Colombia Peace Talks: ‘Peace versus Justice’ or ‘Crime and Punishment?’



Two jailed rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, walked handcuffed back to their cells after attending a ceremony where they graduated as "peacemakers" after they renounced to the rebel group and the armed struggle at La Picota prison in southern Bogota, Wednesday, March 11, 2009. (AP Photo/William Fernando Martinez)

Ongoing peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels could end the longest running war in the western hemisphere. At the heart of the debate is how perpetrators of serious crimes will be held accountable.

In the latest edition of ICTJ’s podcast series, we asked ICTJ Vice President Paul Seils to illuminate the hard questions dominating the current debate: What justice options are under consideration in the peace negotiations? Will accountability be traded for peace? Are prison sentences the only acceptable punishment for these crimes? Also, how can criminal justice work with other transitional justice mechanisms to provide justice and benefit Colombian society as a whole?


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In considering the “peace versus justice” debate, Seils underscores that “we’ve come a very long way.” He notes this shift by referencing two 1985 referendums in Uruguay, in which Uruguayans voted to grant amnesty to perpetrators of serious crimes. Today, says Seils, this would be inconceivable: “We’ve moved to a position where we accept and understand the need for criminal justice to be applied,” he says. “That’s a massive jump.”

In Colombia, while discussion is underway about what kind of punishment should be applied, Seils says transitional justice measures can play a key role in informing broader needs of justice beyond jail sentences for perpetrators. Seils argues that applying different transitional justice measures, such as truth seeking, reparations for victims, and institutional reform allow for accountability in different forms, but these measures need to be applied “seriously and comprehensively, to try to genuinely create a new democratic compact within the society.”

For a discussion on these and other questions central to the historic moment, listen to this latest ICTJ podcast in English and Spanish.