Truth and Reconciliation in Colombia: CCA President Marina Jimenez in the Globe and Mail

Special to The Globe and Mail

Published Wednesday, Aug. 07 2013

Marina Jimenez is President of the Canadian Council for the Americas, Canada’s premier forum on trade and dialogue in the Americas.

Few countries have a history of violence, conflict and bloodshed as vivid and complex as Colombia. And yet few nations can boast the same determination and capacity to move beyond such a turbulent political past.

Colombia took another important step on the long road to reconciliation and peace with the release on July 24 of a report titled “Enough Already. Colombia: Memories of War and Dignity”. Meticulously researched and written by a government truth commission known as the National Centre of Historic Memory over a period of six years, the 434-page document is a courageous move for a country attempting to establish lasting peace.

The document marks the first time the country has tried to quantify the extensive human loss and human rights violations that occurred as a result of the civil conflict, and is vital for the nation’s efforts to create a credible and accurate account of the past. Much praise goes to President Juan Manuel Santos, who created the Centre of Historic Memory under a 2011 law that was also designed to return millions of hectares of stolen land to their rightful owners and to provide up to $12,000 in compensation to individual victims and families of those who have died in the violence.

The report makes for bone-chilling reading, with a grim accounting of the toll the country’s 54-year-old civil conflict has taken. The armed struggle has left more than 220,000 people dead – most of them civilians – and forced more than 4.7 million off their land, according to the study. The extent of human suffering, including sexual violence, is laid out in full, with witnesses describing how they were forced to become sex slaves, kidnapped and tortured.

Significantly, the study attributes the violence not just to leftist rebel groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, but also to right-wing para-military organizations, and members of the armed forces. All three groups are estimated to have committed 1,982 massacres, defined as four victims or more, killing 11,751 people between 1980 and 2012.

The report rightly calls on the state to ask forgiveness of the victims of the conflict. A dysfunctional justice system, corruption, and issues over land reform have stood in the way of bringing perpetrators to justice, and helped prolong the war, noted Gonzalo Sanchez, head of the National Centre for Historical Memory.

Within hours of the study’s release, Pres. Santo did exactly this, accepting responsibility for the state’s role in the civil conflict. “That responsibility is not just mine, the government’s, the victims or the victimizers. No. It is everyone’s responsibility… Only in a Colombia without fear and with truth can we begin to turn the page.”

The significance of this public acknowledgement of the victims of violence – many of whom are rural, poor, indigenous and female – cannot be underestimated in a country which for many years remained silent about the role of the state in human-rights violations. The Santos government deserves credit for its candour and for giving the country the freedom, space and resources to produce such a report.

The timing is also key: it was released not as a post-conflict exercise but in the midst of peace talks between the government and the FARC. The two sides have made some progress, including on such key points as land reform, but are stalled on other issues such as political reform and disarmament.

“The report puts a face on the conflict. The President has taken responsibility for what has happened and that acknowledgement is a remarkable thing,” said Pilar Riano, a University of British Columbia anthropologist who as a member of the Historical Memory Group contributed to the report.

The history of the current day civil conflict is multi-faceted. The leftist rebel groups were founded in 1964 following a long period of civil war known as La Violencia. Para-military groups, backed by ranchers and cocaine traffickers, emerged in the 1980s to challenge the rebels, and civilians were often caught in the middle.

It would be easy to forget the considerable progress Colombia has made in the last several years, in improving security and pursuing political solutions to the armed conflict, notes Carlo Dade, an analyst with the University of Ottawa. The country of 45 million has seen its homicide rate drop more than any other country in Latin America, and stands as an example of progress in the region. The report can be seen as another victory.

Colombians have shown they have the courage and political maturity to acknowledge the past. They have told the truth. And this will only strengthen the country’s democracy and future.