In the early morning of April 2, 2019, Colombian police violently attacked Indigenous, Afro-Colombian and peasant protestors near the Pan-American Highway in Cauca—mere hours before they were set to meet with the Minister of the Interior for negotiations. According to a press release from the Consejo Regional Indígena Regional de Cauca (Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, CRIC), at least one protestor was shot dead and several more were gravely injured. The protestors, participants of the Minga Nacional (national minga- a Quechua word meaning “collective work”), had been blockading the highway for over three weeks, demanding that President Iván Duque meet with the council to discuss their concerns.
The demands of the Minga Nacional include implementation of the peace accords between the Colombian state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP) guerrilla group. The movement is especially concerned with the ethnic chapter, a part of the accords that refers to how the agreements should be implemented in Indigenous and Afro-majority territories, and reject the government’s decision to block the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the judicial mechanism in the peace accords that addresses justice for victims of violence, mass atrocities, and human rights violations. They are also calling on the government to fulfil previous agreements these groups have reached with the government.
Signed in 2016, the peace agreement between the Colombian state and the FARC-EP was heralded as one of the most progressive and holistic peace agreements in history. The accords include transitional justice mechanisms, investment in rural areas most damaged by the conflict and forgotten by the state, and guarantee political participation for victims and ex-combatants, reparations for victims, and reconciliation via a truth commission.
Today, the Minga Nacional will join the Gran Paro Nacional (Grand National Strike)—a national general strike called by social and political organizations, unions, and students across Colombia. Together they will be demanding state compliance with the peace accords. Both the Minga Nacional and the national general strike exemplify how Colombian social movements are coming together to make defense of the peace agreement a key aspect of their own struggles.
Dismantling the Peace Process: Rejecting the JEP
Though the accords eventually passed in 2016, they were heavily modified to please ex-President Álvaro Uribe’s right-wing support base—and continue to be undone. The peace agreement hit its first hurdle before it was even signed: in the 2016 plebiscite for ratification, 50.2% of people voted against it and 49.8% voted in favor. Among the well-documented causes for this slim rejection was the Uribe-led mobilization against the accords, which revolved around a campaign of disinformation and linked the agreement to “gender ideology” and “Castro-Chavismo.” The ‘Yes’ campaign failed to counteract these narratives, as the government relied on its political machinery of powerful families and regional and local politicians, which was harder to mobilize around a single-issue vote. Victory for the ‘No’ camp led to a revision of the accords—58% of the opposition’s proposals were included partially or completely in the final draft—yet detractors remained entrenched in their opposition to the deal.
Among the changes called for by the ‘No’ camp, led by Uribe and the right-wing Centro Democrático (Democratic Centre), was the modification of the JEP. Under this transitional justice mechanism, perpetrators who willingly provide complete testimonies would be given lighter sentences than they would face in the existing justice system. Its objective is to penalize serious human rights violations and crimes against humanity but provide amnesty for lower-ranking officials of the armed forces and FARC-EP. In this sense, the framework of the JEP goes beyond punitive justice by instituting restorative justice for victims to heal wounds from the past and to build peace for the future.
Detractors of the peace agreement argue that the JEP framework would provide impunity for FARC-EP ex-combatants. As a result of the referendum result, the ‘No’ camp successfully advocated for a reduction in the JEP’s scope, limiting its operation to ten years and removing foreign judges from the body’s provision of 38 magistrates and 13 auxiliaries, although ten foreign legal experts will remain as observers. The ‘No’ group also tried to integrate the JEP into Colombia’s standard legal system by pushing for the application of civil law penalties for perpetrators, which would have negated the very essence of transitional justice.
The JEP continues to face attacks from President Duque and the Centro Democrático. On March 10, 2019, Duque refused to sign the statutory law for the JEP, a fundamental step towards completing the legal framework for JEP procedures, objecting to six of its articles. Thanks to norms previously passed by Congress, the JEP started its enquiries into human rights abuses on March 15, 2018, but it still requires further legal support from the statutory law for the full construction of a transitional justice framework. It is currently assessing a number of human rights violations, including FARC-EP kidnappings from 1993 to 2012 and the False Positives scandal of the 2000s perpetrated by the military. Nevertheless, the JEP won't be able to carry out all the tasks entrusted to it by the peace accords without the statutory law. For the law to be passed, both chambers of Congress had to review Duque’s objections, which the lower chamber of Congress defeated roundly. Yet, the president of the Senate Ernesto Macías, also a member of Centro Democrático, has initiated legal action to invalidate the lower chamber’s decision. This political uncertainty questions the mandate of the JEP and places the peace process itself in danger.
In March of this year, the United Nations Verification Mission to Colombia, a UN mission tasked with verifying the implementation of the accords and particularly FARC-EP reintegration, reaffirmed its support for the JEP as a crucial tool for placing victims’ rights at the center of peacebuilding.
State Control of Victims’ Narratives and Obstacles before Reparations
The JEP is one part of a larger institutional peace-building framework. The System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Repetition (SIVJRNR), for example, is designed to hear the stories of victims and perpetrators of the conflict in order to ensure reparation and restorative justice. The SIVJRNR, in addition to the JEP, is also comprised of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (SJP), the Truth Commission (CEV), and the Unit for the Search of Persons Deemed Disappeared (UBPD). Institutions established prior to the peace agreement through the 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law also contribute to the SIVJRNR: the Units for Victims Reparation (UARIV), Land Restitution (URT), and the National Center of Historic Memory (CNMH). This wider apparatus for truth, justice and reparations is facing a plethora of threats alongside the rejection of the JEP, including budgetary reductions.
One key conflict in controlling the direction of peace-building and conflict resolution was the appointment of director Rubén Darío Acevedo to the National Center of Historical Memory (CNMH), the institutional body tasked with recovering evidence of and history related to the conflict. Acevedo has publicly questioned the existence of armed conflict in Colombia, and many have raised their concerns over the future trajectory of the CNMH under Acevedo. Civil society pressure successfully rejected the first two candidates, but activists were unable to stop the appointment of Acevedo. Contestation around the CNMH’s directorship underlines the continued efforts for state institutions to control narratives of the conflict. It also sounds alarm bells for those looking to construct the peacebuilding process around the rights of the victims, a key point of the agreements.
Right-wing Colombian politicians are failing to respect victims’ rights, their voices, and the agreement itself. In November 2017, parties including the Centro Democrático opposed the creation of 16 seats in Congress for representatives from the regions most affected by the armed conflict. These “special circumscriptions for peace,” designed to give victims a direct voice in the country’s main political arena, required approval from Congress. Although some Congress members resubmitted the initiative during the second half of 2018, it failed again after parties supporting Duque’s government refused to vote in favor of the proposal.
Victims of the armed conflict face further challenges because the 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law expires in June 2021. This law funds the key institutions leading reparations for victims. If not renewed, these bodies will cease to exist, including the Victims’ Unit and the Land Restitution Unit. The need for an extension to this law is evident, as the Victims’ Unit is far from done with its job of providing reparations to the more than eight million victims of the armed conflict. By January 2019, only 900,000 people received reparations.
The final peace agreement included a clause that asked for the strengthening and coordination of policies derived from the 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law, alongside the SIVJRNR. This would require the Victims and Land Restitution Law to extend until 2030, when all other transitional justice mechanisms will also legally expire. Former officers of the Santos administration have presented a petition to the Constitutional Court to extend the Victims and Land Restitution Law until 2030, to ensure its coordination with the peace accords.
But the Victim’s Law faces further uncertainty, as Congressional representatives of the Centro Democrático have proposed major revisions to it, which would strengthen the tenancy rights of current owners of dispossessed lands, as long as they were not involved in directly usurping lands. This change in the law would threaten the delivery of land restitution for dispossessed victims.
Civil Society Builds Peace
Against this gloomy background, Colombian civil society has played a major role in defending the peace process since the 2016 plebiscite results with a number of spontaneous protests and various forms of collective action. A few hours after the results went public, citizens grouped around the presidential palace to express support for the process. Popular street assemblies organized the very next day: more than 100 people, including victims of the armed conflict, established a peace camp in front of Congress until a new peace agreement was reached. On October 5 and 12, 2016, thousands of Colombians filled the streets of their cities demanding a solution to the crisis.
Colombia’s streets were once again full on March 13 and 18, 2019, when thousands rejected Duque’s objections to the JEP. This occurred at the same time as the minga nacional in Cauca. Colombians living abroad joined and carried out demonstrations in London, Paris, New York, Miami, Toronto, Strasburg, Barcelona, Dublin and Perth, among other cities. All these groups demanded Duque implement all aspects of the peace accords without delay.
These groups have acknowledged the agreement goes beyond disarming and reintegrating FARC-EP ex-guerrillas, and have come together to support other initiatives of the accords. For instance, in August 2017, social movements, NGOs, civic organizations, and independent citizens demanded the national government issue a statutory law to protect social protest and citizen participation. Various peasant organizations are also calling for state compliance with the voluntary substitution of illegal crops, instead of the forced eradication that still takes place.
Other civil society groups, especially victims’ groups, have come together to support the work of institutions such as the Truth Commission (CEV) and the Unit for the Search of Persons Deemed Disappeared (UBPD). Given the complex character of their tasks and the obstacles Duque’s government have added, victims’ groups are collaborating with these institutions to facilitate the completion of their mandate. Diaspora Woman, for example, has emerged abroad to help contribute to peacebuilding in Colombia. Through processes of truth seeking and collective memory, they focus on helping women heal the trauma of conflict and exile. They have received testimonies from over 100 Colombian women living in the diaspora, including victims of the armed conflict. The recognition and inclusion of victims abroad is a novelty of the Colombian peace agreement and the Victim’s Law.
Civil society involvement is crucial for the survival of the peace process. Yet it has come with a serious cost, as social activists and human rights defenders are being systematically assassinated in the country. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported at least 110 assassinations in 2018 alone; the Colombian Ombudsman registered 462 from January 2016 to February 2019; and independent research center Indepaz maintains that the correct figure from January 2016 to February 2019 is 593 murders.
The main targets of this violence are grassroots community leaders in rural areas, many of whom were Indigenous or Afro-Colombian. The OHCHR stated that 93% of the cases they monitored took place in areas of socio-economic depression where the state is weak or absent. Therefore, they recommended the Colombian state “maintain its presence, including through civilian authorities, recognize and promote the participation of civil society with full guarantees of association, assembly and expression, and accelerate implementation of the peace agreement in the regions concerned, which would support the work of defenders by expanding civic space”.
Despite these attacks, civil society has kept up the pressure. July 2018 , for example, saw a massive mobilization of Colombians demanding the state put an end to the killings. Although the Attorney General recognised the systematic character of the assassinations last January, the government has not implemented effective protection measures. This lack of response is why some mobilization has turned towards the international community. Numerous groups are developing awareness campaigns asking the Colombian state and actors of the international community to intervene in the human rights crisis, such as the current #DefendTheDefenders campaign in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Colombians living in Europe also marched to the headquarters of the International Criminal Court (ICC) on April 5, 2019, to request a formal investigation into the killings. During that same week, representatives of civil society organizations, social movements and human rights platforms working on Colombia met in Brussels to evaluate the crisis and testify to the European Union about the lack of implementation of the Colombian peace agreement. The aim of these recent campaigns was to build pressure and awareness in the run up to Victim’s Day in Colombia on April 9- a day of national remembrance and solidarity with the victims of the armed conflict.
Despite enduring violence and attacks from non-state armed actors and the state, civil society continues to mobilise in Colombia. From April 28 to May 2, social leaders from across the country will gather and camp out in Bogotá to demand the protection of the lives of all social leaders, as part of the Refugio Humanitario por la Vida de Líderes y Lideresas sociales campaign. Hearing their voices and remembering the stories of victims has never been more important, as silencing social movement leaders and civil society activists is a key tool in the proliferation of the conflict. It remains to be seen if the SIVJRNR and civil society can break this cycle of marginalization in Colombian history.
Jaskiran Kaur Chohan is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Institute of the Americas, UCL. Her area of research is campesino agriculture and agroecology in Colombia, with a focus on the Zonas de Reserva Campesina (Peasant Reserve Zones).
Verónica Ramírez Montenegro is a political scientist and sociologist, currently working as a doctoral researcher at the UCL Institute of the Americas. Her academic and practical (UNDP) experience in the UK and Colombia has been focused on processes of participatory democracy and civil society empowerment.