Five months after ending Latin America’s longest guerrilla war, Colombia has finally set up a truth commission, a type of panel that other post-conflict countries have tried in hopes of healing social wounds. Thousands of perpetrators of violence on all sides will be invited to confess and also offer compensation to victims – 8 million of them – in return for some forgiveness. Only those who committed the most heinous crimes will be tried. If the process can find a balance between justice and mercy, it will help bring a measure of reconciliation to a country at war since the mid-1960s.
Yet the truth commission, along with other parts of a 2016 historic peace deal, could achieve another purpose. Colombia’s peace process might give hope to neighboring Venezuela. That country is quickly plunging into violence between pro-democracy protesters and the security forces of an autocratic leader, President Nicolás Maduro.
Venezuela’s rising violence has already brought some attempts at mediation and reconciliation. Much of the rest of Latin America, for example, seeks a new election in Venezuela. And in a poignant message, the son of the country’s pro-government human rights ombudsman used a YouTube video this week to call on his father, Tarek Saab, to “end the injustice that has sunk this country.”
“I ask you as your son, and in the name of Venezuela that you represent, that you reflect and do what you must do. I understand, I know this isn’t easy, but it’s right, the right thing to do,” said Yibram Saab, who has been a victim of the government crackdown on protesters.
In Colombia, victims were purposely placed at the center of the peace negotiations, which began in 2012. And as the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia hand over their weapons and reenter society from their jungle outposts, the victims will again be at the center of ensuring peace through the commission’s work in revealing the truth about past violence.
The peace deal’s post-conflict bodies will offer “a guarantee for all those thousands of victims who have spent years and decades waiting for answers,” says President Juan Manuel Santos. “What the victims most strongly demand – before reparation and justice – is the truth.”
Not many countries with truth commissions have succeeded in bringing many confessions by perpetrators to satisfy war victims. Yet Colombia’s peace deal is thoughtful and detailed, and despite initial delays, appears on track. And it has attracted attention from other post-conflict countries.
In a recent visit to Bogotá, Irish President Michael Higgins compared Colombia’s process to the one in Northern Ireland. He said a lasting peace requires an “honest engagement” in understanding and exposing the conflict’s past. A reconciliation process must recognize the hurts of the past, he added, but also help in the realization that the “future is alive with possibilities not yet born, from which no version of past conflicts should preclude us.”
That is the sort of message that Venezuela could use from Colombia.