A protest against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)
Last Wednesday, negotiators for the Colombian government and the country’s rebel group, the FARC, agreed to a framework for the creation of a FARC-led political party. While FARC negotiators issued a cool response to the breakthrough, chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle was not so restrained, exclaiming: “Never again will politics and weapons act together.” In a country torn asunder by fifty years of armed insurrection, de la Calle’s premature words do little to reassure Colombia’s weary population.
Still, the importance of incorporating the FARC into the political process cannot be overstated, and the time to do so has finally arrived. As Jorge Restrepo, director of a Bogotá think-tank, has noted: “The exchange of violence for political participation is a fundamental manifestation of the FARC’s intention to end the conflict.” Indeed, in recent years, the rebels have dropped their initial ambition of overthrowing the government. The FARC’s ability to create and manage a legitimate congressional party would not only mark an historic shift in the group’s organization and tactics, but in Colombia’s political history.
“Never again will politics and weapons act together.”
The problem, however, is that the FARC’s entry into politics depends on the ratification of a complete peace deal, the likelihood of which depends on two issues that have yet to land on the negotiating table: the sentencing of rebel leaders and victims’ reparations. With popular resentment running high towards both the FARC and the government, these two remaining issues might prove to be deal-breakers.
In response to his own pronouncement, de la Calle would do well to clarify whose politics and weapons he was referring to. Since the inception of the FARC, a language of violence has characterized the government’s rhetoric — rightfully so, one should say — in dealing with the countless kidnappings and murders committed by the rebels. However, this language has at times conveniently obscured the atrocities that the government itself has inflicted upon the civilian population. Take the so-called “false positives” scandal of 2008, for instance, which revealed the extrajudicial killing of over 3,000 civilians by members of the armed forces, who had dressed their victims in rebel garb in order to pass them off as combat kills.
When President Juan Manuel Santos puts the complete peace deal up for ratification by national referendum, as he has promised to do, the world can expect Colombians to avenge their fellow citizens and demand retribution from both sides of the armed conflict. Given the government’s appalling record of violence against its people, Santos must be prepared to concede heavily in order to appease an aggrieved electorate, or else voters may undermine his entire peace deal. By the same token, FARC leaders should expect some form of punishment for their role in displacing nearly five million Colombians, and killing thousands more.
In already portentous signs, the FARC have objected to a constitutional amendment that would establish a legal framework for bringing criminal charges against FARC commanders. Yet according to several human rights groups speaking on behalf of civilians, the framework, which also applies to the Colombian military, is far too lenient. Santos must somehow push his rebel counterparts to accept harsher terms for criminal sentences.
The world can expect Colombians to avenge their fellow citizens and demand retribution from both sides of the armed conflict.
However, unless the FARC are willing to perform an unprecedented act of goodwill and bow their heads before the symbolic noose, the fighting will persist, and peace may remain as far off as ever. After all, the rebels have agreed to drop their weapons only after the ratification of such an accord.
The benefits of a negotiated peace are many and well-known. A permanent end to the conflict would transform the country’s social and economic prospects. The entry of a FARC-led party into the political system would satisfy the rebel cause and facilitate demobilization.
None of this seems possible, however, unless Colombian voters are willing to let guilty men go free, on both sides of the conflict. Is this the price of peace? Must it come at the cost of justice? Colombians will soon give us an answer.
Demetri Papageorgiou is studying Government and Economics in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University.