Restorative Justice in Colombia’s Forthcoming Truth Commission

I have a bet for you. Ready? I bet you ten dollars that you have not heard of the following concept: transitional justice. (My venmo is @mallory-matheson; pay up, people). Transitional justice is a new and emerging field in the international and national peacebuilding sectors. Currently, Colombia is experiencing many changes in its transitional justice sphere; what follows is a crash course on transitional justice to provide context for that discussion. Consisting of both judicial and nonjudicial measures to promote reconciliation in the wake of massive human rights abuses, transitional justice centers upon principles of restorative justice, which seeks to repair lingering harm from crimes and reintegrate all stakeholders in conflict into their communities. Many famous world leaders, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a South African anti-apartheid leader;, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the departing president of Liberia;, have devoted their careers and much of their lives to the work of transitional justice. In practice, transitional justice is often implemented through criminal prosecutions of perpetrators, victim reparations programs, institutional reforms, and truth commissions.

As nonjudicial bodies of inquiry, truth commissions are established by national governments to investigate the root causes, facts, and societal implications of a conflict, including wrongdoing by any actors, in order to resolve conflict. There have been over forty truth commissions worldwide for various conflicts and mass human rights abuses, from South Africa’s apartheid to East Germany’s post World War II communist rule to Argentina’s military dictatorship. Now, several forthcoming truth commissions are taking the international stage, most notably in Colombia.

Colombia has been in the throes of civil conflict since mid-1960s, up through 2016. Two main stakeholders, the right-leaning incumbent government, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a left-leaning guerilla group, signed a revised, Congress-approved peace agreement in November 2016. But even now, civil unrest still rages across much of the country. Third party insurgent groups who were not included in the peace agreement process continue to engage in violent acts. Colombia is largely pinning hopes of successful national reconciliation on their upcoming truth commission, mandated to operate for three years once created. According to the peace accords, the commission will focus on recommending reparations involving comprehensive rural reform, anti-corruption and political participation initiatives, cessation of hostilities and disarmament, strengthening law enforcement and public policy surrounding the illicit drug trade, and victim rights. The commission will not be able to implement penalties or give evidence to separate judicial entities.

A selection committee to choose the commissioners was formed in April 2017 when President Juan Manuel Santos inaugurated the Colombia truth commission. The committee issued a call for commissioner applications on July 15, 2017, and is currently in the process of reviewing applicants. Interviews are posted online and available to the general public. Once the commissioners have been chosen, they will have a six- month period to set up the commission, which includes developing logistical procedures, hiring staff, obtaining a venue and other necessary operational materials, and creating a methodology to carry out the commission’s mandate. The mandate requires territorial, gender, and ethnic considerations to be addressed. With so many previous truth commissions to guide it, Colombia could have the most comprehensive and successful truth commission yet.

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Mallory Matheson

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