Last week (July 18-19), a group of 25 Colombian civil society leaders from the provinces of Córdoba, Sucre and Bolívar gathered at the University of Cartagena to strategize on how to face the issues surrounding reconciliation on Colombia’s Atlantic coast.
You might ask:
Isn’t there an on-going civil war in Colombia?
Doesn’t reconciliation usually happen after the fighting has stopped?
Just over two years ago, President Alvaro Uribe signed the “Justice and Peace Law” (also known as Law 975) to oversee the demobilization of one of Colombia’s illegal armed groups, the paramilitaries (also known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia-AUC). [Overview of Colombian armed groups] This law has been controversial from the very beginning, seen as but a slap on the wrist for the perpetrators of some of Colombia’s most horrendous crimes. Check out Smoke and Mirrors for Human Rights Watch’s critique of the initial Justice and Peace law.
Despite some improvements (imposed by Colombia’s Constitutional Court), history is proving the law’s critics to be right. The Organization of American States Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia (MAPP-OEA) published a report earlier this month which highlighted the re-arming of demobilized paramilitaries across Colombia [map/analysis]. Almost daily I learn of the latest victims of “re-armed” or “new” paramilitary violence. Just two weekends ago, here in Sincelejo – a city of about 250,000 inhabitants – there were five murders in three days, mostly attributed to demobilized paramilitaries.
Another important aspect of the Justice and Peace law is that it mandated the creation of the National Commission for Reparations and Reconciliation, to oversee the reincorporation of demobilized paramilitaries into society as well as ensure their victims’ rights to reparations.
A primary concern with regards to the National Comission at this point is that after two years of an eight year mandate, not a single victim has received reparations. Of course this pales in comparison to the larger concerns that the entire demobilization process is proving itself ineffective in punishing the perpetrators and in in dismantling the paramilitary criminal structures.
This week, a process that already seemed to be moving painstakingly slow, is coming dangerously close to grinding to a halt. Today’s news has centered around a group of demobilized paramilitary leaders who are refusing to testify, essentially challenging the will the Colombian government to enforce the conditions under which they demobilized. Currently, President Uribe is facing off with the supreme court over the legal status of the paramilitaries’ crimes in a confrontation that has many here fearful the whole process could collapse.
Last Friday at the inauguration of the latest legislative session, Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez – President of the Colombian Senate, whose party is part of President Uribe’s ruling coalition and typically seen as an Uribe ally – unequivocally stated her concerns over the implementation of the Justice and Peace law:
It is worrying that in two years only sixty of the nearly 2,800 [paramilitaries] covered by the “Justice and Peace” law have [testified]. At this rate how long will it take to hear all of them? If it continues like this, there will be nobody left to give reparations, or to make peace.
Colombia has many different organizations that do amazing work for victims’ rights despite facing incredible risks, too many to list here. In June of 2005, just days after the Justice and Peace Law was signed, a new coalition comprised of many of these organizations came into being, the National Victims Movement. The National Victims Movement has taken the lead in the struggle for truth, justice and reparations as the basis for reconciliation with paramilitaries in Colombia. They have also taken a clear stance rejecting the Justice and Peace law and the National Commission of Reparations and Reconciliation which it created. This is a controversial position that not all Colombian peace and human rights’ NGOs have taken. There continues to be much debate about how best to work for truth, justice, reparations and reconciliation at this time.
At this point you might ask:
Is there any way forward?
That’s what we’re trying to figure out.
The Role of the Church
Last year Fundación Social published a major survey of Colombians’ Perceptions and Opinions of Justice, Truth, Reparations and Reconciliation [75 page pdf]. On a question that asked what institutions would be most important in achieving reconciliation in Colombia, 70% said “the church,” making it by far the most common response.
Churches here on the Atlantic coast are proactively stepping up to that call. Given the complex scenario for reconciliation in Colombia outlined above, we know it won’t be easy. But we are calling on all who will respond to come together and discuss how to move forward towards reconciliation in these difficult times.
So far we have organized workshops on reconciliation facilitated by the staff of Fundación Social in Córdoba, Sucre and Bolívar, that brought together not just religious leaders (both protestant and Catholic) but also civil society leaders of all stripes, including victim’s organizations. The goal of these workshops is to build trust, strengthen the networks of organizations, communities and churches working for peace, to learn about how reconciliation has happened in places such as Guatemala, South Africa and Peru, and to begin to discuss what true reconciliation, one that is respectful of victims’ rights, might look like in Colombia.
Citizens’ Reconciliation Commission
Last week’s meeting in Cartagena brought together delegates from each of the three previous workshops to discuss next steps. We were also joined by staff of the International Center for Transitional Justice and a member of Peru’s Truth Commission. Those gathered decided that there was a need for a new movement from the grassroots and that they would call themselves the Citizens’ Reconciliation Commission. They were clear that the role of the Commission was to work for truth, justice, reparations and reconciliation, that is should lean towards making proposals more than standing in protest, and that it should be in dialogue with victims, victimizers, the state and the National Commission for Reparations and Reconciliation.
Members of the Citizens’ Reconciliation Commission are moving forward in two complimentary directions. Some are returning to their communities to replicate the workshops and deepen the discussions with their communities, while others are working to organize workshops in the other five Atlantic coast provinces.
So let the word go out that despite the difficulties Colombians are continuing to proclaim that “steadfast love and faithfulness” are still alive here, and that one day “righteousness and peace will kiss.”