Colombia sets an example for peace and reconciliation


The article below explains why Colombia's peace agreement and the way to achieve it can constitute a good example for others to follow.

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Colombia sets an example for peace and reconciliation

By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan

“Peace after 267,162 dead,” declared the somber yet celebratory headline this week in Colombia’s leading newspaper, El Tiempo, one line of black type on stark white, filling the entire front page. After 52 years, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebels, known as the FARC, signed a deal that brings to an end the world’s longest-running civil war.

Clad in white shirts as a sign of peace, President Juan-Manuel Santos — whose own family, like so many Colombians, includes victims — embraced the FARC leader known as Timochenko, who asked for “forgiveness for all the pain” inflicted by killings, kidnappings, bombings, forced conscription of children, landmines, and fighting that displaced seven million people. Beaming in the background in matching white were UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Cuba’s Raul Castro, and Secretary of State John Kerry, signaling international backing. The accord goes to a vote Sunday before the Colombian people, most of whom never lived a day without war in their homeland.

The significance of the deal can’t be overstated. The end of the first, last, and longest Cold War-era armed conflict in our region means the Western Hemisphere is at peace. The accord — four years in the making, to balance demobilization, political participation, accountability, and forgiveness — required that the government and the rebels take tremendous risks, which deserve to be validated by a vote allowing Colombia to turn a new page.

Cartagena’s fairy-tale colonial architecture and beguiling Caribbean culture inspired Gabriel García Márquez’s magical realism, and it feels fitting that it was where an unimaginable peace became reality. A decade ago, I lived in Colombia as the Globe’s Latin America correspondent, and the rebels’ grievances — which had morphed into a drug- and criminal-fueled enterprise, spawning backlash from right-wing paramilitaries — made it impossible to foresee this day.

“To see it end — to know the FARC will lay down their arms, and to hear the guerrilla leader ask forgiveness — makes this an historic moment, not just for Colombians but for all peoples of the world,” Colombia’s ambassador to Washington, and former defense minister, Juan Carlos Pinzón, told me. At the center of the deal are the victims, he insists, and their participation and compensation were essential.

The root causes of the insurgency — disparity between rural and urban, disenfranchised and elite — haven’t vanished. But the government has committed to investing in agriculture and infrastructure to create alternatives for poor farmers in coca-growing areas, to allow them to share in the relative prosperity of a middle-income nation that enjoys free trade with the United States.

In the last few decades, accords ending insurgencies like Northern Ireland’s, civil wars such as El Salvador’s or injustices like South Africa’s apartheid sought peace and reconciliation, but often at a high price: impunity. Justice and accountability were largely ignored in the interest of peace. Even when there wasn’t a blanket amnesty, prosecutions have been rare to avoid cracking a fragile peace. Colombia is trying something new: mandatory confessions, with penalties of restricted liberty for five to eight years, restitution and community service. It’s a stronger punishment than any non-defeated adversary has ever accepted. Those who refuse to acknowledge crimes may be imprisoned for up to 20 years.

Why does this matter? A society moves forward not by forgetting the past, but by holding it up to the light. History proves you can’t build democratic institutions or a stable society if there is impunity. The looming question is how much justice actually gets done. Colombia is the first member state of the International Criminal Court to sign a peace agreement, and authorities in The Hague will be watching that no war criminals walk free. The world will be watching too, judging Colombia on whether it pursues enough accountability to make victims whole.

Which brings us to the takeaway. If carefully implemented, Colombia’s peace can set an example of how to end a civil war when neither side is vanquished on the battlefield, and how to ensure abusers are accountable and victims get justice. The conditions of every conflict are unique, but those looking ahead to post-war scenarios in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and beyond should be paying close attention to Colombia’s example.