Colombia’s seemingly endless civil conflict – which has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and left millions displaced – might just have an end date: March 2016.
In Havana on Wednesday, President Juan Manuel Santos said he and Timoleon “Timochenko” Jimenez, the commander of the nation’s largest guerrilla group, had agreed to complete long-running peace talks within six months.
The self-imposed deadline came after negotiators announced that they had reached a breakthrough on transitional justice – seen as the lynchpin to a permanent peace pact.
Representatives for the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have been meeting in Havana for almost three years. And while Wednesday’s announcement was hailed, there are still tough questions to be answered, including how the guerrillas will disarm, how peace will be monitored and how victims might be compensated.
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But for many analysts, the issue of justice was the principal obstacle. The importance of the sub-agreement was underscored by the guest list at the signing: Santos, Timochenko and Cuban leader Raul Castro.
Santos and Timochenko, both dressed in white long-sleeve shirts, sat at opposite ends of the table and didn’t shake hands on camera. But it was still progress: The two men had never been seen in the same room together before Wednesday.
The agreement will establish specialized courts and prosecutors to try war crimes and other human rights abuses committed by both sides of the conflict, including rape, extrajudicial killing, kidnapping and forced displacement.
Those facing the most severe crimes, but who cooperate with the courts and provide testimony to a truth commission, will face five- to eight-year sentences under special conditions. While those conditions were not specified, there has been speculation that they might be open-air prisons, more akin to working farms
Those who don’t cooperate at all, and are found guilty of human rights abuses, can spend up to 20 years in detention.
But those accused of lesser political crimes might be eligible for amnesty under the agreement.
The issue of justice – how to punish guerrilla commanders, but not so severely that they would back-out of the peace process – has been looming over the talks.
Santos reassured victims of the conflict the deal would “guarantee a maximum of justice” and leave no serious crime in impunity.
“We’re adversaries on different banks of the river,” Santos said in reference to his guerrilla counterpart, “but today we’re both headed in the same direction. It’s the most noble direction that any society can take: peace.”
Timochenko, who is said to have arrived in Havana this week from his jungle redoubt in Colombia, spoke briefly after the signing. While he wasn’t as effusive as Santos, he said the FARC, thought to be about 7,000 strong, were determined to be legitimate, nonviolent, political actors.
He said the agreement on transitional justice “without a doubt creates a favorable environment to advance” on the remaining items on the peace agenda. And he vowed to try to hammer out a final deal “as soon as possible.”
Negotiators had already reached tentative agreements on agriculture and land reform, guerrilla participation in politics, and how the demobilized fighters can become allies in the government’s drug-eradication programs.
The FARC have also agreed to lay down their weapons within 60 days after a peace deal is signed, Santos said Wednesday.
Although none of those sub-agreements will go into effect without a finalized deal, in many ways the talks are already paying off. According to Colombia’s Conflict Resource Analysis Center, violence in recent weeks has hit a 40-year low after the FARC declared a unilateral ceasefire June 20, and the government has taken steps to minimize clashes.
Wednesday’s deal gives the talks even more steam.
“As a first generation Colombian-American, today’s news fills me with great hope,” Natalie Alhonte, associate director at the Atlantic Council Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, said in a statement. “President Santos’ flight to Cuba marks a grand gesture in both the peace process and in his presidency.”
The Washington Office on Latin America also praised the progress but said it hoped the agreement “includes real accountability for individuals on both sides who committed war crimes.”
“Some basic human norms were violated, and even if the punishment is less severe than the crime, it is important that perpetrators face consequences,” the think tank said in a statement before the announcement. “Nobody, meanwhile, should enjoy pardons or lighter sentences without first confessing fully to his or her crimes and making amends to his or her victims.”
Human Rights Watch said it had serious doubts about the agreement.
“While the agreement on Special Jurisdiction for Peace offers a form of accountability for abuses committed during the armed conflict, the fact is it would allow those most responsible for human rights atrocities to avoid spending a single day in prison,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the organization’s Americas division. “It is difficult to imagine how this arrangement could possibly survive a serious review by Colombia’s Constitutional Court, or for that matter, the International Criminal Court.”
The news comes just days after Pope Francis took the unusual step of using his first Mass in Cuba to call for peace in Colombia, saying the end must come for “the long night of pain and violence.”
“We do not have the right to allow ourselves yet another failure on this path of peace and reconciliation,” he added.
Echoing that speech, Santos reassured the pontiff that “we will not fail; the time for peace has come.”
While Colombia, overwhelmingly wants peace, some critics have feared the government is giving away too much at the negotiating table.
“Santos, it’s not peace that’s close,” former president and opposition Senator Alvaro Uribe wrote on Twitter, “it’s our surrender to the FARC.”
Alhonte, with the Arsht Center, said the announcement should comfort the doubters.
“For Santos, the impending peace deal will silence many of his critics in Colombia who never thought it possible,” she added.
The timing seemed particularly good for Castro. The island, long seen as an exporter of guerrilla violence to the Americas, is now playing peacemaker as one of the guarantors of the Colombian deal. And that image was only burnished as Castro played host to Pope Francis this week.
“Peace in Colombia is not just possible, it’s indispensable,” Castro said. “Even though enormous difficulties remain, they will be overcome.”