Human rights workers are getting killed in Colombia. Here’s what could help save the peace.


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 — one of the country’s worst acts of violence since a peace accord was signed with FARC rebels more than a year ago. (Juean Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

February 11 at 6:00 AM

Just over two years ago, the Colombian government and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a celebrated peace agreement, ending 50 years of bloody armed conflict. And yet 439 human rights workers have been killed in that country since then — by reemerging right-wing militias and left-wing guerrillas that fought during the civil war. What is behind these alarming developments?

From the start, the government and FARC have been uncertain about the other side’s commitment to complying with the peace accords. Not wanting to be exploited, both parties have been slow to implement many of their obligations and have even reneged on some. And, now, groups that oppose the peace process — for example, the right-wing paramilitary group Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles) — are taking advantage of this vulnerability.

Fortunately, Colombia already has in place a tribunal that, if used fully, could help salvage the accords. We will explain.

The Colombian peace process: A primer

At first, those implementing the 2016 peace agreement took all the steps that research has shown to be essential. The United Nations supervised an intensive disarmament, demobilization and reintegration campaign, and FARC officially handed over its weapons, ending in August 2017. Former combatants then moved into more than two dozen transition zones designed to give them the resources to reintegrate into Colombian society, such as reeducation, health care and other social services.

And as agreed, Colombia set up an innovative criminal tribunal: the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), responsible for processing and collecting evidence for crimes committed by fighters on all sides during the conflict. Individual guerrillas and government fighters can come forward voluntarily and testify about their involvement in the war. If they do, they are eligible for five to eight years of an alternative sentence that does not necessarily involve prison — instead of a criminal trial and up to 20 years in prison.

Obstacles on the road toward peace

However, the Colombian government hasn’t delivered on key promises, such as health services, education and drinkable water for former combatants. Without the promised help, many former FARC members have left the transition zones, returned to the mountains and taken up arms again.

For instance, in August 2018, high-level former FARC commanders disappeared from transition zones, protesting the government’s inability or unwillingness to comply with the terms of the accords. Meanwhile, human rights workers are being threatened and killed for helping communities implement the peace accords — for example, by pushing for land redistribution and farming programs in rural communities. Recently, the Colombian Commission of Jurists published a study suggesting that these are not random killings but systemic, designed to stop community organizing.

The Special Jurisdiction for Peace

If implemented fully, the JEP can alleviate the climate of uncertainty that has encouraged groups working against the peace and confront a long-standing culture of impunity in Colombia. Many think that this culture of impunity is contributing to the lax government response, worsening the rising rates of homicide and death threats against human rights leaders. If violence is to be curbed, the government will need to signal that people are going to be held accountable for their actions in the past — and in the future. The JEP, if used properly and with the right support, can provide this signal of credibility.

The JEP will primarily be investigating FARC combatants, but right-wing paramilitary groups and members of the Colombian military can be investigated and tried. The JEP has 10 years to address crimes committed over more than 50 years of conflict, a massive undertaking, even without the public skepticism the JEP faces.

Lessons from other countries

In a new article in the Journal of Human Rights, one of us, Kelebogile Zvobgo, examines how similar investigative bodies can encourage testimony from those who have committed atrocities.

Amnesties or alternative sentencing can help. Consider the South African and the East Timorese truth and reconciliation commissions, which investigated violence under, respectively, South Africa’s apartheid government and Indonesia’s decades-long military occupation of Timor-Leste. Anyone who had committed a politically motivated crime and feared future prosecution could appear and trade their testimony for legal amnesty.

The South African commission saw 2,500 perpetrators come forward, while 1,541 did in Timor-Leste. Compare that to the Sierra Leonean commission, which had no amnesty powers and received only 51 perpetrator statements.

In Colombia, the possibility of commuted, alternative sentences seems to be attracting testimony. Almost 5,000 former combatants have already submitted written testimony to the JEP. But other factors also can facilitate or hinder further testimony.

Zvobgo’s research shows that if higher-level perpetrators testify, their subordinates are more likely to come forward as well. If subordinates do not see their leaders participating, statements may dwindle. This is why FARC commanders leaving transition zones is so troubling. In addition, FARC fighters may not trust the JEP if they continue to see the government abandoning many of its obligations under the peace agreement.

Faith communities can also make a difference. In South Africa, the truth commission was chaired by well-respected spiritual leaders, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Rev. Alex Boraine. These two encouraged testimony by comparing it to religious confession, and encouraged victims and their families to forgive by comparing such an attitude to divine forgiveness. More than 40 faith communities endorsed the process, spreading Boraine and Tutu’s message widely among South Africans.

[The FARC became a Colombian political party. Here’s why elections are critical to a lasting peace.]

In Colombia, the Catholic Church and the growing community of Protestant evangelical churches could spread similar messages. Faith-based organizations such as CINEP — Peace Program and the Social Pastoral Caritas Mission of Colombia are dedicated to the peace process, and have worked on peace projects and research about human rights abuses related to the civil conflict for many years.

However, in the campaign against the peace agreement, Colombian evangelicals were concerned that the agreement endangered “traditional family values.” Aspects of the peace accord were perceived as a threat to an evangelical way of life. This mobilized some members of these religious communities against the agreement. This divide may hurt public support of the peace agreement.

Justice and peace in Colombia are far from guaranteed, and deserve to be closely monitored.

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