By Kristin Foringer, intern, Latin America Initiative
On Monday, Nov. 17, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia suspended negotiations with the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) after its alleged kidnapping of an army general and two other people. This represents the first major setback in the peace talks, which have been hailed for their “unprecedented” involvement of representatives of the victims of the conflict.
Since its highly classified beginnings in 2012, Colombia’s peace process with the FARC has advanced through different stages of visibility and civil involvement. What began as six months of secret talks in Cuba has turned into a well-publicized peace process focused on six issues: land reform, political participation, illicit drugs, victims’ rights, disarmament and peace deal implementation.
As the agenda moves forward, Colombians are becoming increasingly aware of the peace talks due to extensive media coverage and pointed mentions during this year’s presidential campaigns. Increasing levels of public awareness have coincided with new levels of public participation in the talks as well. Rotations of negotiators selected by the Colombian government and the FARC have been phased in and out, but a recent strategy has brought the victims of the conflict to the negotiating table as well.
In August, the first group of individuals victimized by both left-wing rebels and right-wing paramilitaries throughout the past 50 years appeared in Havana, Cuba, to share their experiences and make claims before peace negotiators. This development came just in time to address the fourth point on the agenda, which commits both parties to securing justice and reparations for victims. As of Nov. 1, the fourth group of victims (out of a proposed five) has participated in the negotiations; in total, 60 victims will attend the peace process in Havana. Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, considers this strategy a positive and innovative step toward justice that could serve as a model for other countries dealing with reconciliation processes.
However, celebrating the involvement of victims as political participants in the peace talks is nuanced by the fact that all victims of the conflict in Colombia must endure a rigid bureaucratic process in order to claim legal recognition. For the Colombian government to identify a person legally as a victim — a status of interest for those seeking compensation, restitution and dignity in the eyes of the government — that individual must present a finely tuned collection of documents that often requires digging up family history. Furthermore, a strict timeline is required for cases to be brought to the government, as detailed in the official Ley de Víctimas y Restitución de Tierras.
The Colombian government has acknowledged the bureaucratic lag in registering victims. According to Andrés González, advisor to the Department of National Planning, the anticipated number of victim registrants between 2010 and 2014 was 160,000 — but the actual number processed was 66,166 as of September 2014. Part of this gap might be explained as an accessibility problem, since some would-be registrants do not understand their eligibility or the access points to the process. A recent study conducted by the Observatorio de Restitución de Tierras found that only 75 to 79 percent of Colombia’s displaced rural population is aware that they can enter the process to regain lost property.
Considering that the true count of victims in Colombia is obscured by the bureaucratic measures put into place, it is clear that only a portion of the total victims impacted by the conflict will receive benefits through the peace process. This complicates the tone of success surrounding the recent involvement of victims in the peace negotiations and could have further implications once decisions about reparations are finally made.
The innovative approach taken by Colombian negotiators to include victims at the table is a step in the right direction. Certainly, the world should take note of the value of enabling victims to speak on their own behalf, detailing personal experiences and adding a human face to conflict. However, given the hefty bureaucracy involved in claiming victim recognition, the Colombian government must continue expanding their concept and implementation of justice before the job is done.
Voices of the Americas is a space for Americas Project fellows to share their insights into events unfolding in their home countries and in the region as a whole. The fellows' essays will also focus on economic development, institution building, democracy and the rule of law.