On September 14, the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) publicly apologized to the victims of the kidnappings they perpetrated during the armed conflict. This unprecedented public declaration from a non-state armed group merits reflection from both the perspective of the transitional justice field as a whole and its implications for Colombia.
Official public apologies are an important element of transitional justice. They constitute a powerful form of acknowledgment by perpetrators of the human rights violations they committed and the suffering they caused. They also represent a symbolic reparation for victims who often are forced to co-exist with their perpetrators, who still hold power and refuse to accept responsibility for acts and decisions that destroyed or upended their lives and future.
There have been a number of official public apologies, particularly from governments of countries in transition, i.e., emerging from an authoritarian regime or, more frequently, at the end of a conflict. Many of those, however, fell short of achieving the intended result, mainly because they were limited to expressing sadness and some degree of sympathy for the victims. Hence, they were perceived as insincere, if not opportunistic or condescending.
In order to be considered valid and to have the effect of acknowledging the damage done and beginning to repair it, apologies must be unequivocal and include an explicit responsibility for the abuses committed.
The apology offered by FARC relates to the specific, pervasive practice by which the armed group tried to neutralize emblematic representatives of the establishment. In it, FARC recognizes that kidnapping was a practice based on a political decision during the conflict, and thereby takes responsibility for the underlining choice and not only for individual cases.
The apology is unambiguous and does not include any attempt to justify the practice. Quite the opposite, it expresses regret for causing suffering to victims and their families, and acknowledges the wrongness of what they did.
Last but not least, the apology contains a renewed commitment to reparation and to achieving peace and preventing further violence.
In addition to being a powerful expression of remorse, FARC’s apology shows political maturity, which can only develop when there is the space and willingness to engage in peaceful political dialogue rather than armed confrontation. It was possible because the conflict is over and the result of the new civilian role that FARC has committed to play in accordance with the Havana Peace Process.
While the FARC apology represents a positive development in the field of transitional justice, crucial questions remain about what impact it will have on the Colombian society. Firstly, it is to be seen whether, as hoped, it will inspire other perpetrators to commit to the process and fully participate in the integrated justice system provided for by the Havana Accord. Secondly, and even more importantly, it poses the question of whether Colombian society will be able to rise above the political polarization in the country and accept that those who fought during the conflict can reintegrate peacefully and contribute to a future finally free of violence and abuses.
PHOTO: Former FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño speaks at a meeting of the ex-combatant working group convened by ICTJ in 2019. Seated beside him are former FARC members Gabriel Ángel and Sandra Ramírez, who is currently the second vice-president of Colombia's senate. (Maria Margarita Rivera/ICTJ)