The state-of-the-art peace innovation that could finally resolve a 50-year war

Peace finally?
Peace finally?
Image: AP Photo/Fernando Vergara
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After five decades of fighting, Colombia and its guerrillas may be the closest they’ve ever been to peace. The parties signed an agreement on Dec. 15 to resolve the thorniest issue of ongoing peace talks: how to provide restitution to the millions of war-crime victims.

Negotiators still have to reach a final peace deal, which is expected in spring. But experts say the victims’ arrangement is a key step in ending the war, and a model for other nations with entrenched internal fighting.

The “Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Non-Repetition,” as the setup is dubbed, is an ingenious balance between the interests of all the involved parties. It takes elements from reconciliation and justice processes used to settle other conflicts around the world, and improves upon them.

The arrangement addresses many of the tough issues that negotiators face. Here’s how they tackled them:

  • Colombia’s war has been complicated—and intensified—by drug trafficking. The drug business has been used to fund fighting and to buy politicians’ favor, widening the scope of the conflict beyond those who actually hold the guns, says Gimena Sánchez, a Colombia expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. Those non-combatants, who are usually excluded from peace deals, will also be held accountable for what they did, she tells Quartz. (Negotiators also signed a separate agreement to eradicate the drug trade.)
  • The scale of the conflict is massive. At least 220,000 people (link in Spanish, pdf, page 21) have been killed, according to Colombia’s National Center for Historic Memory. Another six million (Spanish) have fled their homes, equivalent to the whole population of Finland or Costa Rica. Thousands of others were kidnapped, sexually abused, or injured by mines. To address the war’s immense toll, the peace-talks architects have invited victims to weigh in and listened to their proposals and wishes. That level of victim participation in a peace process is unprecedented, according to Virginia Bouvier, a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace.
  • The FARC has to be convinced to surrender its arms. Although most Colombians believed that members of the FARC, Colombia’s main guerrilla group, should go to prison (link in Spanish), steep sentences were a non-starter for the fighters. So negotiators crafted a multi-tiered justice system that treats the accused differently depending on their crimes and their willingness to cooperate. Even if their crimes are serious, those who willingly tell the truth won’t be put in a jail cell. Instead, their movements will be restricted in some yet-to-be-determined way. Sentences will be handed down by an independent tribunal, with jail time reserved for those who don’t cooperate.
  • Perpetrators can’t be let off the hook. With jail off the table for criminals who collaborate, negotiators had to come up with a way of making them pay. (South Africa, for example, has been criticized for granting amnesty just for telling the truth.)  So in Colombia, those who have done harm will have to provide restitution to the victims in some way. The mechanisms for that have not been spelled out, but could include rebuilding infrastructure damaged by the fighting or removing mines.

Not everyone likes the deal. Former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe said the agreement doesn’t represent peace, espousing the views of those in the country who favor more punishment and less reconciliation.

And some guerrillas appear to be reluctant to leave the armed struggle.

But those most affected by the conflict, its victims, said they back the plan and are holding the negotiating parties accountable for implementing it. ”We declare ourselves attentive overseers of the strict observance of the agreements,” one of the victims said during the signing.