Colombia: Truth Alone Will Not be Enough

By Christian Wlaschütz*

Several men and women sit in chairs at a table

Jesuit Francisco de Roux (center), who will lead Colombia’s truth commission, at a meeting with rural communities involved in the peace-building process. / Véala / Agencia Prensa Rural / Flickr / Creative Commons

The 11 members of Colombia’s “Commission for the Clarification of the Truth, Living Together and Non-Recurrence” were announced last week – a landmark in that country’s still tortuous reconciliation process.  Jesuit Francisco de Roux, who has worked for peace for decades, will preside over the commission as it undertakes its three-year mission (after a preparatory period of six months).  Presidential Decree No. 588, issued last April, broadly defines the Commission’s tasks as contributing to the truth of what happened; establishing the voluntary recognition of responsibilities; and promoting a culture of peace and dialogue throughout the country.  Like any truth commission, its mandate includes dignifying the victims and identifying the patterns of violence and the structures that perpetuated the armed conflict; and providing a differentiated account of the suffering of women, children, and ethnic minorities.  It will develop a list of recommendations for the future.

The truth commission faces a number of challenges and dilemmas that will not be easy to overcome.

  • The polarization of society regarding the peace process, personalized as the confrontation between President Santos and former President Uribe, will require de Roux to seek permanent dialogue and trust-building on all sides. In a first statement, Uribe said the appointment of de Roux was a positive sign.  But the current presidential campaign threatens to stymie political agreements and could potentially make the Commission a target to discredit the government.
  • The incapacity or unwillingness of the Congress to discuss legislation on the peace process, as seen this week when not even the quorum was reached, could be a major obstacle.
  • Corruption, drug trafficking, the concentration of land, and other endemic issues that fueled the armed conflict stand to endanger the peaceful future of the country – and will require the careful attention of the Commission. The security situation in several regions already leaves little space for people to present testimony to the Commission.
  • The Commission’s structural link with other elements of the “Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Recurrence” could cause some confusion. One element of the system is the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which will have duties related to criminal justice that could discourage witnesses from providing testimony to the Commission.

All noble intentions aside, the “truth” alone may not be sufficient to effect the real transformation that lasting peace will entail.  There are plenty of versions of the truth in Colombia, and thousands of volumes of analysis of the conflict dynamics in every region.  The involvement of companies funding armed actors and the politicians giving them support have been documented.  Academic publications, civil society reports, international analyses, and oral histories abound.  But if the Commission wants to make a difference, it must go beyond the accumulation of knowledge.

  • Precedent suggests that the Commission’s effectiveness will depend on finding an efficient way to be present in the regions, thus moving toward citizens instead of waiting for them. A strong public dimension to the testimony of both victims and perpetrators will help give the truth meaning through the empathy that is often missing in abstract discussions on the numbers of the victims.  Probably most importantly, a diverse group of friends or supporters of the Commission – credible representatives of different social groups who will eventually push implementation of the Commission’s recommendations – will be key.  Colombia doesn’t need yet another analysis of the patterns of atrocities and a list of recommendations that will never be implemented.  Truth without follow-up and transformation will only create further frustration and, potentially, more violence.

 November 20, 2017

* Christian Wlaschütz is a political scientist, independent mediator, and international consultant who has lived and worked in Colombia, in particular in conflict zones in the fields of transitional justice, reconciliation, and communitarian peace-building.

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1 Comment

  1. Alex Wilde

     /  November 21, 2017

    Truth commissions are indeed not enough to repair the wounds of past violence – particularly when it has framed the life experience multiple generations. Wlaschütz makes a valuable and usefully concrete argument about steps Colombia should take to make the findings of its truth commission into effective policy.

    One that stands out is the recommendation that it go to the people of Colombia’s different regions. It indeed remains a country of many patrias,chicas, each with its own history and memories of this long period. He alludes to the “thousands of volumes of analysis of the conflict dynamics” in the different regions, but it worth noting that the Comisión Nacional de Reparación y Reconciliación – an official body – already pioneered this laudatory outreach and differentiated analysis during its eight-year mandate.

    Francisco de Roux, SJ, whose photo appears at the top of this post, is another reason to hope that some of the structural limitations to truth along may be overcome. He is a figure of unique moral authority in Colombia and could play a role paralleling that of Church figures in Brazil and Chile in the large processes of reconciliation. His leadership was vital to the Jesuit project of “Paz y Desarrollo” in the deeply-conflicted Magdalena Medio, an experience that holds important lessons of both possibilities and limitations.*

    (*See Elyssa Pachico, “Building Peace and Dignity,” in Alexander Wilde, ed., “Religious Responses to Violence” (2015).)

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