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Colombia: The Path to Peace May Be Costly, but a Lasting Amnesty Is Worth the Pain

By: Carlos Sabino - @Sabino2324 - May 14, 2014, 4:28 pm

EspañolOn Sunday, May 25, Colombians will vote in the first round of presidential election. Their choice is between five presidential candidates, including the incumbent, Juan Manuel Santos. It is very likely that a second round election will be necessary, due to the highly contested nature of this race, although recent polls show the current president and the Uribista candidate, Oscar Iván Zuluaga, leading the way.

The elections will take place while talks continue in Cuba between representatives of the government and those of the most powerful guerrilla movement in Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The FARC have been organizing subversive activities for more than 50 years, and have created a very complicated backstory during these tense moments in Colombian politics.

Although negotiations have moved slowly, they have shown progress. Some difficult aspects have already been resolved, like the demobilization of armed groups and those relating to the progress of agrarian policy, which includes the distribution of government holdings to those who have been affected by the armed conflict. However, details of the agreements are still unknown to the public, which has naturally raised concerns.

The wide and complex matter of drug trafficking, which the FARC is strongly linked to, remains unsettled. An agreement also still needs to be reached as to compensation for the victims of this conflict, consisting of as many as 5 million people, including the displaced, injured, those who have lost their homes or other property, and those who have been widowed or orphaned. The two principal issues that concern most Colombians are reparations for these victims and punishment for those responsible for the violence.

Colombian Army Special Forces
Colombian Army Special Forces during a demonstration. Source: Wikipedia.

As far as the punishment, there is, in fact, an iron dilemma that is impossible to escape: if those responsible for the thousands of atrocities committed during the conflict are not punished, there will be an outcry from the victims seeking justice; if, however, punishments are administered, the peace process will be jeopardized, causing an endless cycle of court rulings capable of completely destabilizing the country. There are a countless number of guerrillas, soldiers, and private militia members that have committed basic human rights violations and are willing to continue to wreak havoc if provoked even further.

In my view, it is absolutely essential that a firm and broad accord is reached, or there can never be a true path toward peace. No one in his right mind will lay down his arms if that means spending the rest of his life in prison. If Colombians were to attempt to carry out a just and exemplary punishment on those responsible, then the fight would have to continue until the elimination of every last vestige of the insurgency. The conclusion that such a venture is beyond reach may be difficult to accept, and forgoing some justice will mean a high cost, but this is the price we must pay for something as valuable as peace: a true and wide reaching amnesty.

It should be emphasized that the amnesty must be truly complete and long-lasting. Just as those who confronted the guerrillas in name of the constitution should rid themselves of any craving for punishment, those who took up arms in the name of human rights — always receiving support from abroad — must do the same for the military officials who committed abuses during this cutthroat struggle that saw no respect for international conventions or agreements regarding armed conflicts.

Latin-American history demonstrates the injustice committed when amnesty agreements are overlooked and cases are reopened against those who fought on the side of the law. An agreement cannot be signed if one party only intends to buy time in order to later seek justice, years after the atrocities were originally committed.

Colombian and American soldiers
Colombian and US soldiers training together. Source: 4GWAR.

If the road to peace is difficult, the issue of reparations is also very complicated. Is it possible to compensate 5 million people for the physical and emotional harm they have suffered? Would it not require a massive budget that would drain the country’s finances and require tens of thousands of people to identify real victims, establish compensation amounts, and administer completely disproportionate sums? Haven’t all Colombians been either direct or indirect victims of this prolonged, internal, merciless war? Should future generations pay for the damages of the past? If there are to be reparations or compensations of any sort, they must be limited, meticulously clear in scope, and proportional to available resources.

I know that these conclusions may seem extreme to many readers. However, peace and the beginning of a new era in the life of a nation will always mean sacrifice and a high price to be paid. It requires the conviction to place forgiveness above the justifiable grievances of millions of people. It is the only way forward to the future without carrying the heavy burden of a past that Colombians undoubtedly want to put to rest.

Translated by José Niño.

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