ICTJ Welcomes Agreement on the Search for the Disappeared in Colombia


October 20, 2015, Bogotá – The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) welcomes the recent agreement announced by the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to commit to immediately implement measures to search for, locate, and identify those who have disappeared during the 50-year armed conflict and – if a final peace agreement is reached – to create a special unit dedicated to these tasks.

“This agreement is extremely significant and it acknowledges Colombia’s duty towards victims of enforced disappearance and their families,” said ICTJ’s President David Tolbert. “This step recognizes the dignity of the victims of disappearance, who are often made invisible in Colombia, and it affirms their right to the truth, justice, and reparations.”

It is estimated that between 45,000 and 60,000 people have been disappeared during the five-decade conflict between the state and several armed groups.

The upcoming measures and the special unit will look into a range of disappearance cases, including enforced disappearances, those who died in captivity after being kidnapped, and combatants who were killed and buried in conflict zones.

The announced “humanitarian immediate measures” would promptly set the institutions to work on the search for and location, identification, and return of victims’ remains, regardless of who perpetrated the crime. This initiative will contribute to building trust among the negotiating parties and with the larger society because they will be sharing information at their disposal and supporting the implementation of the work.

The agreement also states that, if a final peace agreement between the Government of Colombia and the FARC is finally reached, an “exceptional and temporary” special unit will be established to “search for all those who have been disappeared due to the armed conflict.” Victims will play an active role in the creation and work of this unit, according to the agreement.

“This agreement on the search for the disappeared is a victory for the victims and their tireless demands,” said Maria Camila Moreno, ICTJ’s Head of Office in Colombia. “They have ignited the necessary political will for the negotiating parties to address this horrendous crime as well as its complex and painful consequences.”

The implementation of such essential measures will be a difficult task, and Colombia should look back at previous attempts to search for, locate, and identify victims of enforced disappearance that were conducted in the country, such as the Search Commission of Disappeared Persons (Comisión de Búsqueda de Personas Desaparecidas), the Prosecutor’s Office, and efforts led by civil society organizations who for years have been working on this issue with remarkable determination.

The complexity of the process, which will require years of work, will mean that it will be important to manage respectfully the expectations of the families of the disappeared. Experience shows that it will not be possible to find the remains of all the victims who were disappeared.

“Civil society and victims' organizations, as well as past institutional experiences, should be key sources to draw lessons from when designing and implementing these measures,” said Moreno. “It’s a positive sign that the agreement is already underscoring the participation of victims and civil society in this process.”

The agreement on the search for the disappeared marks another solid step forward in the peace negotiation process that could put an end to the longest active armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere.

“ICTJ reaffirms its commitment to Colombian victims and its willingness to contribute with knowledge and expertise to the implementation of these and other measures agreed to by the negotiating parties in Havana,” said Tolbert.


Maria Camila Moreno, ICTJ’s Head of Office in Colombia
E-mail: mcmoreno@ictj.org
Tel: +57 1 248 0488

PHOTO: In July 2015, forensic experts began a search for bodies at a landfill site of La Escombrera, in Medellín, believed to be one of the largest urban mass graves in the world. The bodies of up to 100 disappeared people – many of them civilians – are believed to be buried at the site. (Corporación Jurídica Libertad)