Impunity Issue Looms Large Over Colombia’s Peace Process

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At a recent conference on Colombia’s peace process, President Juan Manuel Santos offered little indication the government is ready to make the concessions to rebel group the FARC that would likely be needed to end over 50 years of civil conflict.

On February 25, President Santos rejected the idea of total amnesty for members of Colombia’s guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) at a conference titled “Truth Commissions and Peace Processes: International Experiences and Challenges for Colombia.”

“We do not want to sign a peace agreement that is later overturned by the court,” Santos said, in reference to peace accords in other countries that granted amnesty to former combatants only to be ruled null and void by national or international judicial systems. Santos added the government’s objective is to achieve peace while obtaining the “maximum level of justice.”

Santos’ remarks could be in response to a December 2014 report (pdf) by the International Criminal Court (ICC) that stated the Court “has informed the Colombian authorities that a sentence that is grossly or manifestly inadequate, in light of the gravity of the crimes and the form of participation of the accused, would [invalidate] the genuineness of a national proceeding.” The ICC has jurisdiction over war crimes committed in Colombia since 2009, and crimes against humanity dating back to 2002.

Santos was also likely thinking of the United States, a key regional ally that has contributed billions of dollars in security aid since the turn of the century and that has standing extradition orders for several FARC leaders. On February 26, potential US presidential candidate Marco Rubio asked the country’s special envoy to the peace talks, Bernard Aronson, to “reaffirm” the United States’ commitment to seeing accused FARC leaders stand trial in the United States.

The conference also touched on how authorities would facilitate a peaceful transition to a post-conflict society should the FARC agree to a peace deal and demobilize. Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace, Sergio Jaramillo Caro, said a “security guarantee” by the armed forces in some remote areas of the country — presumably where the FARC have a presence — would be necessary in order to prevent elements of the guerrilla group from continuing criminal activities after the signing of a peace agreement.

Peace talks between the FARC and the government officially began in November 2012. The two sides have brokered partial agreements on land reformpolitical participation, and drug trafficking, but have yet to come to a consensus on victims’ rights, disarmament, and the implementation of the accords.

InSight Crime Analysis

It appears Santos — who has built his presidential pedigree on the attempt to end Colombia’s 50-year-old armed conflict — is testing the waters to see how he can appease both domestic and international opponents to FARC concessions while not discouraging the guerrilla leadership from agreeing to a peace deal. Santos has previously broached the possibility of making drug trafficking a political crime, which could theoretically be used to pardon members of the FARC from their involvement in the drug trade. Santos has also recently said he would attempt to keep FARC leaders from being extradited, and left open the possibility of house arrest as an alternative form of punishment.

Nevertheless, Santos’ indication at the conference that complete amnesty is off the negotiating table is unlikely to sit well with the FARC, and may stall recent progress made with the naming of US special envoy Aronson to the peace talks in mid-February. FARC leadership has repeatedly stated they will not accept a prison sentence as part of a peace agreement.

The FARC are probably already feeling wary following the approval of extradition for former paramilitary leader Julian Bolivar in mid-February. Bolivar participated in Colombia’s Justice and Peace law, which granted reduced sentences to former paramilitaries in exchange for cooperating with authorities on their involvement in the armed conflict, but his extradition was granted on the basis he continued to oversee criminal operations from his jail cell. FARC leaders could be hesitant to sign a peace deal out of fear that, despite government promises, a pretext could be found for them to face a similar fate in the future. 

SEE ALSO: FARC News and Profile

At this stage, however, it remains uncertain how the government will be able to reach the narrow middle ground between complying with domestic and international standards of justice while simultaneously offering sufficient incentive for the FARC to reach a peace agreement.

The conference also offered little insight into how authorities would prevent some FARC elements from fragmenting, should the rebel army and the government manage to agree on a peace deal. The FARC earn huge profits from the drug trade, and it is unlikely leadership has the authority to keep some remote fronts from continuing their involvement in drug trafficking once the guerrilla group demobilizes. Jaramillo’s vague comments on a “security guarantee” are unlikely to provide an adequate response to the powerful incentives pushing FARC members to criminalize in a post-conflict situation.

SEE ALSO: FARC, Peace and Possible Criminalization

Colombia’s recent history is a good example of the severe consequences that can come from a failed demobilization process. In 2003, Colombia’s coalition of right-wing paramilitary groups called the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) signed a peace agreement with the government, and by 2006 most of the paramilitaries had demobilized. However, successor groups known as BACRIM (for the Spanish abbreviation of “criminal bands”) have largely filled the underworld void left by the paramilitaries, and are deeply involved in the country’s illicit drug trade, as well as extortion and kidnapping operations.

At the conference, Executive Director of the Kofi Annan Foundation, Alan Doss, alluded to the difficulties that lie ahead for Colombia, even if the FARC and the government officially end the decades-long conflict. “Peace agreements do not necessarily make peace. I repeat: peace agreements do not necessarily make peace.”

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