When combatants turn democrats

This month, Colombia’s former guerrilla group called FARC transformed itself into a peaceful political party, perhaps setting a model of reconciliation for other countries in armed conflict.

Supporters listen as FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, speaks during the launching of the new political party Revolutionary Alternative Common Force, in Bogota, Colombia Sept.1.

For countries seeking an end to civil conflict, Colombia began to offer a useful model this month. The guerrilla group called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which had used violence for more than 50 years to pursue its leftist aims, turned itself into a peaceful political party on Sept 1. It literally traded in its bullets for a chance to win ballots in an election next year.

The model is not really in the transformation of FARC from fatigue-clad jungle rebels into blazer-adorned urban politicians. Rather it is the way the government offered a path to reconciliation with a mix of limited punishment for most FARC commanders in return for the group renouncing violence and turning in its weapons. The group’s newly formed party was even guaranteed 10 seats in the 268-member Congress.

The government’s delicate balancing of justice and mercy took three years to negotiate and then required a difficult process of national approval last year. Doubts remain high among most Colombians about the new party because of FARC’s record of violence. Yet in a sign of hope, the largely Roman Catholic country welcomed Pope Francis this week for a six-day visit that includes a large ceremony that will bring together victims on both of the conflict. The event is aimed at promoting the country’s reconciliation process.

Reintegrating former armed combatants into society remains a difficult challenge from Africa to the Middle East. In Latin America, ex-rebels have a long history of adopting democracy. A former president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, for example, was once an urban Marxist guerrilla. In the late 1990s, a peace pact in Northern Ireland brought rebels into politics. And for years, Afghanistan has sought to have Taliban fighters join the country’s renewed democracy.

In many Arab countries, debate continues over whether to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in politics or to outlaw and suppress it. Officially the Islamist group rejected violent means in the 1970s even though some of its associated members have not.

A leading expert on post-conflict societies, Paul Seils of the International Center for Transitional Justice, wrote in a recent paper, “Despite its complexity and contingency, reconciliation does occur in societies left fractured by conflict or repression....” The process requires a big measure of respect and dialogue between antagonists – the very ingredients needed to maintain a peaceful democracy.

In Colombia, the experiment in reconciliation has only just begun. So far, it is working, and deserves to be replicated in countries seeking a way out of civil violence.

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