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Peace needs truth, not punishment

Colombia
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Handshake between Raúl Castro, Juan Manuel Santos and Timoleón Jiménez by Peace Delegation FARC, 23 September 2015, screenshot from Youtube.

Retribution will not heal old wounds in Colombia, warns Leonardo Goi.

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) Commander Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri last week issued a historic joint statement. A transitional justice framework will be established, through which those responsible for the atrocities committed in the 51-year conflict between the state and the guerrillas will be prosecuted.

Santos and Londoño (who goes by the alias ‘Timochenko’) announced that the special tribunal will judge those responsible for the conflict’s atrocities, whether FARC soldiers, members of the armed forces, or non-combatants. Those who immediately confess their crimes will face confinement – though not jail – of between 5 and 8 years. Those who confess after the start of their trial may be subject to 5-8 years in prison, though they may receive a noncustodial sentence if they commit to reintegration through social work. Anyone who does not confess but is subsequently found guilty faces up to 20 years in prison.

A number of critics have spoken out against what they argue is an excessively lax justice framework. They fear that it will result in large-scale impunity and fail to compensate for the victims’ sufferings or ensure an adequate punishment for the guerrillas.

Such objections beg 2 fundamental questions: how were the peace talks structured? And what is the type of justice they are based upon?

The negotiations between the government and the guerrillas were never designed as a trial against the FARC, which did not join the peace talks in order to discuss the terms of its own subjection to justice, but to put an end to the armed conflict in a way acceptable both to its own militia and to the government. Large-scale and long-term prison sentences were not on the table.

The type of justice upon which the entire peace process was premised aimed to do more than merely punish those responsible for the violence. It sought to restore the perpetrators’ relationship with their victims by forcing them to admit responsibility for the crimes committed, and shed new light on them. The founding principle of transitional justice is not punishment, but reconciliation. And this can only be achieved through the culprits’ commitment to disclose the truth, compensate their victims and guarantee that such violent crimes will never be repeated.

The key question is therefore not what type of justice will ensure the longest and toughest punishment for the guerrillas, but which kind will best serve in a case as complex as Colombia’s. It is hard to see how retribution alone could be the best means to fully and durably heal the tragedies which the conflict has left behind, especially in a context in which so many non-combatant sectors of Colombia’s society contributed to increase the number of casualties.

The armed struggle did not just claim several hundred thousand lives: it also shattered the country’s social fabric and severed the tie between the state and its people. Peace does not need punishment for its own sake: it needs truth. Should all those responsible for the conflict’s atrocities shed new light on their crimes, Colombia may not only achieve justice, but open a new chapter wherein its violent past can be overcome once and for all.

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