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.

Is a “CICIH” the answer to Honduras’ Crisis?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Photo Credit: US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons

The success of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) in driving anti-corruption efforts there – culminating in the resignation of President Pérez Molina – has stoked debate in neighboring Honduras on the wisdom of creating a “CICIH” with the same mission to root out the rot that permeates state institutions and perpetuates the misery of the citizenry.  President Juan Orlando Hernandez has stated categorically that no such entity is needed in Honduras given advances in the country’s own institutions and his own putative commitment to good governance.  Some civil society organizations are at least implicitly concurring by taking part in accountability initiatives involving collaboration with the government.  Other voices from civil society are objecting vociferously, however.  Most notable among them are the indignados, a largely youth-based movement that insists that the President himself and virtually the entire institutional system in Honduras is so rotten that only an international body can be trusted to root out endemic corruption.  The argument rages on, with the indignados staging regular demonstrations and the government – occupied simultaneously with promoting its credibility at home and abroad and maneuvering to secure authorization for presidential re-election – holding fast to its opposition to any such international role.  The debate will continue for the foreseeable future.  We sketch below our understanding of the competing arguments.

Arguments in favor of a CICIH:

By nearly all accounts, corruption has rendered the public and private sectors chronically ineffective – from the President (who admitted that millions from Social Security made it into his campaign coffers and who engaged in nepotism), through the government ministries and even the judicial bureaucracies (where political pressure, intimidation, and bribery are rampant), and companies large and small (for whom payoffs are merely an added budget item).  The country has topped the charts in non-war homicides, including targeted killings, and other violence for several years, further discouraging investigations and prosecutions.  The flood of narcotics and cash through Honduras has thrown fuel onto the flames.  Only an independent, UN-endorsed entity like a CICIH – with its unique ability to train, protect, and motivate judicial personnel, issue indictments, and put powerful people in jail, and shame local government into taking action – can help the country climb out of this deep hole, this argument goes.

Arguments against:

Steven Dudley of InSight Crime notes that the call for a CICIH comes at a time that the Attorney General’s office is showing some signs of life.  Its anti-corruption efforts have led to the indictment and arrest of the former head of the Social Security Institute on charges of embezzlement and illegally financing political parties (although some charges were dropped).  Combating crime, cheaper homemade solutions are showing results in Honduras in terms of training and cases resolved.  Organizations like the Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ) are doing groundbreaking work to keep homicide levels down in some of the worst neighborhoods at a fraction of the cost of a CICIH.  Expense is another important factor.  In Guatemala the CICIG costs between $12 million and $15 million annually, which even that country, far wealthier than Honduras, cannot afford.  CICIG has provided valuable assistance and training to Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office, but its foreign investigators, who move around in armored vehicles with armed bodyguards, leech massive resources that might otherwise go to fortify local prosecutors’ offices.  Moreover, according to this argument, the investigators don’t need foreign prosecutors to tell them what they’re doing wrong.

Skeptics further contend that international donors and pro-reform Hondurans arguably will not get the quick fix and public relations victory they want from a CICIH.  It took over a decade for CICIG to set up in Guatemala and nearly eight years to get the right mix of cases.  Its greatest strategic goal – fortifying Guatemala’s justice system – remains a work in progress.  The Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office has not yet executed a complicated, forensic investigation leading to a high-level prosecution.  Honduras’s greater reliance on foreign assistance, according to this argument, suggests a CICIH would actually enable its dependency, rather than break it.

The weakness and rot within Honduran institutions and the venality of national leadership strongly suggest that neither approach – a foreign-backed entity like CICIH or a home-grown solution – could quickly reverse the tsunami of corruption and violence that the isthmus’s poorest country has been experiencing since the 2009 coup.  Ideally, the best of Honduras’s own efforts could be buttressed by a Honduran version of the CICIG model, but the knack of the country’s leaders for overwhelming even the best of intentions, as they did the “Truth Commission” charged with determining accountability for the coup and rights abuses carried out in its aftermath, argues for extreme caution in forming expectations.  The debate therefore may boil down to the moral argument of whether the international community, witnessing Honduras’s descent into utter lawlessness and destitution, can stand idly by or should at least offer its help in what form it can, such as a CICIH.  Even if a CICIH is not a panacea, it at least would send a powerful message to Honduran elites that the world is watching.

September 15, 2015

Colombia’s Peace Talks: Back from the Brink

By Aaron T. Bell

"Colombia somos todos/We are all Colombia" Photo Credit: Juan Carlos Pachón / Flickr / Creative Commons

“Colombia somos todos/We are all Colombia” Photo Credit: Juan Carlos Pachón / Flickr / Creative Commons

Peace negotiations are back on track in Colombia – for now – after renewed violence put years of progress at risk.  The unilateral cease-fire declared by the FARC last December survived the Colombian military’s continued prosecution of the war for several months, including the killing in March of José David Suarez, the head of the wealthy (and drug-trade-affiliated) 57th Front.  But it was proven unsustainable after a guerrilla attack in April killed eleven soldiers, and Colombian military aerial bombardment of FARC camps in May killed 40 guerrillas, including two who had participated in the peace negotiations in Havana.  The FARC formally revoked its cease-fire and resumed attacks on military and energy infrastructure targets, making June the most active month of the FARC insurgency since negotiations began two and a half years ago.  At the urging of international supporters of the peace process, however, the FARC will implement a new unilateral cease-fire this week.  President Santos stated that the Colombian military will de-escalate as well, but – responding to polls by Gallup and Datexco reflecting public skepticism that a negotiated settlement is possible – he has also pledged to review the situation in four months and decide whether to continue negotiations.  While Santos has appointed a new Defense Minister whose public statements and record as a member of the government negotiating team indicate support for the peace talks, the President has also shaken up the military high command, promoting combat-experienced hawkish officers as commanders.

A renewed sense of urgency among negotiators appears to be emerging.  Both sides have agreed to put all of the pending issues – disarmament and demobilization, compensation for victims, and transitional justice – on the table, rather than deal with them one at a time.  This comes after several positive steps during the hiatus in talks:

  • In late May, while airstrikes on guerrilla camps were resuming, units of the FARC and the Colombian military collaborated in several operations to remove land mines. Colombia is the second most deadly country for land mines, behind only Afghanistan, with over 2,000 people killed and another 11,000 maimed since 1990.  A video on the web last week provided a dramatic example of the need for such measures – a Blackhawk helicopter exploding after landing in a minefield last month.
  • On June 4 negotiators agreed on the makeup of a post-accord Truth Commission. Eleven members will have three years to identify collective (rather than individual) responsibility for abuses.  It will have no mandate to recommend or impose punishment, leaving that instead for an as yet to be agreed upon transitional justice tribunal.
  • Both the FARC and coca growers have called on the government to begin implementing the preliminary agreement on the illicit drug trade, including crop substitution and voluntary eradication. (Recent reports from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy, which use different raw numbers and data-gathering methodologies, show that coca production in Colombia rose significantly in 2014.)  Even though, as InsightCrime has noted, the initiative will be hindered by the lack of a bilateral cease-fire and firm plans for demobilization, it’s a positive step.

Despite the skepticism implicit in the review it will make in four months, the Santos administration appears to be inching toward the bilateral cease-fire that the FARC has long called for.  The government formerly insisted that a bilateral cease-fire would only take place after accords were signed, but has said it would consider one so long as it is “serious, bilateral, definitive and verifiable.”  On the other side of the table, the FARC shows some sign of bending on the thorny matter of transitional justice.  After adamantly opposing jail time for its leaders, FARC negotiators say they will consider some form of confinement for a reduced time period so long as military officials and civilian supporters of right-wing paramilitaries face similar standards of justice.  This may be difficult to swallow for a Colombian military whose culpability in war crimes is bubbling to the surface, such as in a recent report by Human Rights Watch on the extrajudicial killing of thousands of civilians.  The ever-present threat of military opposition to a negotiated accord, coupled with rising public skepticism, suggest the time to make concrete progress toward an accord is now.  The window will not stay open long.

July 21, 2015

Brazilian Truth Commission Looks at Police Violence

By Paula Orlando

March in commemoration of the 22nd anniversary of the Carandiru massacre in 2014. Photo credit: veredaestreita / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA

March in commemoration of the 22nd anniversary of the Carandiru massacre in 2014. Photo credit: veredaestreita / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA

A new truth commission is about to investigate Brazil’s legendary police brutality and, for the first time, attempt to bring some public accountability for the crimes committed by the state. Police kill an estimated six people per day. Civil society organizations persuaded the Sao Paulo Legislative Assembly (ALESP) to establish the commission, the first to focus on human rights violations in the post-dictatorship period. It will hear testimony from witnesses and survivors of police brutality, and examine documents and other evidence related to major cases of police violence in the city and state in the last decades. The initiative follows the recent release of reports by the National and Sao Paulo State Truth Commissions on human rights violations during the military dictatorship (1964-1985). In fact, the reports suggested that present-day violence should be understood as a legacy of the lack of accountability for past violations.

The “Truth Commission of Democracy Maes de Maio” – named after a prominent movement of family members of victims of police violence that fights for justice and changes in security policies – held its first hearing on March 21. Parents of some of those killed in May 2006, when at least 493 civilians were killed in a period of 10 days, testified. (The National Truth Commission had accounted for 434 people killed during the 21 years of military rule.) The violence in May 2006 took place in the context of a conflict between the police forces and the “First Command of the Capital” (PCC) – a criminal organization formed within the detention system, and was justified as part of a “war on crime.” A study conducted by the International Human Rights Clinic of the Harvard Law School and the Brazilian Human Rights Organization Justiça Global contends that at least 122 deaths were directly linked to the police, and many of these bodies showed signs of execution. Four other civilians remain missing after nine years, and nearly all the cases have been archived without a resolution. With the participation of representatives designated by the National Secretariat of Human Rights, legislators, and members of social movements, the new commission will also examine other massacres, such as one at the Carandiru penitentiary in 1992 and the nighttime slaughter – also linked to police officers – of several people who were sleeping near the Sé Cathedral, in downtown Sao Paulo, in August of 2004.

The truth commission is more than a symbolic step towards recognizing and bringing some degree of state accountability in human rights violations; it shows the growing pressure of the movement against anti-police violence and in favor of justice and reparations for victims. Deputy Adriano Diogo, a major proponent of the panel, has warned that the way ahead “will be difficult; this is a discussion that the Brazilian government does not accept to have.” Insofar as the truth commission succeeds, it will not only create an institutional space linked to the state to clarify cases of police violence; it will stimulate an important discussion of the legitimization of police brutality in the context of “fighting crime.” In addition, it could contribute to the understanding that unlawful police violence is a form of political violence that no democratic society should endure.

April 6, 2015