Throughout peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC, ICTJ was a trusted adviser to both parties, advocating victims’ rights while lending technical advice and comparative experience. With the peace agreement now in place, ICTJ will continue to assist in securing justice for victims and cementing a lasting peace after decades of war.

An elderly lady mourns at the funeral of an assassinated public figure in Bogota. (Scott Dalton)

Background: After Decades of Conflict, Cementing Peace and Securing Justice for Victims in Colombia

Colombia is in the process of implementing a peace agreement that put an end to 50 years of internal conflict with the country’s biggest guerrilla group, the Fuerzas Armadas Revoulcionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP). The peace negotiations positioned the rights of the conflict’s victims to accountability, truth and reparation at the fore of the political life of the country. Victims have played an important role in Colombian politics at various points throughout the decades of conflict, and accountability for crimes committed by non-state and state armed forces remains a contentious and politically charged issue. However, the comprehensive peace accord represents Colombia’s most holistic, wide-ranging effort to address the root causes of conflict and fulfill victims’ rights.

Roots of the Conflict

The armed conflict has involved many actors and interests, and is a product of political ambitions, social and economic tensions, and competition for resources. Numerous factors contributed to the evolution and degradation of the conflict, including the persistence of the agrarian issues, the emergence and proliferation of drug trafficking, limited political participation, international pressure and influence, and the institutional and territorial fragmentation of the state.

Guerrilla groups evolved during the 1960s from peasant and communist uprisings against the state. Starting in the 1980s right-wing paramilitary groups formed with the complicity of public officials, comprised mainly of landowners who wanted to protect themselves from guerrilla groups, adding another dimension to the conflict. Drug trafficking also contributed significantly to the escalation of the conflict, becoming one of the main factors fueling the conflict.

Armed groups on all sides sought to reduce the military capacity of their adversaries and impose control over the civilian population by committing horrendous crimes. Mass violence has produced nearly eight million victims over the past 50 years – roughly 17% of the country’s population. According to the report of the National Center for Historical Memory, the conflict has resulted in:

  • 220,000 people killed
  • Nearly 6 million people displaced
  • Over 60,600 cases of forced disappearances, sexual crimes and gender-based violence
  • The forced recruitment of almost 6,500 children and youth

The Peace Agreement

After 50 years of violence and more than 220,000 deaths, the Colombian government and the FARC-EP guerrillas have recently signed a peace agreement to end the western hemisphere’s longest-running conflict. The final agreement, which includes a Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Recurrence, was signed in September 2016 and submitted for public approval via plebiscite in early October 2016. Unexpectedly, the plebiscite voted against the agreement by a narrow margin (50.2% against, 49.8% in favor), leading to further negotiations between government and FARC representatives and a revision of some of the terms of the peace agreement. The revised agreement was signed by all parties and approved by the Colombian Congress

In November 2012, peace talks began between the Government of Colombia and FARC-EP. They centered on six official negotiation points: agrarian reform, political participation, illicit drugs, victims, ending the conflict, and implementation of the peace accord.

The agreement was negotiated in stages, resulting in sub-agreements released periodically covering the various agenda points of the negotiations. For instance, the Victims’ Agreement was one of the most contentious negotiating points and took three years of discussion before both parties signed it in December 2015. That portion of the agreement alone provides for a number of mechanisms meant to provide accountability for serious crimes and fulfill the rights of victims to truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence. Another agreement enabled the orderly demobilization, transition into civilian life, and political participation of FARC members.

The negotiations in Havana were informed by public consultation and discussion through a number of mechanisms, allowing civil society, victims, social groups and others an unprecedented amount of input into the contents of the final accord. 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. Of those, 60% were women.
In addition to direct participation in the talks, the negotiating parties established a series of regional forums to collect victims’ views and proposals, while the Colombian Parliament also organized “peace roundtables” (mesas regionales de paz). These initiatives resulted in thousands of proposals from victims to inform the negotiations. Some of these proposals had a substantial impact on the final agreement.

Previous Accountability, Acknowledgment and Redress Efforts

The recent comprehensive peace accord is the culmination of decades of peace negotiations, demobilization of combatants, and the search for truth, justice, and reparations for victims. The process continues even after the agreement with FARC-EP, with negotiations pending with the other major armed group still in combat with government forces, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN).

Between 2003 and 2006, a political pact initiated by former President Alvaro Uribe led to the demobilization of more than 35,000 members of the paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) (according to Government figures).

In 2005, Law 975, known as the Justice and Peace Law (JPL), was enacted to facilitate the reintegration of these demobilized former combatants into civilian life. This law offered former paramilitaries reduced prison sentences in exchange for their full confession and contribution to reparations for victims and national peace. By June 2016, over 4,400 former paramilitaries had passed through the Justice and Peace tribunals, but only 49 verdicts had been issued. While the process was seen to be falling short in holding all perpetrators accountable and establishing the complete truth about the paramilitary phenomenon, it did create an enabling environment for victims’ organizations advocacy efforts in the areas of truth, justice, and reparations. Also, the National Center for Reparation and Reconciliation and its National History Group, created by this law, set the groundwork for future truth-seeking and memory efforts. Unfortunately, many former paramilitary structures have re-emerged as criminal gangs and are currently threatening the implementation of the peace accord in the regions.

In 2011, the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos promoted the passage of Law 1448, known as the Victims’ Law, which established a comprehensive reparations program, truth-seeking mechanisms and land restitution procedures for victims of the armed conflict. The government created new institutions to implement these programs, namely the Victims’ Unit, the Land Restitution Unit, and the National Center for Historical Memory.

To date, these initiatives have provided some measure of justice to some victims, but their effectiveness was reduced because of the ongoing conflict: it proved difficult for them to address violations committed during the conflict while the conflict was continued. With the peace agreement in place, these institutions will continue their work in a new context that may create more opportunities for impact.

ICTJ's Role:

ICTJ has worked in Colombia since 2005, supporting the work of victims’ groups, providing technical assistance and training, influencing national transitional justice policies through advocacy work and political dialogue, and generating greater understanding of the development of transitional justice in the country through outreach and communications strategies.

The ICTJ Colombia program seeks to strengthen national mechanisms for the protection of victims’ rights to truth, justice, and reparation while achieving greater public understanding of and dialogue around transitional justice.

Consulting both parties in the peace negotiations: Throughout the peace negotiations, ICTJ has provided technical assistance and engaged in political dialogue with national policy-makers, judicial authorities, and civil society on the transitional justice mechanisms under consideration, notably the Special Jurisdiction for Peace and the Truth Commission.

Reparations: ICTJ conducted a study on the government’s individual reparations program, which illustrates the structural problems that impede the adequate implementation of the law and analyzes the experiences and challenges of the victims, especially those living in the regions. We made recommendations on the reparations component of the peace accords, such as the incorporation of a territorial approach to reparations and modification of the government’s reparations program to ensure that the measures have a more tangible impact on victims’ lives. We also provide expert advice on collective reparations processes.

Building public dialogue: Strengthening public understanding of transitional justice is an essential function of our Colombia program. Transitional justice has become a common concept in the Colombian public discourse, but there are a lot of misconceptions around it. ICTJ has developed close partnerships with key national media, including the Fundación Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano (FNPI) and Revista Semana, to organize trainings, roundtables and closed-door discussions on transitional justice issues for journalists and editors.

Convening State Actors and civil society: ICTJ facilitates spaces for interaction between active social forces and state representatives on transitional justice issues, providing not only victims but other groups the opportunity to voice their concerns and present proposals for engagement with transitional justice processes. ICTJ expertise and comparative international experiences have served to enrich these discussions.

Building capacity: We provide technical advice—based on domestic law and international comparative experiences—to key state institutions, both judicial and others. This includes the Supreme Court of Justice, the Justice and Peace Tribunals, and the Office of the Attorney General, the Victims’ Unit, the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, among others. For example, ICTJ developed a manual for the Attorney General’s Analysis and Context Division that elaborates on the concept of system crimes and proposes some general guidelines for contextual investigation derived from international experience and knowledge in this area. ICTJ also targets civil society organizations in Bogota and the regions, including victims’ and women’s organizations, providing training, dialogue, and assistance for the formulation of their transitional justice proposals.

Women’s Rights: Colombia has a strong women’s movement which ICTJ has recognized and supported, and urged its groups to work collaboratively on projects connected to transitional justice. ICTJ has incorporated gender into its work in all areas of transitional justice, meeting regularly with different women’s organizations and fostering peer-to-peer dialogue to reflect on the challenges that women will face in the implementation of the transitional justice mechanisms established in the Havana Victims’ Agreement.

Strengthening state institutions, civil society and victims’ organizations: We provide technical assistance to those who seek to advance the protection of victims’ rights, including direct engagement with legislators and public dissemination of analytical position papers. We provide local NGOs with training and tools to enhance their representation of victims’ rights and interests, and promote spaces for reflection on transitional justice.

Reintegration of Children: In 2014, ICTJ produced and published a report that presents a new approach to guide the reparations and reintegration of children and youth, who were victims of illicit recruitment. Based on an examination of the state of implementation of Colombia’s reparations program, particularly for demobilized children, and on the lessons derived from reintegration experiences in Colombia and in other countries, we concluded that it was necessary to rethink the way that public institutions perceived former child soldiers. Rather than limit our analysis to binary interpretations that lead to perceptions of them as either passive victims or perpetrators, we proposed that they be viewed as citizens-in-training with both rights and responsibilities. ICTJ’s proposal is grounded in an approach to reparations that incorporates the capacity to respond to the challenges of the social integration of youth and upholds their dignity and allows them to fully embrace their citizenship.