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Colombia: Use the Truth Commission to Open up the Peace Process

August 22, 2016

By Christine Cheng and Charlie de Rivaz

Published in La Semana (a major Colombian magazine) on July 8, 2016. En español aquí.

Summary: With the Colombian government and the FARC on the brink of signing a final peace agreement, it is time to open up what has so far been a closed process. A step in the right direction would be to place the principles of public consultation and community outreach at the center of the process for selecting Commissioners for Colombia’s Truth Commission.   

Handshakes all around.

Handshakes all around.

Last week, the Colombian government and the FARC reached a deal on a bilateral ceasefire, paving the way for a final peace agreement to be signed.  Despite the fact that all of the concluded peace agreements are publicly available, Colombian citizens have had very little say in the negotiations. The peace process has largely been conducted behind closed doors in Havana. While the need for secrecy was understandable when the peace talks first began, the government now needs to win the support the support of the public. The process must be opened up or else the government will lose public support for whatever deal is reached, along with the proposed referendum on that deal.

It has taken almost four years to reach this point. With the promise of a referendum on the final peace agreement, the government must begin to address the public’s concerns. How can society ensure that those responsible for past abuses are held accountable? How will Colombians enforce justice while aspiring for reconciliation after suffering through half a century of violence? Colombians remain deeply divided on how they believe justice and reconciliation would best be achieved.

But the one thing that Colombians do agree on is the need for truth. Without truth, there can be no justice and reconciliation. Victims of human rights abuses and serious violations of international humanitarian law deserve to know what happened to them, who did it, and why they did it.

Colombia’s Truth Commissioners will be chosen by a nine-person Selection Committee, which will seek nominations from around the country and abroad, and then spend three months vetting the candidates and making its final selection. Unfortunately, the agreement offers precious little detail about how the selection process will work in practice. We have written a report – published this week – that offers ideas for choosing Truth Commissioners at each stage of the selection process. Our report draws from the range of experiences of truth commissions in other countries, and builds on the legacy of Colombia’s National Center of Historical Memory.

The process for selecting Colombia’s Truth Commissioners provides an important opportunity for President Santos and Sergio Jaramillo, the High Commissioner for Peace, to open up a peace process that many have felt was closed off from public scrutiny. To do this successfully, public consultation and community outreach are key. The selection process must not be dominated by the elite. Rather, the process must reach all parts of Colombia, especially the areas that suffered the most violence.

Truth commissions in other countries demonstrate the importance of public engagement in choosing commissioners. In Kenya, the selection committee did not seek feedback from the public before it made its final selection. Had it done so, it would have become clear that the proposed chair of the truth commission, Bethuel Kiplagat, was unsuitable for the job because of his alleged complicity in gross human rights violations. The controversy prompted the resignation of the truth commission’s vice-chair, Betty Murungi, and irrevocably undermined the legitimacy of the commission. A lack of consultation with the public similarly damaged the 2003 truth commission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Of course, genuine public consultation takes time, and there is a danger that the public may lose patience with the selection process if it takes too long. As such, a balance must be struck between leaving sufficient time for consultation and maintaining the momentum of the peace process. But opening up the process is key. First, it will empower and educate ordinary Colombians. By giving the public the chance to nominate candidates for Commissioner or allowing them to follow the interview process, the public will become more vested in the peace itself. At the same time, public conversations about the candidates will bring about a greater sense of public ownership of the Truth Commission and, by extension, the peace process itself.

In Sierra Leone, after the initial selection process stalled, publicly re-advertising the truth commissioners’ positions educated the public about the role and importance of the commission and the qualities needed to become a commissioner. In Timor-Leste (2002) and South Africa (1994), the interview process for the shortlisted candidates took on the form of public hearings, which gave the public a greater sense of ownership over the process.

An open selection process would provide yet another entry point into the national conversation about the peace process – further opening up a space for civil society to question, to debate, to criticize – and to set the tone for the post-conflict transition. Undoubtedly, powerful factions will express their anger and frustration with the peace process, but allowing these protests to be aired is important. While the political ruptures this conversation provokes may be destabilizing in the short run, Colombia’s peace will ultimately be more robust in the long run.

Of course, there is the danger that the selection process and the Truth Commission itself will be seen as political instruments rather than instruments of societal healing. If these are viewed as a way of doing the president’s bidding, and the Commissioners are not viewed as independent from the government, people will not come forward to testify and the process will lead to political disaffection.

The truth process is an important mechanism for restoring balance to society. It will give victims a voice, let perpetrators apologize, and bring closure to families who have long wondered what happened to their loved ones. Colombia’s truth commission will write the story of a war that began over five decades ago. Choosing the right people to lead the process of truth-telling will determine whether or not this will be an honest process. The Truth Commissioners will set the tone for the kind of peace Colombians want to enjoy, and the kind of society that Colombians want to live in. Here is a clear opportunity for the president and the FARC to define a path of integrity for the new Truth Commission, and for the country. They must seize it with both hands.

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For a full discussion, please read our CSDRG Policy Brief, Selecting Truth Commissioners- Peace and Reconciliation in Colombia. En español aquí.

Charlie de Rivaz is Editorial Assistant at Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), and a graduate of the Conflict, Security, and Development program at King’s College London.

Special thanks to Sofia Liemann and Paola Ferrero Moya for translation assistance.

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