Peace in Colombia?

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(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
By Javier Giraldo M., S.J.

Yes, there is a peace euphoria, producing slogans or clichés that you hear repeated everywhere, but when you dig a little deeper into what is behind the slogans or into the aspects that those superficial phrases are avoiding, you can see many things to worry about.

In the last four years Colombia has experienced a search for peace between the government and the FARC guerrillas, after 60 years of armed conflict that has left many millions of victims and has led to the progressive degradation of the war in many of its aspects. This process has been revealing the labyrinths, some with no exit, into which we have to penetrate in order to reach peace agreements. The country endured 33 years of failed peace processes throughout the last cycle of violence, not counting the negotiations, agreements and the elimination of ex-combatants from prior cycles who were identified with those causes. A long tradition demonstrates that agreements are not carried out and that rebel combatants are eliminated after they disarm. And not only the combatants, but also the social and political forces that are close to them.

A few days ago they signed a document that sets forth the fifth of the six points on the agenda agreed upon at the beginning of the dialogs. It already includes the commitment to a bilateral cease-fire, supposedly definitive. However, the country is profoundly polarized by the growth and the growing power of extreme right-wing political positions. It appears as if the positions of the Cold War are coming back to life, powered by the monstrous economic strength of multinational businesses that are rabidly defending their exclusionary interests, using their extremely powerful resources.

Although it’s true that there is a peace euphoria that translates into slogans or clichés that you hear everywhere, when you look a little deeper into what is behind those slogans or at the aspects those superficial phrases are leaving out, you see a lot of concerns. Some of the most critical analysts have called attention to certain contradictions, such as the following:

• They’re using double-talk: On one hand they say that the process has not been approached as the surrender of rebels who are criminals, but rather as a recognition that the war has had its roots in our society and that both sides have committed crimes. But on the other hand, the government, away from the negotiating table, is completely focused on surrender, on defeat, and on the submission to a legality and to a power structure that is allegedly democratic. The government and the ruling class repeat that the process is the result of the government’s military triumph that has brought the guerrillas to their knees and has forced them to the negotiating table.
• Even though in the formality at the negotiating table they agreed to discuss the roots of the conflict, especially in the areas of land and democracy, the government’s flat refusal to touch even slightly on the economic model and on the political model left all of the proposals referring to those roots of the conflict as “provisos” or “records” that were impossible to discuss. The government repeats that it will not negotiate the current model and only invites the guerrillas to, once they have laid down their arms, to take part in political campaigns to work for a society that would support their proposals for reform. That would be normal if we had democracy, but the government knows that as long as there is no reform of the electoral system, one of the most corrupt in the world, and in the property system of the mass news media, neither the guerrillas or any opposition movement can achieve an electoral victory.
• Many endless arguments finally led the rebels to accept the similarity of treatment of the combatants on both sides, disregarding the fact that the government’ crimes were immensely greater, and disregarding the characteristics of political crime and of the right to rebel. They also had to accept immunity of ex-presidents from prosecution and to accept the breaches of command responsibility, both principles established in the Statute of Rome, the disregard for which expands and reinforces the routine of impunity.
• The development of the dialogs has produced perplexity in the sectors of our society that have the most awareness, when they see that the government has simply relied on the denial of the greatest obstacles to peace. They treat them as either nonexistent or as realities from the past, now overcome: paramilitarism, the military doctrine of an internal enemy and of national security and the criminalization of social protest. Nor can anyone understand why the negotiations have not reached an agreement on the reduction of the government’s armed forces. Instead they announced that the forces will be increased and beefed up. Everybody is wondering: if it’s true that the war is over, why are the monstrous military expenditures increasing instead of coming to an end?
• The recourse to a transitional justice, which is the point that has been reached on the subject of victims of the conflict, one of the most controversial aspects and the one that has consumed the most time in the negotiations, is unnerving for numerous analysts on both sides. They have agreed on a Special Jurisdiction for Peace, designed by a group of high-ranking jurists, according to basic criteria for transitional justice. Supposedly, national law will not operate there; rather, just international treaties. There will be justices who are also foreigners. Those who confess to international crimes, whether guerrillas, soldiers, business owners or others, will receive alternative penalties, not prison, and those who do not confess will be sentenced to prison. Many have praised the formula, even though it is criticized because of the flagrant violation of some of the articles of the Statute of Rome in order to favor agents of the government. However, the formula harbors two principles that could ruin even the limited expectation of justice: the principles of prioritization and of putting the focus on those most responsible. And there are already ongoing applications of those principles by the Colombian legal system that, when faced with actual events that constitute genocide, demonstrate the corrupt utilization of those two principles as privileged mechanisms for impunity. That makes one view the justice agreement with concerns.
• In general, the methods of persuasion that have been used to promote the peace agreements rely mostly on the practical impossibility of achieving social change by means of armed conflict, given the gigantic and overwhelming military power of the government, supported by the imperial power with the greatest destructive reach in the recent history of humanity: the United States. Yet every moral consideration for the clamors and sufferings that led the combatants to rise up in arms against the government is conspicuous by its absence. The predominant political discourse is pragmatic and selfish and demonstrates arrogant indifference to the real possibilities of justice. In speeches in foreign countries, President Santos has insisted, above all, on a peace that will benefit business leaders and transnational investors, who will be able to intensify their extraction of natural resources. But meanwhile his government represses with cruel violence the social protests of communities affected by the ecological and social destruction that has been caused and continues to be caused by these multinational companies.

The extreme right condemns the process because it favors impunity for the rebels, certainly responsible for not a few war crimes. But popular movements feel more fear of the impunity of the powerful and of the paramilitaries and the agents of the government, whose war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide greatly exceed, both in quantity and in cruelty, the crimes of the insurgency. Their impunity translates into the continuation of their repressive power, power that will continue to affect the most unprotected sectors of society and will block with violence the social reforms they calling for so urgently.

In spite of the formal efforts to construct the rule of law, especially since the Constitution of 1991, a powerful minority made up of transnational interests continues to exercise the real power. They actually make up a government that is schizophrenic in that the legal system supports the formalities, and the thousand clandestine networks of para-governmental violence support the real power. Its relationship with the government is denied forcefully by the officials who make it happen and by the mass communication media.

The first recent experience of transitional justice was carried out by a government of the extreme right, the government of President Alvaro Uribe in 2005, with Statute 975, paradoxically called the “Peace and Justice Law”. At that time there was a negotiation with the paramilitaries, who had openly supported his candidacy for president. After the negotiations with the most notorious paramilitary leaders, he obtained their submission to an indulgent program in which the maximum penalty fluctuated between five and eight years, even though the appalling crimes in every case totaled many thousands. Supposedly 32,000 paramilitaries demobilized, perpetrators of 42,000 atrocious crimes, but only 22 of them were sentenced to the minimum period and nearly all of them have been free since 2015. To that strategy of negotiating with groups that could not be identified as political criminals, since they were secret agents of the government itself, ex-President Uribe added other strategies so that the paramilitaries could continue to be active: setting up a system of legalized paramilitarism, connecting several million people with military assignments through networks of informants and collaborators and amending the statutes to allow private security companies to work on war-related duties as aides to the official Armed Forces. The illegal paramilitary system, in powerful bands, promptly returned to their criminal activities with the same objectives, i.e.: persecution of any social or protest movement by means of writings that were obviously anti-communist, counter-insurgent, and fascist; unconditional support of the government and its Armed Forces; support for transnational companies whose ecological destruction was called “progress”, and financially supported by the most powerful drug trafficking networks. The government has coined a new acronym for them as common criminals, apart from any relation with the government. Today it articulates and coordinates with calculated cunning the legal and illegal paramilitary gangs, protected by a language that shields them with absolute denial of their existence.

Ever since the beginning of the current negotiations, the FARC has insisted that they would never submit to the Colombian legal system, given its extreme corruption, its responsibility for the hideous impunity for the most vicious crimes of the government and of the paramilitaries, its shameful favoritism and dependence on the regime. These concepts are shared by large numbers of the population who consider the legal system to be morally collapsed. Many formulas seeking impartiality have been proposed, including the creation of a regional criminal court supported by progressive Latin American governments. And while the insurgency was seeking a more independent legal system, the agents of the government were in torment because of what happened in other countries that had passed audacious impunity laws for the military and for officials. International tribunals later overturned these laws. Ex-President César Gaviria sent an open letter asking that such impunity measures be protected with certainty, to avoid an eventual subsequent rejection by international tribunals or by the national courts themselves. Because of that the Agreement also includes some protective mechanisms aimed at the future, so that national or international tribunals cannot reject such agreements at a later date. Yet such protections are fragile and when we analyze them, we see with even greater certainty how the legal system depends on politics and on the fluctuations in political power.

As this is written the definitive Agreement has not yet been signed, but it already appears that the process is irreversible and that in a few weeks they will be getting together a solemn ceremony for the signing. They have already agreed on a schedule for turning the weapons over to the United Nations and on the temporary location of the guerrilla fighters in 23 rural zones while they begin to implement the different points in the agreements. As the chief planner of negotiations for the government has admitted, what is to be signed is not really the peace, but rather a cease-fire. We will have to start building the peace, principally in the areas where the war has been the most intense. The country’s polarization is fierce right now and many of think that, if the deepest roots of the conflict, such as the extreme inequality, the concentration of land ownership, the lack of democracy and the government’s criminal tendency to repress every social protest and to destroy every movement based on the search for just and alternative models for society, if these issues are not resolved, the conflict will begin again and the consequences are impossible to foresee.

It must be pointed out that the Agreement, for now, will only be signed with the FARC guerrillas. The other guerrillas, who are important both in numbers and in history, are the National Liberation Army (ELN is the Spanish acronym.) They have not yet even been able to reach the minimal agreement of an agenda to start a dialog with the government, although there have been significant steps.

Javier Giraldo Moreno, S.J.
Rome, July 4, 2016

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