Colombia's breakthrough for peace and justice

A key agreement to achieve a final peace balances the need to end Colombia’s long civil war with meting out some justice for those who admit war crimes and affirm civil rights and peaceful means.

Cuba's President Raul Castro, (C), Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos, (L), and FARC rebel leader Rodrigo Londono, better known by the nom de guerre Timochenko, pose for photos in Havana, Sept. 23. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the top FARC rebel commander pledged to end Latin America's longest war within six months and sealed their pact with a handshake likely to stand as a lasting image.

Countries that end their civil wars by affirming shared values usually have the best hope for long-term peace. That could be true for Colombia, which has just achieved a historic agreement aimed at healing its war-damaged society through a novel process of justice.

The pact, signed Sept. 23 between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is the most critical victory in long negotiations that are expected to produce a final peace deal next year. It strikes a difficult balance between restoring peace while still accounting for the violent acts perpetrated by both sides in one of the world’s longest wars.

FARC’s leftist rebels, who have been fighting for half a century and now number only about 6,000, have refused to lay down their arms without knowing how they might be treated for war crimes, which include kidnappings, torture of civilians, and recruitment of child soldiers. Those in the armed forces and paramilitary groups that also abused or killed civilians are worried about facing punishment under a final deal.

The agreement sets up a process that invites combatants to admit their wrongdoings and pay reparations to victims in return for only five to eight years of “restricted liberty,” which means not serving time in prison but performing some other service for the good of society. Those who refuse  to cooperate with the special truth-and-reconciliation tribunal could serve as many as 20 years in prison.

More than 7 million Colombians have been victims of this war, which makes the agreement difficult for many to accept. A final peace deal must pass a referendum and possible court review. Yet in a society in which war has seemed endless and wrecked the rule of law, the best course is to seek limited punishment while ensuring those responsible for violence also affirm social values such as individual rights and the peaceful resolution of political differences through peaceful means. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos says the agreement achieves “the maximum amount of justice [for victims] that allows us to have peace.”

Societies in transition from war often must juggle demands for the different aspects of justice, such as retribution, deterrence, and restitution. Colombia’s agreement is different from those of Northern Ireland, South Africa, and elsewhere because the country has signed an agreement to abide by rules of the International Criminal Court. It has to mete out some punishment for war crimes or face the prospect of the ICC prosecuting Colombians.

Yet the pact also makes it possible for ex-fighters to reflect on their crimes, reconcile with their victims, and, most important, affirm the core rights and values that create harmony in society. Admitting one’s mistakes and being punished is rarely enough for real justice. The agreement demands a healing of hearts, in both perpetrators and victims, that can restore a country after war.


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