Closing Remarks: The Challenges of a Truth Commission in Colombia

By Fernando Travesí, ICTJ Deputy Program Director

Significant progress has been made in Colombia to clarify the truth and construct historical memory, thanks to the truth revealed through judicial processes like the Justice and Peace process; the work of the Historical Memory Group and the National Center for Historic Memory; unofficial civil society initiatives throughout the country; and the experiences of prior official truth commissions that have addressed specific issues or periods of time.

However, there is still great demand in the country for knowledge and recognition of the truth about the internal armed conflict, and significant truth deficits persist. Today we have heard about some of them, such as those related to enforced disappearances, and, persistently, the responsibility of institutional, political, and economic actors.

The timing of this international conference truly could not have been more opportune. A truth commission is already mentioned in the Legal Framework for Peace and the negotiation agenda in Havana, and to a large extent, it is already part of the demands and expectations of Colombian society.

We have heard that a truth commission is not something that should be adopted mechanically (as if it were a legal imperative or a necessary step in all peace processes or as a template to be replicated) or blindly because of the attraction of the mechanism itself or the myths that surround it. Therefore, it is important to reflect on several points: Why is it important to address and clarify the truth about the Colombian conflict? What can a truth commission do for the country that has not already been done?

This analysis requires thinking about the context in which “we have to live,” as Pablo de Greiff said earlier today. That is, taking into account the opportunities and risks of creating a truth commission as a result of a political agreement, the complexity of the Colombian case, as well as the experiences, successes, and mistakes of other countries that have gone through similar processes.

Before thinking about what the truth commission will look like, the negotiating parties in Havana must clearly understand what they want from it. This requires that the parties know and understand the expectations of Colombian society and what a commission can really do. These key questions should be the basis for analysis and conceptualization of a commission and, only later, when it is clear and agreed on, can you begin to think about the design of the mechanism—especially taking into account, as we have again heard today, that there is no such thing as a perfect commission.

The predominant view in the country up until now is that a Colombian truth commission would cover a long period of time and serious and mass human rights violations, in addition to the structural causes of the conflict as well as many other subjects. There is sometimes the expectation that a truth commission created as a result of the peace process would carefully examine every crime, every case, every victim, every act committed by a perpetrator.

From what we have heard today, this approach would be questionable, or at least labeled in red as high risk. According to the international experiences that we have heard today and collected in the report that we are presenting, even in truth commissions with broad and ambitious mandates, the clarification of each incident from the perspective of forensic truth is impossible.

We have heard that a truth commission exists in the tension between what is desirable and what is possible, and that it should be viewed with a dose of reality and not with a fascination for the mystique that surrounds truth-seeking bodies. A truth commission cannot clarify all of the incidents that are not addressed in the courtroom. Sending this message could create false expectations and transfer the logic of ordinary judicial processes to a nonjudicial mechanism, like a truth commission.

It is important to reiterate—and correct the misperception—that a truth commission is a substitute for judicial processes. It is not a transaction between parties to obtain benefits nor should it be understood as a residual mechanism for matters that cannot be addressed through criminal prosecutions.

It is important to highlight that a recurring theme in today’s discussions has been that the main objective of a truth commission in Colombia should be not so much to reveal and clarify individual responsibilities, case by case, person by person, but instead to expose the collective responsibilities of institutional, political, and economic actors. This includes examining the multiple dimensions of the causes and effects of the conflict; its objectives, motivations, and strategies; as well as the power structures that have been directly and indirectly responsible for the longest-running internal armed conflict in the Americas.

Another recurrent issue that we have heard today is that a truth commission in Colombia should ensure the broadest possible participation. This means, of course, enabling victims to participate, which means that participation in the truth commission should occur in the safest possible environment, in a way that is vindicating and dignifying of victims and other participants, and that raises the visibility of victims who remain invisible to the state and society. Even if it is not possible to clarify and study each and every incident, a truth commission can make a fundamental contribution to stable and lasting peace by recognizing victims.

However, today we have also heard an interesting variation that is perhaps a bit innovative in the debate in Colombia: a truth commission is not only about the victims, it is about society as a whole. The truth commission must be able to engage and maximize the participation of those directly involved in the conflict as well as other sectors of society who are frequently absent or distant, such as those who oppose these processes and those who have in one way or another participated in or profited from the conflict. Attention must be paid to those sectors that usually do not engage in these processes, in order to break the traditional boundaries and achieve the participation of the entire society.

Listening to the presentations today, one can only conclude that a truth commission is not an event, it is a process. It will not be the closing chapter in a process of clarification of the truth, but a key chapter that should pave the way for and underpin many others. In the cases that we have heard about today, truth commissions tend to be a unique opportunity for society to acknowledge and discuss the truth. The national attention brought by its creation and its work is an opportunity for society to confront its past. It is a cathartic, perhaps painful, and difficult moment, but one that should mark a turning point in society.

It is a process where there is no room for denial or the need for a definitive consensus or the creation of a sole narrative. It should be a collective process of acknowledgement of the facts—and of social debate about what is known but is not accepted, about what is yet unknown, and about the multiple responsibilities of institutional, political, and economic actors that need to surface after decades of denial. The process of creating and developing the work of the commission can and should be part of the reparative action and contribute to reconciliation.

The experiences heard today suggest that truth commissions with a simple and operational architecture yield the best results. Large and complex bureaucratic structures, with excessively ambitious mandates, will not meet the expectations of society. Today we listened to the President of Colombia and the High Commissioner for Peace speak of a historic opportunity for the country to achieve peace. This is also echoed by society in general. There are, therefore, favorable political and social conditions that should be taken advantage of and, for this reason, the design of a truth commission should allow for a reasonably rapid startup after a peace agreement is signed.

Colombia has a tradition of legislative and institutional sophistication that tends to create complex bodies and, on occasion, obstacles to their operation. It is necessary to take this potentiality into account when creating a truth commission. Non-recurrence is certainly easier said than done. This is why it is important to emphasize that the mandate should reflect society’s demands for truth, but at the same time be realistic and implementable.

I would like to finalize by touching on another recurring theme, related to the leadership of the future truth commission. Mr. Kofi Annan mentioned that this is a crucial issue. The selection and designation of the commissioners must be guided by criteria of independence and capacity. The criteria of demographic representation does not necessarily guarantee the suitability and legitimacy of commissioners, but can instead reproduce (within the truth commission) the very polarization that it aims to reverse. The truth commission cannot be conceived of as an assembly of delegates from different social sectors, like a small congress. This would make it inoperative. All the commissioners must also be deeply committed to human rights and the truth commission’s mandate.

David Tolbert, President of ICTJ, posed many questions at the beginning of today’s conference. We hope that the presentations have contributed to providing a response to these questions.