How to reconcile Colombia?

2017 could mark the dawn of a new era for Colombia following the signing of peace with Marxist FARC rebels. After more than half a century of conflict, the country enters a process that ultimately seeks reconciliation.

Colombia will now begin the arduous task of attempting to heal the wounds from 52 years of brutal war that caused the deaths of at least 260,000 people at the hands of both the government and the FARC, but how?

While conceding that there is no “one size fits all” model for post-conflict reconciliation, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) compiled a publication analyzing post-conflict reconciliation efforts worldwide, some of which may be applicable to the Colombian context.

With the demobilization process already in progress and the inception of a Truth Commission and Transitional Justice Tribunal imminent, Colombia will soon encounter some of the issues raised in the IDEA’s “Reconciliation After Violent Conflict: A Handbook.”

Due to the extreme delicate nature of any post-conflict reconciliation process, the steps that Colombia takes in the coming weeks, months and years will shape the very society that the country’s future generations will grow up in.

Reconciliation is not a luxury, or an add-on to democracy. Reconciliation is an absolute necessity.  At its simplest, it means finding a way to live alongside former enemies – not necessarily to love them, or forgive them, or forget the past in any way, but to coexist with them, to develop the degree of cooperation necessary to share our society with them, so that we all have better lives together than we have had separately.


Colombia’s 2012 – 2016 peace talks | Fact sheet

The observations of the handbook highlight certain aspects of reconciliation processes that have been common to many countries and yielded success as well as potential pitfalls for which Colombia must prepare itself.

1 – Timing and trust building

For a reconciliation process to make a solid beginning and foster trust between all concerned, the timing of it initiation will be crucial.

52 years of conflict, more than 8 million victims, tens of thousands of war crimes and an immeasurable amount of mistrust between the two sides has resulted in a Colombian society that is still incredibly raw and resentful.

This was perhaps reflected by the rejection of the first peace agreement between the government and the FARC in an October 2 referendum. In that referendum, Colombian voters rejected compromises made with the guerrillas.

Such rawness, and in many cases outright opposition to the agreement across Colombia’s society makes the timing of the initiation of reconciliation processes crucial in terms of trust-building for all sides involved.

According to the IDEA handbook, “a rushed approach to reconciliation will almost certainly be counterproductive,” which adds that “in the immediate aftermath of a civil war or of an inhuman regime, victims are too preoccupied with their own distress to develop trust and empathy in a hurry.”

For this reason, Colombia may be best served by initially focusing on the establishment of the “Transitional Justice Tribunal” and a “Truth Commission” as a first step towards building trust with the victims of the conflict and gradually working towards the beginning of the truth-telling and reconciliation process.

Colombia’s transitional justice system ‘needs 6 months to take effect’

The transitional justice system will review amnesty requests of the FARC’s approximately 6,600 guerrilla fighters and 10,000 militia members, process 24,400 state officials either sentenced or indicted for war crimes and an additional 12,500 private persons and enterprises accused of financially supporting one of the illegal armed groups active in the conflict.

This transitional justice system is likely to take effect in immediate aftermath of FARC demobilization and will get the ball rolling on hearing accounts of the crimes committed during the conflict.

While the IDEA handbook advocates starting the process of of reconciliation early enough to benefit from the momentum of the peace agreement, it urges those involved to think long term as the “reconciliation must be seen as a long-term process that may take decades or generations.”

2 – Telling the truth

Following the demobilization process, the setting up of the Transitional Justice Tribunal and Truth Commission will play a key role in the reconciliation process, allowing victims and perpetrators to come to terms with their past differences and build towards a more unified future.

IDEA reported that at least 25 official truth commissions have been established around the world since 1974, providing a public platform for victims, promoting public debate and bringing about reparation and reconciliation.

In a positive way these commissions “can put victims – long ignored and forgotten by the public – at the forefront and center of the transition process. This can help to make victims whole again, both individually and as a group, and give them a sense of personal vindication,” read the document.

Everything that’s good about Colombia’s transitional justice system

Despite the many benefits that have been documented from truth commissions around the world, the UN document urges caution in certain respects.

Governments ranging from Spain in the 1970’s, Cambodia in the 1980’s to Mozambique in the 1990’s opted to not put a truth commission in place for fear that the peace process in general may not benefit from it.

While it may be necessary to air the truth of events in the past, it is also important that the truth commission is not abused for political gain or that it does not lead to prolonged dwelling on flash-points that may corrode the resolution process, IDEA warned.

With the Truth Commission due to take effect this year in Colombia, realistic expectations must be fostered as the process may affect victims and particular groups in a different way depending on the context and severity of the situation.

“Forgiveness, healing and reconciliation are deeply personal processes, and each person’s needs and reactions to peacemaking and truth-telling may be different.”


3 – A balance between impunity and justice

While the IDEA view truth telling as imperative for the progression of reconciliation,  the administration of adequate justice to offenders during the conflict is also strongly advocated.

In particular they specify the importance of a balance between justice that respects the suffering of the victims and impunity that allows for the transition of all sides from war to peace and reconciliation to take place.

If the victims in a society do not feel that their suffering has been acknowledged, then they . . . are not ready to put the past behind them. If they know that the horrible crimes carried out in secret will always remain buried . . . then they are not ready for reconciliation”.


Up to now many Colombians have expressed strong concerns regarding the justice that will be administered to the perpetrators of war crimes during the conflict with the agreement specifying that offenders from the FARC and the military who fully cooperate with justice will not spend one single day in prison.

Instead, convicted war criminals may be sentenced to a “restriction of liberties” which would see those who have committed grievous crimes of kidnapping, murder and rape effectively doing community service.

War criminals who refuse to cooperate or only partially cooperate will most definitely be sent to prison and could serve as many as 20 years behind bars.

A 15-year history of peace with impunity in Colombia

Colombia must strive to achieve this balance between impunity and justice in order to make reconciliation possible with an avoidance of amnesia regarding the crimes a priority.

This lesson can be taken from the experience of Zimbabwe where the army committed gross human rights violations in Matabeleland between 1983 and 1985. This remained unacknowledged until 1997, when two NGOs published a report titled “Breaking the Silence.”

The covering up of truth and failure to administer justice led to the failure of reconciliation in the Zimbabwean context with politicians arguing that silence about the past was “what the newborn country needed.”

The white heirs of the Rhodesian regime and the black leaders preferred to impose a shallow, “cheap” form of reconciliation without historical, restorative or economic justice. Cheap, imposed and based (for whatever pragmatic reasons) on amnesia and impunity – in such a form, reconciliation can only damage fundamentally the prospect of a viable, peaceful and inclusive Zimbabwean democracy.


The manner in which all involved in Colombia approach this will be crucial in terms of achieving reconciliation.

The IDEA handbook issues a strong warning that “the kind of reconciliation that lets bygones be bygones is not true reconciliation. It is reconciliation at gunpoint and authorities should not and cannot impose trust and empathy by decree.”

Nonetheless it does acknowledge that “to strike a balance between the demands of repressive justice and of reconciliation is no easy enterprise. It entails a difficult and, on occasion, tortuous cost–benefit analysis. All costs and gains must be balanced against each other.”

With this example in mind, the success of long-term, effective reconciliation may depend on how the Transitional Justice Tribunal deals with the war criminals that are presented before it.

4 – All inclusive reconciliation dialogue

While the many elements of post-conflict resolution may take time to put in place, the ultimate aim must be for reconciliation dialogue involving all sides to take place.

The crucial phase of the reconciliation process will begin when Colombians are ready to talk, both victims and perpetrators.

The sheer delicacy and sensitivity of this stage will be present major challenges particularly regarding the finding the language to facilitate dialogue which was duly noted by the IDEA.

In Rwanda, for example, the attitude of the government in the years that followed the genocide was to insist on the need for justice. The word ‘reconciliation’ was taboo for those who had survived genocide, and was never publicly used…. In Kosovo, the very word ‘reconciliation’ is so charged for the Albanian community, that it is simply not used”.


In practical terms, support from institutions inside the country such as the church as well as the assistance of international observers and NGO’s will play a crucial role as Colombia attempt to begin a dialogue heal the divisions that run deep in their society.

For example, in the context of Northern Ireland which also had suffered a long, bitter and protracted conflict the setting up of all-inclusive inter-community dialogue programs sought to initiate a healing process.

How good was the ‘Irish model’ now considered in Colombia?

In the Irish setting, the experience of suffering was wide-ranging, some having been bereaved or maimed by Loyalist or Republican paramilitaries, while others had suffered loss as a result of actions carried out by the RUC police force or the British Army.

Programs such as that of the Glencree Center hosted workshops with individual groups firstly, later graduating towards dialogue between victims and perpetrators, most notably a workshop involving a former Irish Republican Army (IRA) combatant and elected Sinn Fein politician with victims of IRA aggression.

The group engaged in a “question and answer-style” session with the aim of helping all sides understand the motives and sentiments behind the actions of the other.

Recording the details of the workshop, the IDEA handbook acknowledged that “the engagement for the most part was respectful and, while it was filled with emotion, outbursts of anger were few. The word “forgiveness” was not mentioned in the workshop by either the victims/ survivors or the former combatant. There was, however, a clear sense of a growth of understanding by both parties of each other’s sacrifice.”

Northern Irish conflict victim shares experiences with Colombia

While we must continue to acknowledge that the context of Colombia’s conflict is uniquely different, in order to achieve some sort of reconciliation, dialogue must take place on some level between victims of the FARC and the Colombia’s army with their aggressors.

5 -Education

Looking to the long-term future of reconciliation and ultimately real peace in Colombia, education will be a factor that shapes the development of post-conflict society.

The IDEA handbook clearly states the importance of the approach to education in terms of promoting long-term reconciliation.

Education for reconciliation must be rooted in fundamental values such as respect and equality, be concerned with issues of pluralism, and address specific issues of culture, identity, class and gender. Inasmuch as every conflict arises in a unique context, programmes need to be devised – or adapted – to meet the specific psychological, political, social and cultural circumstances in which the conflict, and therefore the recovery process, occurs.”


According to the handbook, this system must “promote an understanding of the causes, consequences and possible resolutions of conflict and estrangement on the personal, social, institutional and global levels.”

Failure to progress with an adapted and all inclusive education system may put Colombia at risk of compromising the possibility of healing the divisions in society with untruths being passed from generation to generation.

This risk was identified by the IDEA regarding several European countries attempting to reconstruct societies ravaged by conflict.

Education systems segregated along ethnic or religious lines – such as those in Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine and the former Yugoslavia – help to perpetuate dramatically divergent views of both history and current events. A segregated education system can hinder the development of meaningful relations across ethnic or religious divides.


Looking to the future

For Colombia to be reconciled, a patient and well thought out strategy will be necessary that allows firstly for truth and justice to prevail and secondly for long term, sustainable conditions for dialogue to be created.

The Colombian situation is undoubtedly unique, but the issues experienced in other war-torn countries are in many ways universal, providing a loose blueprint to begin a process that can facilitate reconciliation.

Related posts

Colombia’s ceasefire talks with ELN rebels extended

Petro ends ceasefire with FARC dissidents in south Colombia

Colombia’s government and ELN rebels begin ceasefire talks