President of Colombia Santos: Moving Towards Truth Is Moving Towards Peace

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos addressed the Bogota conference, thanking ICTJ and Kofi Annan Foundation for organizing the conference and issuing the report “Challenging the Conventional: Can Truth Commissions Strengthen Peace Processes”, which he referred to as timely contributions to peace in Colombia.

“Truth will make you free. But more than being a biblical quote, this statement is a summary of a reality that may change the future of our nation forever,” opened Santos. “This event sheds light on one of the most important issues facing our country at this moment and bring us new ideas on how to move forward and how to build sustainable peace.”

Santos proceeded to enumerate how elements of transitional justice such as truth, accountability, reparations and non-recurrence are precious to the ongoing search for peace and the transition from conflict. “ In order to build sustainable peace we must reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable: justice and victims' rights on one hand and decades of conflict on the other. Our challenge is how to achieve peace with a maximum justice.”

The core of this solution is to maximize the satisfaction of victims’ rights, as victims are at the heart of the negotiations in Havana. To make sure they are heard, explained Santos, negotiators in Havana received 60 victims to tell their stories. “This has never happened before in a peace process, and if it has it was left to a truth commission that was established after the fact. We didn’t want to wait because we believe the voice of the victims must be heard before the peace is agreed on. We wanted them to express their wishes and desires so that the agreements can incorporate their views.”

Santos countered some of the prevailing misperceptions on victims’ demands, emphasizing that what victims primarily ask for is not money, or land, or revenge, but truth and acknowledgment. They want to know what happened to their loved ones as there is no greater grief than that of a family not knowing what happened to their loved ones.

“That is why we have the obligation to bring the hour of truth at the end of 50 years of conflict, regardless of who the victims are – victims of guerillas, or paramilitaries, or of the agents of the state,” said Santos. He highlighted the importance of the contributions of the National Center for Historical Memory and the Justice and Peace Process, explaining that their work has paved the way for the future truth commission.

“In the platform of negotiations with the FARC we agreed that truth is crucial for society to move forward. How it happened, why it happened, who are the perpetrators? These are the questions that victims want answers to. The complexity of the conflict means that there are many truths, some very unpleasant, but they must come to light,” continued Santos. He then turned to international experiences to be discussed at the conference.

“Experiences of countries like South Africa, Kenya, Argentina and others produce us with important lessons, not to repeat past mistakes. We have carefully studied the ICTJ-KAF report that is being presented today in Spanish. In a way it appears as if it were written for Colombia, it couldn’t have arrived at a better time since it is today, in Havana, that negotiators will discuss exactly this issue,” said Santos, illustrating the understanding of the relevance of international experiences for Colombia.

“'He who carries too much will drop everything.' That is a Colombian saying and a lesson for us when we discuss the mandate of a future truth commission. Many examples from around the world speak of truth commissions that wanted to deal with everything but did not manage do so. That is why we have to be careful about determining the scope of the commission and making sure we appoint people who are above any objections. Commissioners must be people with absolute integrity, who will be immune to any suspicions of partiality.”

“There is no standardized solution,” continued Santos, “we have heard that today. That is why we don’t want to copy any particular solution but build on lessons learned and do it so that it is useful for our own process and our own transition. I am convinced that a truth commission is necessary for that. Not only because victims are asking for it, but because there are many truths to be clarified, such a sexual violence, forced recruitment of children and the search for missing persons.”

“We are well aware that we must incorporate in the agreement the mechanisms for accountability, to ensure there is no impunity,” stressed Santos, adding, “There is a sector of our society that denies that paramilitaries ever existed and committed atrocities, for example. We need a truth commission to end that denial, to spark catharsis and coexistence in our country."

Santos concluded by thanking ICTJ and Kofi Anna Foundation once again: “This conference and the report are great contributions to peace as we continue the work in Havana. Moving towards truth is moving towards peace, as truth indeed makes us free.”