Last week, in a historic joint statement issued from Havana, Cuba, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) maximum leader Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri announced the establishment of a transitional justice framework.
Finally those responsible for the atrocities committed in the 51-year-old conflict between the Colombian State and the FARC guerrilla shall be prosecuted.
Santos and Londoño, who goes by the alias “Timochenko”, announced the establishment of a special tribunal that shall judge those responsible for the conflict’s atrocities: FARC soldiers, members of the Armed Forces and non-combatants.
Those who immediately confess their crimes will face confinement —although not jail — of between five and eight years. Those who confess after the start of their trial may be subjected to five to eight years in prison, converting into non-jail-based sanctions if the culprit commits to reintegration through social work. Those who do not confess, but are found guilty, face up to 20 years in prison.
Justice is served?
Over the past few days, critics have stood against what they argue is an excessively lax justice framework. The fear is that the transitional justice agreed upon by Santos and Timochenko shall result in large-scale impunity, and in no way compensate for the victims’ suffering or ensure an adequate punishment for the guerrilla. Legitimate or not, the objections raised beg two fundamental questions: How were the peace talks structured? And what is the type of justice they are based upon?
Negotiations between the government and the guerrilla were never designed as a trial against the latter. The FARC did not sit down in Cuba to discuss the terms of their own subjection to justice, but rather to put an end to the armed conflict in a way that could be considered acceptable by its own militia and the government alike. Large-scale and long-term prison sentences were never on the table to begin with.
Most importantly, the type of justice upon which the entire peace process was premised aimed to do more than merely punish those responsible for the conflict’s violence. It sought to restore the relationship with their victims by forcing them to admit responsibility for the crimes committed, and shed new light on them.
A new chapter
The founding principle of transitional justice is not punishment, but reconciliation, which can only be achieved through the culprits’ commitment to uncover the truth behind their atrocities, compensate the victims and guarantee that such violent crimes shall never be repeated.
The key question at hand is therefore not what type of justice would ensure the longest and toughest punishment for the guerrilla, but which kind would best serve in a case as complex as Colombia’s. It is hard to view how retaliation alone could be the best means to fully and durably heal the tragedies left behind by conflict, all the more so in a context where so many non-combatant sectors of Colombia’s society contributed to increase the number of casualties.
The armed struggle did not just claim several hundred thousands lives: it shattered the country’s social fabric, and severed the tie between the State and its people. To restore both, a justice framework premised on retaliation alone will not do.
Peace does not need punishment for its own sake: it needs truth. Should all those responsible for the conflict’s atrocities shed new light on their crimes, Colombia may not only achieve justice, but open a new chapter wherein its violent past could be overcome once and for all.