Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Colombia: Mending the Fabric of Society

Reconciliation, remembrance and the admission of crimes are all essential to making peace work, even if a settlement is reached.
By Rodrigo Sandoval Araujo

The ongoing peace talks are forcing Colombians to face up to the massive challenge of rebuilding the fabric of a society left in tatters by half a century of armed conflict.

Talks resumed in the Cuban capital this week after a short break, bringing Colombian government negotiators together with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army or FARC-EP. (See Is Colombia Ready for Peace? on the August agreement to enter into a talks process.)

If a peace deal is reached, resolving the broader issues will be no easy task. There are approximately 3.5 million displaced people, four million refugees abroad, and unknown numbers of dead and disappeared.

As we have seen in many post-conflict situations, including post-apartheid South Africa, mending the social fabric begins with telling the truth - the truth of individual victims; the truth of groups of victims, and the official version of the truth given by the state. It is also very important to hear the truth of the perpetrators of atrocities, in order to be able to understand why the conflict happened.

The search for these truths should aim to promote reconciliation, not to foster new hatreds.

Positive results have been achieved by the Centre for Historical Memory, which was established late last year and since then, has issued reports that tell of the abuses of war, the dehumanising effects of violence. and the destruction of entire communities.

One of Colombia’s problems is that it is trying to carry out the process of post-conflict reconciliation – bringing the truth to light – in the midst of continuing violence.

A peace process should envisage reparations, justice, forgiveness, and the promise that conflict will not be repeated. Taken together, these factors should set the stage for reconciliation and put an end to the legacy of hatred, thus allowing the country to attain a genuine peace.

Since 2005, two mechanisms – the Justice and Peace Law and the Legal Framework for Peace – have provided for alternative punishments for Colombia’s war criminals. A judge can reduce a sentence by up to three-quarters for former members of illegal armed groups who opt to collaborate with the peace process.

In order to benefit from alternative penalties, the perpetrators of crimes must reveal the whole truth, provide adequate compensation to their victims and promise not to reoffend. If they do not fulfil these commitments, they must serve the full sentence.

To date, the justice system has been slow to determine who has fulfilled the requirements. Few victims have been compensated, and very little is still known about what happened to those killed or forcibly “disappeared”.

As for reparations, the Colombian state will pay a sum of money for abuses suffered by any side of the conflict. This is a relatively easy procedure and it liberates the state from a responsibility to impose punishment. It does, however, have limitations. A financial contribution cannot address needs like the rebuilding of lives and personal relationships.

Reparations should also seek to rebuild relationships, improve living conditions and provide better education and health. They must give victims back their dignity by acknowledging the abuses that they have suffered, and showing them that society is giving them back what they lost through society’s own silent complicity.

There are many other challenges. Practical issues include help for those displaced people who have rebuilt their lives in the cities and do not wish to return to the countryside. There is also a need to create space for dialogue on the realities of the conflict, and to pay homage to victims while remembering who the perpetrators were.

Symbolic forms of reparation will also be important – for example, there are hundreds of families who do not even have a grave where they can pray for their dead.

Just as the reports coming out of the Centre for Historical Memory say, we must all assume ownership of the conflict.

It has been difficult for the state to remember even its own victims. Only in 2004, after abour 50 years of conflict, did the government establish an official day to pay homage to the police and military personnel who died in the conflict, and initiated the construction of a monument to them in Bogota.

Outside the capital, there are even fewer initiatives for remembering those who died and disappeared in the conflict, because so many people are still afraid.

Any process of reconciliation in Colombia, from the formal peace process right down to the simplest activities carried out by its citizens, should promote the rebuilding of trust, the recognition of actions taken against one another, and the formation of new social relationships.

A country can have peace on paper, but without a resilient social fabric, conflict will persist.

Rodrigo Sandoval Araujo is a Colombian blogger whose background is in studied communications and political science. (Blog: El bayabuyiba)

More IWPR's Global Voices