A peace pact’s surprise in Colombia

Confessions of assassinations and kidnappings by former rebel leaders help keep truth-telling at the center of a postwar process of reconciliation.

Rodrigo Londoño, known by his nom de guerre Timochenko and a former commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), speaks during a news conference in September.

If truth is the first casualty of war, telling the truth is the first task of ensuring peace. In recent weeks, Colombia has shown this is possible with confessions by a former guerrilla group that had waged the longest war in Latin America.

In mid-September, eight former commanders of the far-left FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) admitted responsibility for thousands of kidnappings during the 52-year conflict that ended with a peace pact in 2016. While most of the kidnappings were already known, the group also apologized, acknowledged the suffering it caused, and renewed its “commitment to being held accountable before the justice system.”

Then on Oct. 3, Colombians experienced an even more emotional tell-all moment. Former FARC leaders claimed responsibility for the 1995 murder of a prominent conservative political leader, Álvaro Gómez Hurtado, as well as the killing of five other public figures. The mystery over who killed the former presidential candidate has perplexed Colombians for a quarter century.

These public admissions are encouraging steps for Colombia’s 4-year-old peace pact. That agreement, which was aimed at breaking a cycle of violence by offering amnesty to rebels and other militia groups in exchange for truth about their atrocities, remains a model for the world’s remaining conflicts. Much of the pact still needs to be implemented, such as land reform. But support for restorative justice – rather than retribution – is still high, especially as former FARC leaders steadily integrate into society.

“The clarification of the truth of the facts of the conflict, however difficult and uncomfortable they may be, is a necessary element for the construction of peace and reconciliation,” former Colombian peace manager Álvaro Leyva Durán wrote on Monday.

While FARC has transformed into a political party, violence in Colombia continues at a high rate – mainly by police and drug traffickers. This only adds pressure to implement the pact’s many moving parts, especially truth-telling of past atrocities. The main demand of the war’s surviving victims was to know what happened to their loved ones.

One premise of the peace pact was that personal admissions about violent acts would help dissipate anger and promote forgiveness and healing. Colombia keeps showing that is possible. Or as Mr. Leyva, the former peace manager, wrote, “We will only save our country if the truth reigns.”

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