Colombia’s Truth Commission Prepares to Embark on the Extraterritorial Truth-Telling Process


By Nyasha Laing

Colombia's Truth Commission Prepares to Launch 

In the dynamic political landscape that has emerged following 50 years of conflict, Colombia is taking steps toward truth and accountability. The Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence, and Non-Repetition (the “Commission”) is scheduled to begin taking statements in November 2018. While its task of constructing a historical truth from the stories of millions of victims will be colossal, the preparation for its launch has reinvigorated hope among victims for healing their long-held traumas. 

The pieces of Colombia’s violent past are spread across many communities, both within the country and abroad. The armed conflict displaced more than 6.5 million Colombians. Of these, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there are 300,000 to 400,000 victims living abroad. Many are in neighboring countries, but many more have been living in Europe and the United States for decades and have no intention of returning home.

As of April 2018, the National Victims Registry estimated there to be 8,650,169 victims — more than 17 percent of the country’s entire population — who have suffered a wide range of violations including assassination and forced disappearance. But the registry has only recorded 23,790 victims living abroad, a number that stands in stark contrast with the UNHCR’s much higher estimates. The Commission’s plan to engage the diaspora grew out of a recognition of their appeal for inclusion and to participate fully in their country’s truth-telling process.

In September 2016, in Cartagena, the government and FARC-EP representatives signed the final peace agreement ending Colombia’s protracted conflict. The agreement included the creation of the Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition, as the mechanism to fulfil the victims’ rights.  As part of the national effort to implement this complex system, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the Commission for the Clarification of the Truth, Coexistence and Non-Recurrence (CEV), and the Unit to Search for Missing Persons were established.

In order to fulfill its mandate, the Commission has to grapple with a dizzying scope of violations and with communities of victims who are fragmented geographically, socially, and economically, and whose claims have never been acknowledged. The Commission’s “extraterritorial” work beyond Colombia’s physical borders exemplifies these challenges.

Victims Demand to Be Heard

During the peace process, victims in the diaspora benefited from mechanisms that were developed enabling civil society, victims, social groups, and others to have unprecedented input in the negotiations.  These mechanisms resulted in the centering of victims’ voices. In a process facilitated by the Catholic Church, the National University of Colombia, and UN partners, over 60 victims of violations committed by both sides of the conflict traveled to Havana to testify about their experience and present proposals to the negotiating parties. A critical result was a recognition of the importance of giving visibility to the stories of victims in the diaspora.

“It was very important to hear directly the concerns and ideas of the victims and it was a key moment,” said Maria Camila Moreno, the Head of ICTJ Colombia. It was during this process that the experiences of those in the diaspora were first addressed, she said.

“The truth for victims abroad looks very different from those who remained behind,” said Moreno. “They want to heal from trauma suffered in isolation. They also need the struggles they have faced after they were forced to leave their home to be acknowledged,” she said.

Of the victims who were forced to flee Colombia, many were retraumatized by new challenges, such as discrimination, uncertain immigration status, and intergenerational harms. Living lives in limbo, they often remained outsiders in the new country but unable to experience life at home.

In May 2018, Moreno accompanied Carlos Martin Beristain — the only international Commissioner on the 11-member commission, composed of Colombian experts on peace and reconciliation — to Europe to hear from victims who fled Colombia years ago.

In Stockholm and London, there is a large number of Colombian exiles who fled political persecution in the 1980’s. There, the delegation met with, among others, members of the Truth, Memory, and Reconciliation Commission of Colombian Women in the Diaspora — an  initiative that has documented over 100 testimonies of exiles and other civil society organizations made up of victims or that represent victims and their interests, such as refugee groups, women’s empowerment groups, and organizations focused on sexual trauma recovery.

“It was very moving because...we heard sad testimonies of people who lived in these countries for many years with children who are now adults, and when they remembered the moment when they had to leave Colombia and when they arrived in the new country, they still cried.” said Moreno. “They cried because it was so difficult for them...and because people have lived for many years in a frozen situation. They don’t fully belong, but they cannot go back.”

In a project supported by the International Organization of Migration, ICTJ and the Commission have held workshops in Argentina, Canada, Mexico, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States to inform victims in the diaspora about the process and to learn more about the expectations, needs, and concerns in preparation for the formal launch this November.

What became clear in all of these meetings was that, despite many years of waiting, both young and elderly victims were eager to be a part of the process. “They want to be recognized,” said Moreno. “They want to be a part of the new narrative.”

Designing Inclusion

Colombia’s truth commission is not the first to recognize the importance of including members of a diaspora in truth-seeking processes. In 2006, the Liberia TRC Diaspora Project worked in collaboration with the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights to document the experiences, losses, and recommendations for reconciliation of Liberian refugees in the United States, as well as to explore the historical roots of the conflict that lasted from 1979 to 2003.

Victims in the diaspora offered important perspectives on the conflict, representing segments of the society that had been rendered voiceless through their absence. Youth victims and other marginalized voices collaborated with academic partners to produce video testimonies. Regrettably, while the Liberian truth commission reached a broad swathe of the Liberian population in the country and abroad, its weak technical capacity led to shortcomings in the final report.

Notably, an ICTJ report noted that the Liberian commission failed to clarify to the public the criteria and methodology it had used to select its cases. Ultimately, public debate over this failure may have overshadowed the commission’s success in including diverse Liberian voices.

While Colombia will face different challenges, there is still a risk of uneven participation. Victims’ advocates hope to counteract this risk by working closely with and complementing the efforts of civil society groups in the diaspora.

“In the case of Colombia, there was initially a lack of organization of victims in the diaspora,” Moreno explained. “But victims’ groups have become increasingly organized in their effort to empower victims, enable them to interact with the truth commission and the JEP, and build networks around shared areas of interest.”

To work with these groups, the Commission will need to design the process in a way that effectively captures testimonies and expectations, while working within practical logistical constraints. But first, there are methodological questions about the scope of the experiences and violations and how they should be documented.

A sound methodological approach will also guide the Commission in finding a common narrative based on the concerns, personal histories, and recommendations shared by victims in the diaspora. ICTJ’s work with the Commission and the International Organization of Migration is focused on this area.

Successfully engaging victims in the diaspora could strengthen the truth-telling process as it will identify key victims and concerns. Ultimately, it could result in a more holistic and inclusive understanding of the impact of the violence and trauma, bringing deeper national reflection on critical questions. For instance, why were victims forced to leave the country? What has their experience been as refugees? What do they think people in Colombia know about their exile?

The approach to answering these questions, which ultimately the commissioners will have to take, will benefit from the wisdom that the perspectives of victims living in exile abroad should be heard and central to the process from the very beginning, said Moreno. Shining light on their stories means first asking the victims how they want to be included, and then listening.  

PHOTO: Victims meet with Commissioner Carlos Martin Beristain (R) and ICTJ Colombia's Maria Camila Moreno (Far R). (ICTJ)