The role of victims in the peace process

3rd March, 2021

By: Luis Carlos Palomino

When talking about the Colombian peace process, one of the most recurrent elements is the relevance of the role of victims in shaping the peace agreement. This can be superficially perceived as a populist slogan, simply meant to appeal to the emotions of the interlocutor in order to lend legitimacy to the agreement. On a closer examination of the text and of the evolution of its implementation so far, reality shows that this perspective could not be further from the truth.

Regardless of one's personal opinion about the peace agreement, we must admit that the document signed by the FARC and the government in the Colón Theater is extremely complex and comprehensive. It is not a simple piece of propaganda, but rather part of a project of nation. Among the different parts of this convoluted machinery, one of the overarching elements that underpins its functioning is the participation of victims in peacebuilding. This participation serves as the basis for truth seeking, the reconstruction of the Colombian countryside, the fight against drug trafficking and, more generally, the construction of a peaceful country by placing the victims at the center of the agreement.

But, what does it mean that the victims are part of the peace agreement? Why is it so often said that this inclusion is unique for the case of Colombia? To start solving these questions we must take into account that in other peace agreements around the world, only the armed actors negotiate the means through which weapons will be surrendered and the restitution mechanisms for those affected by war. In contrast, in the case of Colombia the negotiation also included victims’ organizations, which were part of national boards for several months. In such boards the most important elements for the victims found inside the peace agreement were debated with negotiating teams and this had a direct impact on the final document.

Photo: Jesus Abad Colorado

Victims' participation strengthened the territorial approach of the peace agreement, which seeks a solution to the real problems of those living in the most isolated areas of the national geography, where the conflict was indeed most acute. Victims’ organizations gave a voice to those living in such isolated areas, ensuring that the peace negotiations included realistic representations of the most acute problems in rural Colombia and not just attempts to adjust the agreement in favor of the FARC or the government. Victims' contributions did not only correspond to an individualistic logic, but were the result of a collective work that tried to rethink the national experience from a local perspective.

The victims did not, and still do not, only want reparations for the damages they suffered from the conflict. Instead, they also want to create structural solutions to the problems that led to the violence in the country. This localized and empathetic perspective is the basis on which victims mourn the sufferings of the past, but also take control of the country on behalf of those who chose to turn the other cheek rather than take up arms.

This is reflected in the active role that victims have within the Integral System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repair, both in the construction of the truth about the Colombian conflict and in the monitoring and follow-up of the judicial processes and reparations. They are not just recipients of some economic incentive, but actors who seek to be the center of the economic and political transformation necessary to prevent the country from returning to war.

This role played by the victims in the construction of the peace agreement was fundamental after the signing of the agreement. The unwavering determination of these people in the search for peace is the foundation on which the agreement continues to stand. This keeps happening in spite of the attacks that the Agreement has received from the state as well as from FARC dissidents, the drug trade, some media, and paramilitarism.

The role of victims as overseers of the work of all parties and their unwavering commitment to peace has unfortunately made them a military target for those who insist on returning to war. Many of the social leaders who have been killed since the signing of the peace agreement are leaders of victim’s organizations (mainly landowners) who have tried to change their territories by bringing back those who were illegally dispossessed from their territories through community work. According to Indepaz, 310 social leaders were murdered only in 2020.

If the government and the FARC want to offer a realistic solution to the wave of violence that Colombia has experienced in recent years, they need to listen to the victims again, because so far that has been the only thing that seems to have a real effect on reducing violence in our country.