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The Key to Peace in Colombia: Leaving Our Battles in the Past

By: Carlos Sabino - @Sabino2324 - Apr 14, 2014, 12:25 pm

Español Political dialogue has begun to develop in Venezuela, as the government and the opposition enter talks mediated by UNASUR. This is occurring while talks have been underway for over a year between FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government. The situation is undoubtedly very different in these countries, although there are fundamental problems present in both cases. For the purposes of this column, however, I will focus on the situation in Colombia, putting aside for the moment the issue of Venezuela, which I have already commented on recently.

The essential difficulty in reaching that critical point when we can end conflict and bring lasting peace to a society rests in the ability to leave our battles in the past — battles that have left many victims with understandable resentment, and disrupted the lives of millions, who make deserving calls for reparation and justice.

A FARC leader said during a news conference that it would be illogical for them to sign any sort of peace agreement that lands them directly in jail. The idea makes sense, at least from his point of view, but presents problems when fully considered. Should those responsible for countless human rights violations, murders, kidnappings, and terrorist acts, be allowed to sign a document and from that moment, without much transition, begin vying for a seat in parliament?

This would certainly create an understandable level of discomfort within much of the public, and therefore, some sort of compromise is necessary. An agreement must be reached that not only ends this struggle, but also allows for some kind of political accountability for these leaders that ordered kidnappings and murder in cold blood.

Unfortunately, this is not the only problem that arises when negotiating these peace agreements. In several Latin-American countries, similar agreements involving broad amnesties have been thrown out the window years after initially being signed. There has even been a recent string of trials that aim to incarcerate those who previously fought against the guerrillas.

Brigadier General José Efraín Rios Montt, flanked by General Horacio Egberto Maldonado Schaad and Colonel Francisco Luis Gordillo Martínez, at first press conference on 23 March 1982, National Palace, Guatemala City.
General Rios Montt José Efraín (center) during a press conference on March 23, 1982, National Palace, Guatemala City. Source: La República.

The case of General Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemala’s head of state between 1982 and 1983, is a clear example in this regard. Ríos Montt had the distinction of normalizing, in some way, repression by the army in rural areas as a means to combat the guerrillas. During his short rule, there were several massacres, although the figures show fewer occurred during his time in office than in previous years.

The problem is that now, after several general amnesties and peace agreements, human rights activists have taken the former general to trial for genocide — an absurd allegation since neither the Guatemalan military, nor the guerrillas, targeted a specific ethnic group, but rather sought after their ideological enemies. The trial of the elderly Ríos Montt, which had significant procedural errors, resulted in an 80-year prison sentence. A higher court later annulled the sentence, because of the irregularities present during the trial. The fate of the former general now remains in a strange legal limbo.

This example serves to highlight the fact that these amnesties and solemn promises struck at negotiating tables are not worth much in the face of endless pressure from non-governmental organizations that claim to defend human rights, along with international pressure from certain countries who — without understanding what happened in our land — seek justice from only one of the two sides that fought decades ago. If the FARC does not want to sign an agreement that would see them go from the negotiating table to jail, what guarantees do we have that, within a few years, the opposite does not occur, and we see those on the other side of the table going to trial?

This is why, I believe, for any lasting peace to occur, once we decide as a society to close a chapter of violence in our past, this action must be irreversible — even though murderers may go unpunished, and victims may not receive justice or adequate compensation; and even though foreigners will insist the struggle should continue in the courts, and NGO’s will advocate punishment for some while rewarding others several years later. There is either justice for everyone, or justice for no one. The alternative, aside from being unfair, assumes a political or ideological position that is only shared by a small fraction of society.

Translated by Guillermo Jimenez.

Carlos Sabino Carlos Sabino

Sociologist, writer, and university professor, Sabino is director of the masters and doctoral programs in history at the University of Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala. Follow him @Sabino2324