Congo and Colombia thread a peace needle

Rebels groups in Congo and Colombia each declared this week they would lay down their arms. But the hard part now is deciding what punishment – or mercy – they deserve.

Congolese soldiers gather after M23 rebel fighters surrendered near the eastern town of Goma Nov. 5.

Both Colombia and Congo are home to two of the world’s most protracted civil conflicts. But this week, the main rebel groups in both countries announced they are ready to lay down their arms and rejoin society. While this brings hope to these violent trouble spots in Latin America and Africa, the hardest part may be yet to come.

Each country must now decide which of the rebels should face punishment for past atrocities, especially crimes against humanity. Government leaders must balance a desire for peace and progress with a desire for retribution and deterrence. They need to seek justice and expose the truth but possibly grant forgiveness to rebels who are contrite about the suffering they have caused.

In Colombia, the Marxist guerrilla group known as FARC agreed Wednesday that a final peace agreement with the government would “imply the prohibition on using violence as a method of political action.” Last August, it stated that it recognizes the “harshness and pain provoked by our forces.”

Both statements are a breakthrough after a year of difficult negotiations between the government and FARC, whose forces have dwindled to some 8,000. They mark a turning point in a conflict dating back to the 1960s that has killed an estimated 220,000 people.

In return, Colombian officials are offering a way for FARC to transform itself into a political party. Part of the deal is that FARC would run candidates in elections in temporary, special congressional districts, mainly in areas where it still has some popular support.

Still to be worked out are issues of reparations for victims and possible amnesty for most of the rebels. Some FARC leaders are accused of massacres, kidnappings, forced displacements, and child recruitment.

The government is leaning toward investigating atrocities and setting up a “truth commission” to allow rebels to admit past wrongs. This may rankle Colombians who seek vengeance or worry that any leniency might encourage rebellions in the future. For now, the government says justice will be applied to “the maximum ones responsible,” or FARC leaders with the worst records and exhibiting the least contrition.

“We want this to be a peace with everyone and for everyone,” said Humberto de la Calle, the government’s chief negotiator

In Congo, the rebel group called M23, which has about 1,700 fighters, said Monday it would lay down its arms after a 20-month rebellion that has terrorized the eastern part of the Central African country.

Made up largely of former Congolese soldiers, the group had been in peace talks in recent months. But a military offensive by Congo’s Army and United Nations forces helped push M23 to surrender. The group’s head, Bertrand Bisimwa, said M23 would “pursue by purely political means the search for solutions to the root causes which led to its creation.”

Now Congolese leaders must decide which rebels to put on trial and which to reintegrate into the Army. Last year, M23 took over Goma, a city of 1 million people, wreaking havoc until they were forced to flee.

Colombia and Congo each have unique political and cultural needs in striking a balance between reconciliation and justice. The rest of the world may have a voice in making sure the worst crimes, such as mass rape or wholesale slaughter, don’t go unpunished. But each nation must define how much of either mercy or retribution should be a tool of justice.

Justice and mercy have one similar goal – the rehabilitation of individual offenders. With that recognition, peace can come to these troubled lands, ending cycles of violence and revenge.

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