On Wednesday, September 23, 2015, President [Juan Manuel] Santos of Colombia shook hands with Rodrigo Londoño, known as “Timochenko,” the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in Havana, Cuba, where the two sides have been holding peace talks since 2012. Significantly, they agreed finalize a peace accord to end the 51-year war by March 23, 2016 and the FARC agreed to surrender its weapons within 60 days of signing the accord and to transform itself into a legal political movement.
Until now the talks dealt with issues such as land, political participation, drugs and currently, transitional justice. The latest stage in the agreement provides for the creation of special courts to try members of the FARC and members of the military and paramilitaries with a maximum eight-year detention to be imposed on those who admit to war crimes. Some Colombian politicians, led by former President Alvaro Uribe and human rights groups, like Human Rights Watch, have said the deal amounts to impunity for criminals.
The agreement contemplates the creation of a Special Jurisdiction for Peace, which will be comprised of Chambers of Justice (Salas de Justicia) and a Tribunal for Peace. The Chambers and the Tribunal will be comprised principally of Colombian judges with a minority participation of foreigners who comply with the highest requisites. The essential function of these bodies is to end impunity, obtain truth and contribute to the reparation of victims and to impose sanctions on those responsible for the grave crimes committed during the armed conflict, particularly the most serious and representative ones, guaranteeing that they will not be repeated.
The Chambers will be designed to grant pardons or amnesty for political crimes or crimes connected to political crimes such as the illegal possession of arms. An Amnesty Law, still to be adopted, will define the offenses covered. The agreement specifically states that war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity cannot be included in an amnesty.
The Tribunal for Peace will be the body where perpetrators from both sides will be encouraged to state the truth about grave crimes committed during the armed conflict in exchange for lighter sentences. Members of the FARC and government soldiers and paramilitaries who admit to war crimes will have their freedom restricted for 5-8 years whereas those who refuse to admit to crimes and are found guilty will face up to 20 years in prison.
There are 7.4 million war victims on the official victims’ register of Colombia’s population of 47 million, who have suffered in some way during the 51-year war. Given the reticence of Latin American militaries and insurgents of any stripe to own up to the grave crimes that they have committed in their “dirty wars,” the likelihood that this latest accord will provoke confessions and reconciliation is remote at best. And then there’s the time factor, none of these agreed upon elements will come into force until both sides sign the final agreement and then it still has to survive acceptance by the Colombian people in a referendum.