commission’s establishment is contingent on both parts signing a final peace agreement; which, after two and half-years of negotiations, is still some way off.

For the past few weeks, negotiations have been ongoing without an official cease-fire. FARC revoked their unilateral truce on May 22nd, after aerial bombings and raids by government forces killed 40 of their members. These actions where in reciprocity for an attack by FARC on a government military column the month before, which killed 11 soldiers.

Despite these setbacks, ongoing negotiations have made some considerable achievements: both sides have signed preliminary accords on political participation for the opposition, reforms on drug policy, and rural development. However, perhaps the most difficult issues for negotiations still lay ahead: the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of combatants; and a reparations framework for victims.

The recent agreement to establish a truth commission is another positive step towards the chance of a lasting final peace in Colombia, and other elements the negotiated settlement will be contingent on its success. Whether this peace comes in a year from now, or five, it is better to begin a conversation now on what a Colombian truth commission should seek to achieve. In doing so, lessons can be learnt from both the successes and failures of the South African experience.

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 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 around 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.

Perhaps a lesson from the TRC most applicable to Colombia revolves around the issue of amnesty. A crucial decision the country will have to make is whether those found responsible for crimes revealed through a truth commission, should be granted amnesty. The joint report outlining the recent truth commission agreement makes no mention of this issue, but states that the commission will be an extrajudicial mechanism; meaning its activities will have no legal basis, will not involve any criminal charges against those who appear before it, and information received during hearings cannot be transferred to judicial authorities.

In Colombia, this has been a heated political debate. The right-wing opposition to the peace talks, lead by former president Álvaro Uribe (now a senator), has constantly put pressure on media and Congress to claim for long prison sentences. This has forced current president Juan Manuel Santos to repeat often that there will not be “impunity in the peace agreement.” But the divided rhetoric, and the renewal of FARC attacks, has lead many sectors of Colombia, supportive of the peace talks, to ask for a time limit to it.

There is a natural trade-off between the need to encourage national unity on the one hand and fighting impunity on the other. Despite its number of troops being stale, FARC still holds many military advantages in the country, and it seems unlikely that it will keep the peace if the government seeks prosecutions. However, failing to address impunity can rob victims of a sense of justice, it does not help to encourage a just and equitable society, and it creates stumbling blocks for reconciliation. 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. Tying amnesty to the truth commission in this way could effectively be utilized by Colombia.

South Africa had little time for consideration before establishing the TRC. With hindsight, the commission’s failures become clearer, and lessons can be learned. Like a Colombian commission would, the South African TRC had to uncover and document stories pertaining to decades of violence; established in 1995, and delivering its final report in 1998, it had only three years to achieve this. Logistically, this was simply impossible. The decision to not keep the commission operative in an ongoing capacity has meant that thousands of important South African stories will never be heard. Furthermore, it has closed a still very much needed avenue for social dialogue around contentious issues. The Colombian report has specified that the commission will, including production of its final report, run for three years. Uncovering the truth is not an end in itself but should be seen as a part of an ongoing dialog towards reconciliation. Giving a truth commission a time frame of just three years risks rushing a process that should be seen as open-ended.

By focusing on the relationship between political perpetrators and individual victims, the TRC also failed to give enough attention to the underlying socio-economic conditions created by centuries of inequality. South Africa is slowly realizing that political reconciliation has not translated to economic reconciliation.
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 structures which generate social antagonism, and which 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 and economic opportunity in the territories. To this end, in addition to political actors, the role of institutions and business in both recent and historical causes of Colombia’s conflict needs to be central to hearings.

The released joint report outlining the mandate of the proposed Colombian truth commission has “committed to ensuring the mainstreaming of gender in all the scope of its work, with the creation of a working group to contribute to gender specific technical tasks, research, preparing gender hearings, among other.” The fact that gender is already being considered is a positive sign.

The South African TRC failed terribly in this regard. Questionnaires which victims claiming for reparations had to answer in front of official TRC statement takers (and which statement takers were ordered to closely stick to) contained no questions relating to gender based violence. This meant that, for example, a woman raped by apartheid security officers could not even get this on an official record. Furthermore, these statement takers, quickly trained by the TRC to take victim reports, were often woefully ignorant on conducting gender sensitive interviews.

Violence resulting from conflict often falls especially heavily on women and LGBTI individuals. South Africa missed an opportunity to begin to address deeply entrenched and gendered social structures which contribute to the country having some of the highest levels of gender based violence in the world.

Most crucial to the success of any truth commission is whether the government is willing to act on its recommendations. The South African TRC recommendations were largely ignored by the Mbeki government. Commission findings may call for the establishment of programmes and commitment to changes which outlasts the term of a single president or political party. If a truth commission and its subsequent recommendations becomes politicised, rather than a social commitment this transcends political patronage, it is bound to fail. Colombia will have to find a way to maintain the social and political will needed to support their truth commission and fulfil its recommendations.

Uncovering the truths behind more than 50 years of war will be a pain-staking process, but it is a crucial endeavour in order to ensure the future coexistence between rivals, non-recurrence of conflict, and ultimately, reconciliation. 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.

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Stephen Buchanan-Clarke

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.

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