Colombia’s long-term peace may depend on support for the Truth Commission

Colombian security forces stand guard at the site of an explosion at a police academy in Bogota on Jan. 17. Nine people were killed and more than 50 wounded in the car bomb attack. (AFP/Getty Images)
Colombian security forces stand guard at the site of an explosion at a police academy in Bogota on Jan. 17. Nine people were killed and more than 50 wounded in the car bomb attack. (AFP/Getty Images)

Has the Colombian peace process lost its momentum? President Iván Duque, elected last June, has been openly critical of the peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), which was pushed through by President Juan Manuel Santos in 2016.

Duque was conspicuously absent at November’s formal launch of the Colombian Truth Commission, which has a three-year mandate to answer questions about the atrocities committed during more than five decades of war. This could prove an important impediment to the success of the peace agreement — my research demonstrates that concrete support of the commission’s work is necessary for significant efforts at postwar reconstruction to establish sustainable peace.

In fact, there’s reason to believe the lack of political support for the Truth Commission and similar efforts mandated by the peace agreement, like a Unit for the Disappeared and a Special Peace Tribunal, is now having a negative effect on human rights in Colombia. In January, at least 11 social leaders were assassinated, continuing a trend targeting human rights leaders. And 2018 saw the first increase in murder rates (by 3.5 percent) since 2012, mainly in rural areas.

How I did my research

My recent book «Reclaiming Everyday Peace: Local Voices in Measurement and Evaluation After War» is based on in-depth interviews and more than 2,000 surveys using community-generated indicators of peace — signs that everyday citizens look to in their daily lives, such as whether they can walk alone at night, to determine whether they are more or less at peace.

The book uses this innovative indicator methodology based on participatory numbers to make claims about peacebuilding effectiveness at the local level — using matched-case studies of villages in Uganda and Colombia. Villages in the study had similar demographics and similar histories of violence and displacement and religious and ethnic composition, but vastly different levels of external intervention after the violent events occurred.

I matched villages for their similarities in everything but the amount of intervention, with the goal of comparing villages that had little to no intervention with villages that received enormous amounts of external interventions — resulting in their reputation among the international community as “laboratories for peace.”

What is the Truth Commission’s role?

Colombia’s Truth Commission is responsible for establishing an official account of what happened during the country’s five long and brutal decades of war, as well as why the FARC, paramilitaries and government forces targeted specific people and places. The peace agreement mandates access to military and government archives, since the Truth Commission is an independent government entity — but the current government has attempted to pass legislation to prevent the commission from obtaining highly sensitive information related to the government’s role in the war.

The 11 members of the Truth Commission have also established 26 casas de la verdad, or truth houses, in nine regions, with the goal of documenting and accessing the stories of victims and perpetrators. These houses will serve as meeting points where Colombians can come together to discuss the past, remember those they have lost and access important psychosocial support services. They will also serve as information gathering hubs, where mobile units will dispatch to collect information on more than 50 years’ worth of conflict.

The primary goal for most truth commissions is to produce an official report, something that has already been done in Colombia. Unlike truth commissions established in other countries, the Colombian Truth Commission also plans to organize special initiatives with indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups, and with exiled Colombians around the world. Although the Colombian Truth Commission will work on documentation, it also plans to engage in activities related to reconciliation and to promote coexistence and social cohesion at a local level.

Reestablishing community ties is fundamental for peace

My findings suggest that efforts to build relationships and trust in communities with otherwise high levels of external intervention are very important. In fact, without these efforts, levels of peacefulness, as measured by these community-generated indicators, are not substantively higher than in communities that receive little to no intervention at all. The results suggest that there are disparities between what localities need after war, and the interventions governments and international actors prioritize in their peacebuilding and reconstruction efforts.

In addition, my research shows that localities with high levels of intervention were likely to prioritize social issues such as community cohesion, interdependence and conflict resolution over security and development. This is an important finding because these were areas on which governments and international actors were least likely to focus, as there was a higher priority on governance and security reform, job creation or livelihoods and infrastructure.

What does this mean for peace in Colombia?

These findings suggest that without significant investment in the social dimensions of post-conflict interventions — such as dialogue, documentation, memorialization and trauma healing — broader reconstruction efforts, including foreign-funded infrastructure and development assistance, will not be effective at establishing long-term peace in Colombia.

In addition, without the political support to uphold these efforts at community cohesion, people will be too afraid to access the important resources provided by the Truth Commission. This is a critical moment not to forget that 8 million victims need to begin to heal and work toward justice and reconciliation to ensure war and criminal violence do not return to Colombia. Mending the local social ties that have been destroyed by decades of war is an important step in that direction.

Pamina Firchow is assistant professor of conflict analysis and resolution at George Mason University. She is the author of “Reclaiming Everyday Peace: Local Voices in Measurement and Evaluation after War” (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

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