Since 1964, there has been a continuous war in Colombia between government forces and a leftist insurgency group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). This conflict is responsible for the deaths over 220,000 Colombians (more than 80 percent of them non-combatants) and other atrocious acts affecting the Colombian people, including kidnappings, attacks on infrastructure, sexual violence, and the forced displacement of almost 6 million.
After 52 years of fighting and 4 years of exploratory and formal negotiations, the Colombian government, led by President Juan Manuel Santos, and representatives of the FARC reached an agreement to end the armed conflict. The implementation of this accord would mean that for the first time in most Colombians’ lives, the country would no longer be at war. To legitimize this decision with a public mandate, the peace agreement was contingent upon a nationwide vote or plebiscite to be held on October 2, 2016.
UC Hastings Professor Naomi Roht-Arriaza was recruited to speak at a workshop on transitional justice and truth commissions and arrived in Colombia on September 22, 2016, about a week prior to the plebiscite. Usually after a long-lasting armed conflict, a commission is tasked with discovering and revealing past wrongdoings in the hope of resolving the residual issues from years of misdeeds. Professor Roht-Arriaza explained that this was the case in Colombia. “Part of the Colombian peace agreement required creating a commission to look at what types of crimes and human rights violations had happened over 50 years of conflict, why it happened, and who it happened to.”
The workshop focused on comparative examples of truth commissions and plans for how Colombians could work with the commission envisioned in the peace agreement. “Essentially, I explained what transitional justice means, what truth commission do and their relation to trials, and how you could deal with the prosecution of lots of people in a situation where you can’t actually prosecute everyone and put every wrongdoer in jail.”
After fulfilling her duties at the workshop, Professor Roht-Arriaza left Colombia just before the plebiscite with the expectation that the peace accord would be affirmed by the people’s vote. She reflected, “Everyone who had been working on this issue for the last 4 years assumed that the agreement was going to go through. The polls showed that it was favored 2 to 1. Everybody I talked to said that this was going to pass and they did not have a Plan B.”
However, on October 2, 2016, Colombians voted to reject the peace accord by a razor-thin margin. The result confounded pollsters’ predictions and left the South American country wondering what will come next. The public reaction in many places, particularly Bogota, was bafflement and anger at the opposition to the deal, which was in part based on a scare campaign.
UC Hastings Professor Richard Marcus, who is the Vice President-North America of the International Association of Procedural Law (IAPL) http://www.iaplaw.org/, arrived in Bogota very late on Tuesday, October 4, 2016 to attend and speak at a Colloquium on Reconciliation and Procedral Law. Professor Marcus noted that the planning for the conference began three years ago, with the prospect of a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC as the main stimulus. The overall theme of the conference was to focus on procedural law for peacebuilding in societies overcoming war and other conflict, with an emphasis on the present situation in Colombia. “The coincidence that so much happened in Colombia during the week of the conference was just that – coincidence, but what a coincidence!”
Upon arrival in Bogota, Professor Marcus observed that the public reaction in favor of the deal had jelled into plans for mass demonstrations. This culminated on October 5, 2016, when he witnessed a huge rally in the Plaza Bolivar, the main square in Bogota, which is surrounded by the Cathedral, the Supreme Court, and the Congress buildings.
Professor Marcus was moved by how calmly and peacefully the Colombians’ protested. “The organizers urged that people be silent and hold up candles. Many had white flags. I don’t know how many people were there, but there were many thousands. Finally, when nearly all the marchers had arrived, they sang the national anthem and began to chant: ‘Queremos la paz’ (We want peace), ‘Revota la paz’ (Revote on the peace), and ‘Nunca atras’ (Never backward). It was entirely peaceful and, although there were a lot of riot police around, it went off smoothly without violence.”
To add to the historic landscape, on that Friday, October 7, 2016, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his resolute efforts to negotiate the peace agreement. Professor Marcus noted that this was electrifying for the conference, which ended with two Colombian professors speaking about the hope that peace will soon be achieved. “Many students attended the conference that day, and they loudly cheered this prospect for peace.”
So after a week that saw a surprise rejection of the peace accord, a nationwide peaceful protest, and its President becoming the latest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, what does the future have in store for Colombia? Professor Roht-Arriaza thinks there is hope for peace and believes there is not much appetite on either side’s part to go back to war, but a new agreement may take some time. “Now we’re sort of back to the drawing board. We’re waiting to see what a renegotiation, if there is one, will look like. Among other problems, the Colombians have to figure out a creative solution to the question of transitional justice, as in what happens to people who cannot under national and international law be amnestied and yet are unwilling to accept that they will go to jail.”
Professor Marcus concurs that there is still hope for public to move for peace even after the rejection of the accord. “After the conference, I picked up the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, with a full page picture of President Santos under the [translated] headline ‘Santos wins the Nobel for insisting on peace.’ The peace process is essentially the only story in the paper, with many angles explored. It has pushed everything else not only off the first page, but out of the first section entirely!”