Nearly two years into peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s oldest armed insurgency, some of the 6.5 million victims of the half-century-long war will finally have seats at the negotiating table in Havana, Cuba.
In what negotiators called a historic declaration, the Colombian government and FARC negotiators released a document in June laying out a plan for including victims in the process that seeks to bring one chapter of the Western hemisphere’s longest-running internal conflict to a close.
Throughout the month of July, the United Nations offices in Colombia and the National University’s Center for Peace Process Analysis and Monitoring coordinated three regional victims’ forums in the cities of Villavicencio, Barrancabermeja and Barranquilla. The university center’s director, Alejo Vargas, estimated that a total of 1,600 victims attended the forums.
“We hope to give priority to victims, whether they are victims of the guerillas, the state or paramilitaries,” said Vargas in an interview with Caracol News, referencing three of the key players in the complex struggle for land and resources that has displaced millions of Colombians. Vargas said the forums would include victims from prior to 1985, the cut-off date implemented under the 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law, as well as victims representing various groups, including Afro-Colombians, indigenous communities and women, as well as those affected by different categories of human rights violations.
According to the Colombian government’s Center for Historical Memory, those violations include 5.7 million forcibly displaced persons (equal to 1.5 times the population of Los Angeles), 218,000 homicides and 25,000 forcibly disappeared persons. Some non-governmental organizations, like the National Movement for Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE, for its name in Spanish), say the last figure is actually much higher, estimating there may be as many as 70,000 cases of disappeared persons. Eighty percent of conflict-related deaths have been categorized as noncombatants, illustrating the extent to which the conflict has impacted the civilian population.
The Colombia peace talks have received support from other countries, including Venezuela and Chile, which are accompanying the process, and Cuba and Norway, which are acting as guarantors. U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden expressed support for peace and human rights in a visit to Colombia in June, shortly after the U.S. announced a $420,000 contribution to support the peace process. This amount, however, pales in comparison to the roughly $7 billion in military aid the U.S. has sent to Colombia since 2000, making Colombia the world’s top recipient of U.S. military aid outside of the Middle East. The $420,000 in aid to the peace talks represents .006 percent of that total.
The regional victims’ forums will culminate August 3-5 in a National Victims Forum in the southwestern city of Cali, one of the regions hardest hit by violence, displacement and poverty. The meeting will give victims the opportunity to summarize and fine-tune the proposals that delegates will take to the Victims’ Round Table in Havana when the next round of talks resumes on August 12.
Still, the 15 confirmed seats at the table in Havana are no substitute for the large number of victims and the diverse sectors of Colombian civil society that they represent.
And despite the negotiators’ newfound willingness to include victims in the dialogue process, some rights groups question whether victims are truly a priority for the Colombian government.
“It’s been three years since the Victims Law was passed,” said a MOVICE spokesperson based in Cali. “There are more than 6 million registered victims and nearly 25 million acres of stolen land. In three years only 865,000 acres of land have been marked for return and 250,000 victims have received any reparations. At that rate, how long will victims have to wait?”