Why Truth and Justice Matter in Colombia?

On 14 May 2021, Christian Aid and ABColombia hosted an event with the Transitional Justice Institute: Why Truth and Justice Matter in Colombia. 

An overarching theme throughout the event was the pivotal role that the international community can play in supporting Colombia’s pathway to truth and justice, by making victims visible and supporting the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) to ensure  accountability. 

Please see a YouTube video recording of the event hyperlinked below, followed by a summary of some key points raised by our panel of experts. 

Colombia’s peace process

implementation of the peace agreement, in its entirety, provides the best way of addressing many of the major challenges which Colombia faces today.” (Eamon Gilmore) 

Eamon Gilmore underlined the importance of the Peace Accord not only in addressing the root causes of the conflict, but equally the current situation in Colombia. This is because the Accord “addressed the interlinked root causes of the conflict: inequality, stigmatisation, political participation, resources, land ownership and drug trafficking.” 

As with the current protests, dialogue and concrete practical solutions are the only way to address such a serious and complex situation. The National Commission for Security Guarantees has to be utilised to its maximum potential to reach such solutions.” (Eamon Gilmore)

Pablo de Grieff warned of a certain ambivalence towards the comprehensive implementation of the peace process, shown for instance in the lack of progress on points one and two of the Accord – rural reform and political participation – on which further progress is essential. 

Rural reform – in a country with shameful patterns of wealth distribution, including land – is not having an easier time than it did in the past. But this is a part of the Accord, [where] it is absolutely essential to make progress… 

…The second point of the Accord on political participation, cannot be said to be the object of a more serious commitment either. Sadly, this would have been extraordinarily helpful in channeling, the perfectly justified, social discontent in recent weeks.” (Pablo de Grieff)

“Transitional justice can make important contributions, when it is implemented comprehensively as a coherent policy; transitional justice contributes to not only recognising people as victims, but also, and very importantly, as rights holders. Transitional justice contributes to promoting civic trust and particularly trust in State Institutions. More remotely, but similarly, transitional justice can make a contribution to strengthening the rule of law and contribute to processes of social integration.” (Pablo de Grieff)

Along with the sentiment of the panel, Pablo de Grieff underlined the importance of the international community being present “for the long haul” to support the long-term horizons of Colombia’s peace process, as well as making itself present with respect to accompanying various other processes on which successful and sustainable transitional justice depends. 

…for example, [accompanying processes include] very difficult topics that were not discussed in the agreement, but that are absolutely critical for the future of the country, including security sector reform, the strengthening of oversight mechanisms and courts … the international community can provide both incentives and the forums to engage in [these] conversations” (Pablo de Grieff) 

In light of the recent protests, and in order to address non-repetition, the JEP have also issued a statement stating that there should be a reform of the security services, and this is…where the international community and Ireland have experience that could be useful to Colombia, especially on issues to do with independent monitoring mechanisms.” (Louise Winstanley) 

Pablo de Grieff also reminds the audience that there are structures that the Truth Commission has established outside of Bogotá, that receive less attention yet are just as important, andhave the potential for engaging positive regional conversations that need to be supported by the international community”. 

As a Colombian, of course I am extremely grateful for the role that the international community has played, thus far, but it seems that we are in many ways just at the beginning, and some of the topics that are left are precisely the ones where the greatest assistance will be necessary.” (Pablo de Grieff) 

Pablo de Grieff outlined the significant contribution that truth and justice has brought to Colombian society in terms of the visibility of victims in the conflict. 

“There is no going back from that; victims have gained a place in the public sphere, that of course they deserve, and that the country needs in order to be able to say that it is involved in the establishment of a shared political process.” (Pablo de Grieff) 

Victims and intersectional experiences of violence 

María Adelaida Palacio Puerta, SISMA Mujer, highlighted the remaining obstacles in achieving justice for victims of sexual violence, such as institutional mechanisms and prevailing machoistic attiudes that violate the rights and bodies of women and leave women feeling guilty for their experience of violence. More broadly, while women’s movements were successful in achieving a gender perspective and a recognition of gender based violence against women in the context of the Colombian conflict, in the Peace Accord the 122 gender measures which they achieved within the Accord are not being fully implemented. 

We are very concerned that the regime [Colombian Government] is not interested. We don’t know who is responsible for the response to sexual violence against against women – the authorities are not giving any serious response to this question…Women feel guilty if they’re victims of sexual violence…the experiences of women who seek to speak out and to seek justice makes it clear that they are marginalised and silenced by cultural attitudes.”  (María Adelaida Palacio Puerta) 

Specifically, Afro-descendant and indigenous women experience gender discrimination combined with historical attitudes linked to slavery and discrimination. 

The Afro-Colombian women have been clear that the violence which they have been subjected to by armed groups is a continuation of a cycle of violence that they have been victims of…and that the role of the state has done absolutely nothing to counter these actions.” (María Adelaida Palacio Puerta) 

In this context, Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction of Peace (JEP) must appoint a public prosecutor specialised in violence against women. María Adelaida Palacio Puerta and Louise Winstanley underlined the need for a macro case on conflict-related sexual violence at the national level, in order for the Truth Commission to help to identify patterns of violence and to reveal the truth about how armed actors used sexual violence. 

…the Macro Case on violence against women should explicitly take note of the stories told by the women in order to ensure that its conclusions reflect the lived and historical realities of women…[recognising] the similarity between modern expressions and past expressions of violence against women.” (María Adelaida Palacio Puerta) 

Alongside the principal demand of a woman occupying the role of a specialised public prosecutor in the JEP, María Adelaida Palacio Puerta underlined the importance for an adequate reparation model to be established for women who’ve been victims of sexual and gender based violence within the context of the conflict. 

Business actors: accountability ?

Laura underlines the importance of civil society, who mobilised for accountability and advanced this issue into the design of the current mechanisms. However, there is an increased legal power from economic actors, speaking to the global process that Leigh Payne outlined of corporate actors vetoing accountability mechanisms. 

 “But there is increased veto power … negative to accountability efforts, [including] a business elite very close to high levels of government to facilitate these types of processes”. (Laura Bernal-Bermúdez

Further challenges lie in that Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) can essentially only investigate cases of third parties who have voluntarily requested to be put on trial; according to an investigation by La Silla Vacia, only 2% out of those (657) third parties are business actors. 

“…we only see business people coming to the JEP when investigations in the public prosecutor’s office in the ordinary jurisdiction are advancing. That’s the only incentive and so those actors that have historically eluded justice [remain] … we still have that gap in terms of accountability.” (Laura Bernal-Bermúdez) 

However, Colombia’s Truth Commission is different from other countries in that it included discussions from the outset regarding how to involve actors from the business sector; the upcoming report will include this issue. 

Crucially, the international community plays an important role in applying pressure by being aware of these processes, tracking them, and supporting the work of victims and their advocates. Laura Bernal-Bermúdez reports evidence in Colombia of cases where the participation of the international community – by INGOs, the Inter-American System of Human Rights, and even foreign governments – has assisted the challenging process of achieving convictions. 

[International pressure is] “…key to support the efforts of victims, their advocates, and the institutional innovators in the courts and in the Truth Commission trying to advance these cases” Laura Bernal-Bermúdez