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The face of hope and pain

Case Study

In an interview with Colombian newspaper El Espectador in September 2018, Alejandra Miller, one of the 12 members of the Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence, and Non-Repetition (hereafter Truth Commission), puts her finger on one of the challenges this Commission has had to cope with. “The [Truth] Commission is not willing to relinquish the implementation of the gender approach,” she declared. Miller’s words thus give a sense of the difficulties ahead in the Truth Commission’s struggle to give access to justice, truth and reparation not only to women and LGBT people, but also to all the victims of the conflict who faced violence because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.

From the beginning of its function in November 2018 and during its three-year mandate, the Truth Commission has taken up

the endeavor of uncovering and learning the truth of what happened during the Colombian armed conflict. In brief terms, the Commission’s mandate involves elucidating the origins and multiples causes of this protracted conflict, its impacts on society and the factors that facilitated or contributed to the longevity of the conflict. But worth noticing, this focus on the past goes in parallel with a regard towards the future (Oettler 2020). The task ahead for the Commission includes providing recommendations aimed at addressing the root causes of the conflict, guaranteeing the non-recurrence of past violations and promoting democratic coexistence.

The complexity of the Truth Commission’s mandate is very high and demonstrates the intricacies of an internal armed conflict that started more than 50 years ago and has left almost 8 million victims (Cespedes & Jaramillo 2018). They include as many as 6 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) (Garzon 2017), about 170,000 direct and indirect victims of enforced disappearance, and numerous victims who were subjected to other war crimes committed during the armed conflict such as kidnapping, extortion, forced recruitment, sexual and gender-based violence. Besides its function of unveiling the truth, the Commission must also establish the collective responsibilities of armed and unarmed actors in the course of the conflict, among them guerrillas and paramilitary groups, the state, and other sectors including the entrepreneurs.

Gender Perspective: An Opportunity for a Transformative Peace

The Colombian Truth Commission came out of the long-standing advocacy of Colombian civil society, including the victims’ and women’s movements, to find a negotiated solution to the armed conflict. This Commission is one of the three transitional justice mechanisms set up under the 2016 Peace Accords signed between the Colombian government and the Marxist guerrilla group self-identified as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – FARC for the provision of a Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition. Included in the chapter of the Peace Agreement dedicated to rendering justice to the victims, the whole above-mentioned System involves the combination of three mechanisms. First, the so-called Special Jurisdiction to Peace (JEP), which is a judicial mechanism that should allow for the investigation and sanctioning of serious human rights violations and serious infringements of international humanitarian law; and second, a Special Unit for the Search for Persons Deemed as Missing. The third mechanism of the System, known as the Truth Commission, is of a non-judicial nature. Therefore, unlike the JEP, it does not lead to criminal charges against those who appear before it. Instead, it serves a retributive function for the victims by elucidating “practices and deeds constituting serious human rights violations and serious infringements of international humanitarian law (IHL).” Although the work of the Truth Commission involves public hearings and numerous sessions throughout the Colombian territory, it does not focus on individual cases. Rather, its aim is to investigate and reflect on patterns of human rights violations which took place in the course of the conflict.

Disagreements over whether or not to include a gender perspective throughout its implementation, exemplified in the initial quotation of this article, are just the tip of the iceberg. And, the Commission is not the only peace institution that has been targeted by critics or acts of resistance. Indeed, against the odds, the whole Peace Accord, which provides for the creation of the Truth Commission, was rejected in a referendum held in October 2, 2016. After a month of negotiations with representatives of population groups who cast a NO vote in the so-called referendum for peace, President Santos secured congressional approval of the peace agreement. However, this has not spared peace institutions from being challenged and facing recurrent opposition (Garzon 2019). This included an attempt from the current government of President Duque to pass a law that would prevent the Commission from accessing specific official archives. Given this context, and due to its non-ability to prosecute, the transformative power of the Truth Commission depends on its possibilities to make public its outcome, the extent to which its recommendations are implemented or followed, and on whether or not its work finds echo among the general Colombian population.

Despite the support of victims’ movements, there is a risk of disappointment of the victims which might postpone the possibilities of achieving social reconciliation. But in addition, the result of the referendum might illustrate the Colombian population’s disinterest in the work of peace institutions or might actually be the signal of a lack of legitimacy. To overlook this signal might be a missed opportunity for the building of sustainable peace. The IPAP project’s focus on the work of the Colombian Truth Commission seeks to provide a sense of the possibilities for peacebuilding institutions to not just reach the people and population groups who have struggled for them to become real but also a wider civil society. To clarify the truth about conflict, violence, and the harm they have inflicted on the lives of the victims is a hug task. But the actualization of transformative peace is also about the future and the creation of spaces of possibility for the coexistence of difference.