Colombia peace justice

Colombia peace justice©(Photo: Luis Robayo / AFP)
A man places a flower on a Colombian flag
3 min 58Approximate reading time

Derek Congram joins Justice in Conflict, as our symposium on peace and justice in Colombia after the referendum continues. Derek is an anthropologist and archaeologist based at the Munk School of Global Affairs. He specializes in medico-legal, human rights, and humanitarian investigations and has worked at United Nations, International Criminal Court, International Committee of the Red Cross, among others.

In the run-up to the Colombian plebiscite on the peace deal between the government and the FARC, Ian Vásquez, of the CATO Institute published an opinion piece in a number of Latin American newspapers. He opened by citing a highly technical, acronym-heavy paragraph from the 297-page peace accord. He used this single, carefully-selected paragraph to argue that Colombians would never understand the accord and thus should vote against it. Vásquez, it seems, believes that ending a decades-old conflict can be accomplished with a Peace for Dummies manual, and one that makes no concessions to the FARC, the rebel group which has effectively governed (by force) swaths of Colombian territory for two generations. Vásquez cited critiques of the agreement made by Human Rights Watch and called the accord an embarrassment and a step backwards for Colombians.

Vásquez’s article was entitled: “Colombian Shame” (Vergüenza colombiana). How easy it must be to write from the presumably comfortable confines of a Washington, D.C. office in an organization that has assets of $70 million, and to urge Colombians to reject peace. By this, I do not mean to say that outsiders with certain experience and specialized knowledge have nothing to contribute to the debate. Instead, in doing so we have a professional and, I would say, moral obligation to speak in a clear and complete way on the subjects of our expertise and we should refrain from telling Colombians what they should or should not think or how they should or should not vote.

In his piece, Vásquez argued that, instead of supporting the agreement, Colombians should conform with “international practice” of justice and peace. If we consider “international practice”, as if it were a simple copy-paste formula, we might look to the former Yugoslavia. Is Vásquez suggesting that the UN Security Council create safe zones in Colombia (from which thousands might be taken, slaughtered and dumped in mass graves over the course of a few days), then finance a multi-billion-dollar ad hoc tribunal in Europe, unleash NATO planes to drop bombs across the country until the rebels relent and surrender unequivocally? And if they did so, would we have to wait 20 years for the main culprits to be captured, commit suicide, die of natural causes or be tried abroad while survivors clamoured for justice at home? In Vásquez’ defence, he didn’t say “best international practice”.

What Vázquez neglected to mention, however, is that Fatou Bensouda — the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (as good a harbinger of international justice as I can think of) — acknowledged her support of the Colombian peace accord, noting that it excluded amnesties for war crimes and crimes against humanity, which other Latin American governments have relied on over the last few decades. Bensouda also stated that the agreement was in line with the Rome Statute of the ICC and that it gave victims a central place in the pursuit of post-conflict justice.

The plebiscite produced a vote that could barely have been more evenly split. In 1993 in Canada, citizens were shocked by how tight the Quebec referendum vote was (50.58% opposed, 49.42% in favour). Seven years later, Americans were torn as courts took days to decide who really had more votes (popular and electoral college) between presidential contenders Al Gore and George W. Bush. The Colombian plebiscite showed a difference of less than half of a percent between the two sides. That indicates how shrewd the deal cut by the negotiators was. Such a tight result indicates that there was no clear winner — and also suggests an overall balanced deal. I write this mindful of the fact that I cannot tell you any better than any Colombian which way people should have voted.

As a forensic scientist, I have worked in war zones, from Iraq to the Democratic Republic of Congo. But I always did so with diplomatic protections and behind the guns and body armour of powerful militaries. If ever I was too uncomfortable with the circumstances in which I was working, I could leave on the next available helicopter. I have helped train Colombian police and medico-legal specialists in processes of the search for and identification of those killed during the conflict. I use my experience in mostly post-conflict countries, to study and teach about violence, peace, and transitional justice. But I have no true sense of what it is like to live in war, to be subject to daily poverty, insecurity, uncertainty. For this reason, I can throw around some possibly trite or facile assessments. I can tell you what has happened in other places and what makes sense to me. I might be disappointed with how people vote on peace agreements. I cannot, however, tell Colombians whether a deal is good or bad for them, and I most certainly cannot tell them how to vote. I wonder why Ian Vásquez — like so many other pundits — feel otherwise.

In the wake of the referendum, I asked a Colombian friend if they’d be willing to share their thoughts by writing about the result for this symposium. She, like me, is a forensic scientist. We met while working in Bosnia, finding and analyzing the dead from that war. She does the same now in her native country and there are few who can tell us in such intimate, morbid detail about the cost of war in her country. I did not ask her, but I believe that she supported the peace agreement. She thanked me for inviting her to share her opinion about the plebiscite, but said that she is not yet ready to speak about it. Instead, she’ll just go back to the laboratory every day and continue to work on the dead. But it is her voice, and the voices of those who have worked tireless for peace and justice in Colombia, that must be heard — and listened to.

This article was previously published by justiceinconflict.