Worldview: Echoes of North in Colombia peace deal

The hope is that, like Northern Ireland, Colombia will swallow the bitter pill of “amnesty” in order to grasp the bigger prize of peace.

There are substantial echoes of our own peace process and the Belfast Agreement in last week’s welcome breakthrough in Colombia’s own process. A key element of a deal agreed between its government and the Farc guerrilla movement sets a six-month timeframe for a final agreement and has raised the real prospect of peace in a 51-year civil war which resulted in more than 200,000 deaths and six million internally displaced.

Although the devil remains in the unnegotiated detail, not least in the mechanics of decommissioning and reintegration of rebels into society, the deal – and the language of Farc leaders – strongly suggests that the peace process has become irreversible.

The agreement on “transitional justice” – how to deal with crimes committed by all sides during the conflict – incorporates important elements from both Irish and South African peace processes, in the latter case its Truth and Reconciliation public accounting for crime that has proved elusive here.

Both Irish and British governments – and almost certainly Sinn Féin – have contributed in the background to the discussions and Eamon Gilmore has been drafted in on behalf of the EU. Like our own process, Washington has also played a major role.


The partial deal was announced in Havana where talks have been ongoing for four years, in the presence of Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and Farc commander-in-chief Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri ("Timoshenko").

Santos, however, faces strong resistance at home from victims and right-wing politicians such as former president Álvaro Uribe to what is being characterised as an “impunity deal” giving amnesty to killers. The “symmetry” in the treatment of guerillas and state forces is deeply controversial and not there in the Belfast Agreement.

Right-wing militias

Uribe, long associated with the establishment of right-wing militias involved in murderous attacks on civilians accused of backing Farc, may face charges himself, according to the state’s chief prosecutor.

His brother is currently on trial for founding his own paramilitary group. And between 2002 and 2008, Colombia’s military were also responsible under Uribe’s presidency for the extrajudicial execution of more than 3,500 innocent citizens to show positive results in the fight against the guerrillas.

Polls suggest that up to 90 per cent of the public want to see Farc members punished, while Human Rights Watch has complained that the deal would "deny justice to thousands of victims of grave violations of human rights and to humanitarian law by allowing their abusers to escape meaningful punishment". The International Criminal Court imposes obligations on states to ensure that those who commit war crimes are punished .

Like the Belfast Agreement, the transitional justice deal involves reductions in jail terms to be served for the most serious offences, if admitted, but it also provides a full amnesty for lesser offences. Thousands of low-level Farc fighters would be granted an amnesty for “political” crimes, but Santos said several dozen rebel leaders could be subject to the punishment, possibly including Londoño.

Truth commission

Fighters who confess to serious crimes and co-operate with a special tribunal/truth commission, staffed by Colombian and international judges, will face alternative penalties that will entail a “restriction of liberty” and some form of community service from five to eight years. Those who do not acknowledge responsibility and are found guilty will be prosecuted by ordinary justice and face up to 20 years in prison.

The tribunal will also have jurisdiction over state actors, including security forces, and others directly or indirectly responsible for violating human rights during the armed conflict. Press reports say the prosecutor general’s office is investigating some 100,000 criminal charges made against Farc.

Other elements of the full agreement will include rural reform, particularly on land ownership, a land fund and bank to assist redistribution, and measures to assist in the substitution of drug crops. There will be no special deals for drug-trafficking crimes “unrelated to rebellion”. But small-scale producers will not be prosecuted.

On political reform there will be measures to assist new parties to organise, special protection for former Farc members who enter politics – many of its members were assassinated in the 1980s and 1990s in a previous attempt to enter politics – access to media outlets and new reserved seats in Congress for conflict areas (ie for Farc).

Santos has also pledged to put the whole deal, like the Belfast Agreement, to a public vote. The hope is that, like the voters in Northern Ireland, the people of Colombia will swallow the bitter pill of "amnesty" in order to grasp the bigger prize of peace.