Walking the Tightrope: Justice and Peace in the Colombia-FARC Deal

On June 23, 2016, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos emerged from four years of peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a rebel group that had waged a bloody campaign against the government since the 1960s. At a ceremony with the leader of FARC, Santos agreed to a joint ceasefire and a formal peace deal that would be presented to the Colombian people in a referendum. After 52 years, a civil war that had killed nearly a quarter million people was over. 

Leaders from around the world rejoiced at the deal. US Secretary of State John Kerry called it “transformational moment for the Colombian people.” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon hailed the negotiations as “an inspiration for all.” Even Evo Morales and Nicolás Maduro, the left-wing leaders of Bolivia and Venezuela who rarely find themselves on the same page as the United States, praised the agreement. International support for the deal came to a peak with that year’s Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to President Santos in recognition of his efforts toward “peace and reconciliation.”

Among the people of Colombia, however, the deal wasn’t met with such universal acclaim. The October 2 referendum, in which Santos had predicted an easy win for the peace deal, narrowly rejected the agreement in a 50.2% to 49.7% vote. Santos renegotiated the agreement with FARC during the month following the referendum, but had learned his lesson. This time he sent the deal to a Congress for approval, eschewing a public vote. Since the referendum, the President’s approval rating has fallen to 24% according to Gallup, a far cry from his 82% approval at the outset of his administration. What explains the gap between international support for the deal and the distrust within Colombia?

Caption: Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos, left, shakes hands with FARC Guerrilla Leader Timochenko Jiménez, right, after agreeing to provisions for a peace deal mediated by Cuba President Raúl Castro, 23 Sept. 2015.
The answer to this question isn’t particular to Juan Manuel Santos; it isn’t even specific to the FARC-Colombia conflict. Rather, the tension in Colombia touches on a divide between peace and justice that every country emerging from war must face. When we hear the words “peace” and “justice,” we often think of them as synonyms. However, the two values don’t always overlap, especially when it comes to countries transitioning from armed conflict. We can imagine an unjust peace, where both sides give up arms but no one is punished for their abuses of human rights. We can also imagine a situation in which justice is achieved but peace remains out of reach: A government can punish rebels for rights violations, but the threat of punishment might discourage other rebels from coming to the table. By learning about how Colombia is currently grappling with transitional justice, we can draw lessons about how peace and justice in other parts of the world. 

There are two sides in the peace vs. justice debate. A view often held by human rights activists is that justice is a condition for, rather than an obstacle to, long-term peace. Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch notes that if those who have committed war crimes and human rights abuses aren’t held accountable, peace will not be “sustainable.” The deal will fail to address the underlying problem of impunity, and future violators of human rights will commit crimes without fear of punishment. The opposing view, more often proposed by diplomats and military officials, proposes that an attempt at accountability can backfire and end up prolonging conflict. Jack Snyder of Columbia University and Leslie Vinjamuri of Georgetown University argues that “justice does not lead; it follows.” Amnesty and other strategies may be important steps in achieving an end to conflict, and only after the end of a conflict can institutions become strong enough to hold violators of human rights accountable.

In cases like the Colombian government’s negotiations with FARC, achieving a balance between peace and justice is no easy task. David Tolbert of the International Center for Transitional Justice notes that whenever we evaluate whether to pursue peace or justice in a country emerging from conflict, we should look at the local circumstances and the issues that matter in victims’ daily lives. To understand the divide between those who rejected the peace deal and those who favored it, we have to understand the history of the conflict.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym FARC, formed in 1964 under the leadership of Colombian Communist Party member Manuel Marulanda. FARC’s initial goal was an ideological one, providing services to Marxist communes in southern Colombia, defending their territory against government forces, and calling for less U.S. involvement at the height of the Cold War. In more recent years, FARC members have expressed a variety of motivations for their fight against Bogotá. While some maintain ideological opposition to the Washington-allied central government, a 2003 UN report most fighters join the organization seeking belonging, escape from poverty, or even a “spirit of adventure.” Still others join out of revenge or because they have had relatives who fought.

Caption: Former hostage José Armando Acuña, right, hugs his father after being rescued from FARC captivity, 11 Feb. 2011.
Early in their fight against the Colombian government, FARC turned to kidnapping and extortion for funding. In 1982, FARC decided on a new strategy to finance its war, allowing coca farmers to operate in their territory but highly taxing the cocaine trade. The group, which has been designated by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization, received international attention for the high-profile kidnapping of Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt in 2002. During her six-year captivity, Betancourt and her fellow captives suffered beatings, deprivation, and sexual abuse before finally being rescued by a Colombian government operation in 2008. 

The human toll of FARC’s decades-long clash with the Colombian government goes far beyond the harm done to kidnapping victims. Government figures put the death toll of the FARC-Colombia conflict at 220,000, more than many estimates of the number of deaths in the 2003 US War in Iraq. The 6.9 million internally displaced persons in Colombia comprised the greatest number of IDPs worldwide in 2016, surpassing those of Syria and Iraq.
Growing up in a country with so many people displaced, kidnapped, and killed, a peace deal that allows militants to reenter politics with impunity looks less like a black-and-white issue than it does from an outsider’s perspective. Over the next few months, I will use this blog to think about the specifics of the FARC peace deal, the reactions of the Colombian people and global stakeholders, and the implications for other conflicts. Colombia’s transition to peace is an enormously important event for those who have been affected by the FARC conflict, but its significance goes beyond borders. For other countries resolving civil conflict, Colombia provides a framework for balancing peace and justice.

Robert Carlson is a T’20 Undergraduate 

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