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Colombia: The Half-Truth Commissions

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

8 February 2018

Truth commissions are now a part of the landscape of post-conflict or more accurately post-accord situations.  At the end of a conflict, it is expected that a commission be organised to explain to us what happened, as if we did not already know.  The commissions are required in order to give an official version, which is imposed over the version of grassroots organisations or that of the former insurgencies.

In the case of Ireland there was no need for any commission, the British government rejected the idea, probably because the process as such and the accord already contained their version of the truth, that the British are in Ireland to keep two savage groups who cannot peacefully coexist apart.  Of course, there were some things left unresolved and a police team was set up to investigate them and a judicial commission to investigate the massacre of 13 civilians in front of TV cameras in Derry.  That commission concluded that some soldiers from an elite regiment, lost control of themselves for half an hour in an urban setting and the State bore no responsibility beyond that of the actions of low ranking functionaries.

South Africa, however, was a different case and it is a reference point for many sectors that demanded a truth commission in Colombia.  It is put forward as the best case.  Without a doubt the figures from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa are surprising, not least the number of cases they dealt with.  However, the truth is not the sum total of human rights violations nor the declarations of a few perpetrators.  The truth is more than that.  A truth commission has to obviously answer various questions, who, when, where and how in relation to individual acts.  But it must ask the same questions regarding individual acts as part of set of actions committed in the name of the state, the economic and political system, i.e. it must explain why.  From the beginning the South African commission ruled out that idea.  It did not judge Apartheid, although it described it as a crime against humanity, nor the beneficiaries, the business leaders, the white politicians and even less so, international capital.  They were explicitly excluded.  The system bears no responsibility, but rather it is the functionaries who committed human rights violations.  But we must not mention the system nor those most responsible.

Perpetrators and victims appear as individuals with their ‘personal’ stories and narratives in front of the TRC and they are represented in terms of clear moral binaries.  This disaggregates the causes of conflict from structure, it undermines the collective grounds of civic resistance struggles, fragmenting the ideological and moral force of people’s struggles into a handful of events and actions carried out between individual perpetrators and victims.(1)
There was an attempt made to include a mention of F.W. de Klerk as a perpetrator, but he managed to force the TRC to remove their reference from its draft through court action.

This had consequences, not just for the vision of society that the protagonists have, but also in later events.  In 2012, the South African police murdered 34 miners in Marikana.  The manager of the company was Cyril Ramaphosa, a former militant of the miners’ union and now a mining magnate, vice-president of South Africa and future president of it.  Ramaphosa, the company and others were absolved by the investigation and blame was laid at the feet of some police officers.  The way in which we deal with the past explains how we will deal with the future.  Thus, the TRC brought us down the road of impunity till we get to the Marikana massacre.

So, what will the Truth Commission set up as part of the peace process in Colombia be like?  This commission is not a carbon copy of the South African one, having no judicial powers of any sort, it cannot offers amnesties nor forward complaints to the prosecution service.  Its role is investigative, though with the aim of publishing a report on the ‘truth’ of the conflict, but it does not aim to come to a judicial truth, that falls to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP).  But as in South Africa, the JEP will deal with cases as a series of individual acts, where the perpetrators are rewarded with reduced sentences in exchange for their cooperation, even when they don’t say much of import.

When the make up of the commission was announced, some were pleased with the inclusion of the writer Alfredo Molano and its president the Jesuit priest Francisco de Roux.  Neither of these two characters are cause for celebration.  Molano has documented the conflict and he writes well but he does not challenge the establishment.  In his book En Medio del Magdalena Medio he praises the palm oil businessmen, the World Bank and the Bank of Japan.  With friends like that, who need needs enemies?  De Roux plays a more important role and he has already given us some idea as to what the commission will be like.  Above all, it is worth remembering that he believes in the moral duty of victims to forgive their victimisers.

In recent declarations he has explained how he sees the role that the military and the business leaders played in the conflict.  Firstly, he asked for forgiveness from them, because he was, in his own words, unjust with them as not all of them, only a few of them committed crimes.  Here he indicates that just as in South Africa, they will look at the conflict as a series of isolated individual acts.  In statements to the press, De Roux declared that the task of the commission is to “clarity responsibilities and promote a voluntary acknowledgement of responsibility”.(2)  Once again we are faced with a process of isolated actions and furthermore voluntary acknowledgments.  If the military and the police have never acknowledged their role and responsibility in the courts, who thinks they will suddenly come out and confess to the commission?  For De Roux, “The aim of the commission is a human truth, not a legal one that determines guilt and hands down a sentence with ‘due process’, often far removed from reality and manufactured technically by judges and lawyers.”(3)  Here he clearly points out that the commission is one of opinion and they have no intention of apportioning blame.  We already know what his opinion is.  Here everyone did everything, many suffered on both sides, we all have some degree of blame and consequently nobody in particular is responsible.  General condemnations absolve.  Of course, De Roux does not discount the possibility of naming individuals, it cannot be avoided, the issue is that when it comes to apportioning blame whether we include the system, the economic model or not.  But he has been very clear about the purposes of the commission.  After a meeting with the military, he stated the “commission ratified that it would act ‘with objective rigour, acknowledging the suffering of victims on all sides of the conflict.”(4). First of all, the military are not victims, they are participants in the conflict, a soldier killed in combat is not a victim.  The Minister for Defence came out of the meeting very happy and said that “following a frank dialogue (…) it is clear that the commission aims to seek reconciliation.”(5)

On what basis will they seek reconciliation?  Here the state pursues the grassroots movements, it imprisons them, displaces people, takes their land, it passed laws to legalise the plunder and passed other laws to continue to steal legally and it destroys any alternative proposal.  Between a model put forward by landlords, mining companies, latifundistas, palm oil companies and a model put forward by peasant organisations, there is no possible reconciliation.  Here De Roux aims to dupe us with nice phrases, as reconciliation sounds nice, except that it is a forced reconciliation, where the victims must forgive as he has proposed in the past, it is not reconciliation but a front for continuing with business as usual.

In other settings he has talked of inner peace, of conflict between the military and civilians, but never about the economic model nor of those who bear most responsibility.  Colombia is a conflict that produced hatred, not wealth nor profits.  He takes us along the same road as South Africa, the stability of the system is the most important thing and the conflict should be dealt with as a series of individual suffering and hatred that we carry within us.  In three years when they hand in their report, they will say “Some brothers and sisters taken down the path of hatred committed heinous crimes against each other and they should overcome their personal hatred.”  And the business leaders in Bogotá, New York and other parts will crack up laughing.


(1) Grunebaum, H. Et al. (2009)  Outside the Frames: The Politics of Memory and Social Recovery after Apartheid published in German in Ambacher, J.E. & Khan, R. (Eds) Südafrika – Nach der Apartheid – die Grenzen de Befreiung: Berlin, Verlag Assoziation A,2010, pp 2-3 (electronic copy).

(2) El Tiempo (09/11/2017) Estas son las once personas que conformarán la Comisión de la Verdad

(3) El Tiempo (16/11/2017) Empieza la Comisión de la Verdad.

(4) El Tiempo (19/12/2017) Comenzó el diálogo entre Comisión de la Verdad y las Fuerzas Armadas

(5) Ibíd.

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