Last week, a Colombian political party marched through the capital city of Bogotá to remember the victims.
But which victims? In a nation that has as many as Colombia does, a little more specificity is needed. More than 220,000 have been killed in the half-century of conflict, the vast majority of them civilians, while millions more have been displaced.
But the victims this group honored with their chants and posters, and for whose deaths they still seek justice, were their peers, colleagues and friends. This march was for the thousands of members of the Patriotic Union (UP), a political party essentially driven to extinction, who were systematically eliminated by the Colombian state and its paramilitary allies.
“The combination of all forms of struggle”
The UP was created in 1985, during a previous round of peace negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), emerging as a joint political project of the Communist Party and the rebel group.
As journalist and conflict analyst Steven Dudley explained in the essential history of the UP, Walking Ghosts, the decision of the FARC and the Communists to create a new political party in 1985 was part of a strategy known as the “combination of all forms of struggle.”
In the midst of peace negotiations with the administration of President Belasio Betancur, the FARC leadership took advantage of the newly-formed UP and its supposed desire for a peace deal to simultaneously strengthen its military capacities. However, this combination proved deadly for the party.
Critics of the insurgency argued — not entirely without merit — that the UP was simply the civilian cover for the armed insurrection, and this rhetoric was used to justify the murder of political activists.
As soon as the UP began electing representatives to Colombia’s Congress the year after its creation, the assassinations began. While UP members were specifically targeted, anyone with even a whiff of sympathy for the leftist guerrillas faced the possibility of torture, disappearance and death at the hands of right-wing paramilitaries and their military and police allies.
After years of bloodshed, more than 3,000 UP members were dead or missing, decimating the party. It lost its legal status in 2002, and was only able to reestablish itself as a viable party last year.
The systematic nature of the murders led the human rights organization known as REINICIAR to sue the Colombian state through the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) for what they called the “political genocide” of the UP. While the IACHR found the case admissible, it rejected the claim that collective murder of the UP constituted “genocide” because the UP was not a “national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”
Will it work this time?
As negotiations between the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC enter their third year, the history of the UP is an essential component in understanding the rebel group’s hesitancy to hand in its arms and the threats faced by those who choose to struggle peacefully.
Sin justicia para las victimas de la UP no puede haber paz!!! pic.twitter.com/bJqwEhzZLB
— Unión Patriótica (@UP_Colombia) October 9, 2014
A significant portion of the preliminary deal on political participation — one of the six agenda points under discussion in Havana, Cuba — deals with the security the Colombian state would have to provide should a final agreement be signed and the guerrillas demobilize.
While the deal looks good on paper, the challenge will come with its enforcement. The state already struggles — whether because of general incompetence or choice — to protect threatened individuals. Some 30 human rights defenders have already been killed this year, and the National Protections Unit, the government entity charged with protecting threatened groups and individuals, faces alleged financial issues and accusations of corruption.
In order to avoid repeating the history of the UP and achieving a sustainable peace, the Colombian government needs to guarantee protection for demobilized FARC members and accountability for those who have threatened the non-violent left, human rights defenders and community activists.
No country that calls itself a democracy can tolerate, let alone participate in, the physical destruction and assassination of a political party. Those invested in the negotiations can only hope that this practice has become a thing of the past in Colombia.