Transitional justice, peace and war — a talk with President Santos of Colombia


President Juan Manuel Santos served as Colombia’s head of state for two terms from 2010 to 2018, during which time he led peace negotiations with the guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and signed the landmark peace agreement in 2016 that ended the 50-year long civil war. That same year, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring peace to his country. Pathfinders Director, Liv Tørres, moderated the 11th Emilio Mignone Lecture on Transitional Justice (hosted by the International Center for Transitional Justice, ICTJ and NYU School of Law’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, CHR&GJ) last week, where she joined President Santos in conversation on the role of transitional justice in peace processes.

In this blog, Liv Tørres shares highlights from the lecture. Watch a recording of their conversation here.

By Liv Tørres, Director of the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies

“Without transitional justice we would still have had war,” President Santos said as he opened the 11th Emilio Mignone Lecture on Transitional Justice in New York last week. In his remarks, Santos candidly reflected on Colombia’s history of conflict, the peace process and transitional justice in the country, a year and a half after he left office.

At a press conference before the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in December 2016, Santos was asked by a journalist what thoughts he had about having served as Colombia’s Minister of Defense and how he felt about receiving the peace prize years later. He looked at the journalist and said: “Yes, I was Minister of Defense and I was a very good one.” Now, three years later, he explained what he meant by this statement: that in order for a peace process to succeed, the military balance of power has to be in favor of the state. Listening to the experiences and advice from others who had gone through protracted conflicts and peace processes around the world — and learning from the experience of his predecessors — Santos had become convinced that if the FARC believed that they could win by violent means, they would never negotiate in good faith. So, as Minister of Defense, he realized he had an opportunity to achieve one of the conditions for peace. At the same time, he was certain that he had to change the culture of the military, which at the time appeared on every black list for its human rights violations. A new culture had to be built based upon respect for people and civilians. He listened to the advice of a general: treat the FARC as adversaries rather than as enemies. Enemies you destroy, adversaries you beat while maintaining respect for them as human beings. Get your military to do the same, the general argued, and Santos agreed. “We had to get the military to understand that their greatest asset was their legitimacy. Rather than count the number of guerrillas they killed, they should count the ones they got to defect.”

So gradually, peace didn’t seem such as distant goal. As President, Santos gathered international advisors that had been close to the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, the Camp David Accords, the peace deal in El Salvador, and more, and asked them to serve as his own personal advisors to shape his perspective and advise him on how to go forward. Working with his advisors strengthened his conviction to not enter a cease-fire agreement until the very end. Looking back, he says, the FARC had always used cease-fire agreements to regroup. So Santos adopted what he labeled the “Rabin Doctrine” (after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin), to fight terrorism as if there is no peace process and to negotiate a peace process as if there is no terrorism. It worked, though the pressure to halt the negotiations was often great, because how could he continue peace negotiations when terror attacks were still being carried out against civilians? In the end, a peace agreement was negotiated that was to some extent shaped using elements from Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement, but Santos said he also learned that each process towards peace has its own national conditions.

Another crucial element of the process towards peace and transitional justice in Colombia, was a focus on victims. Approximately 60 victims were invited to Havana and were given 15 minutes each to tell their story. His experience with victims was one of the most impressive and formative parts of the process, Santos shared. Initially, he had thought the victims would be the hardest to convince of the need for peace. It turned out to be quite the opposite. “I thought the victims would be bitter, hard[ened] and [eager to] claim more justice. This was a misconception.” Victims were invited in during the negotiations when the war was still taking place. The Victims and Restitution of Land Law was negotiated and agreed to during the war. “With that we recognized the conflict as a conflict.” Strangely enough, Santos says, “governments before had neglected the presence of the conflict. With 250,000 people killed and 8 million victims, we had never recognized this as a conflict. But [finally] recognizing this as a conflict [gave us] a precondition for transitional justice.”

(Source: Gobierno de Chile, Jefa de Estado participa en ceremonia de la Firma de la Paz entre el Gobierno de Colombia y las FARC E.P.)

Santos was convinced it was equally important to hear from victims outside of formal peace negotiations. He talked to victims every week and heard their stories. He asked them what they thought about guerrillas getting legal benefits and lenient sentences. Overwhelmingly, they answered: “That is good, we don’t want others to suffer what we have suffered”. One such victim was Pastora Mira García. Santos recounted her tragic story: At an early age, her father was killed by political rivals. In 1999, her mother suffered a heart attack and died when militants knocked on the door. Her first husband was killed when her daughter was just two months old. Later, her daughter disappeared. Her younger brother was kidnapped by an armed group and never returned. At 18, her son was also taken by an armed group, then killed after being held for 15 days. Yet, despite her suffering, she has become a symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation in Colombia. She cared for both her father’s and her son’s killers as they lay ill, and ultimately thanked them for telling her the truth. Despite her tragic life story, she did not become bitter and full of hate. She went on to found ‘CARE’, which works towards reconciliation of victims and perpetrators. García accompanied Santos at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 2016, which he accepted “on behalf of all Colombians, but especially the victims of the conflict.” “That is the power of forgiveness,” Santos said last week. “The stars that guided us were the rights of the victims.”

Beyond integrating victims’ perspectives, Santos shared more insights into the conditions that shaped Colombia’s peace process. Establishing practical meeting points between the state actors and military on the one hand and guerrillas on the other was another important part of the process. “You have to establish meeting points and dialogue between the parties, otherwise there will be no reconciliation and no peacebuilding. Peace making is done when you have signed the agreement. Peacebuilding takes a lot longer,” Santos said.

Is it possible to reconcile and build real peace without redistributing resources and reducing the gap? “No, everyone needs to feel that they are moving forward by the process,” he said. And poverty alleviation was indeed a high priority for the Santos government. It was made a centerpiece of development plans, establishing a broad and also multidimensional picture of the many deprivations that affect poor peoples’ lives. “We focus[ed] on housing and access to health and reducing poverty…. We made land restitution a central piece of the peace process, but if you ask me what was still lacking in the peace process: inequality in the rural areas. We didn’t do enough.”

Is there anything he would have done differently looking back? “The magnitude of our challenges means that this will take a long time,” Santos shared. “We will not be able to address everything. You have to be selective. And there has to be a lot of communication for people to understand transitional justice. You minimize the political cost by explaining to people that no peace agreement is perfect. But it did require massive communication and understanding that maybe we didn’t give enough attention when confronted with massive resistance in social media etc. Maybe we were also too ambitious and sophisticated, legalistic and detail-oriented, and put too many legal requirements in our process [while] also [going] too fast in some areas…Negotiations also took too long and the critics took advantage of the time and mobilized against the peace process. The current government is not too enthusiastic about the peace process, but we have the courts and the Congress on the side of peace,” he said. Colombia is now in the implementation stage and it will take time, but as always, he is optimistic.

Can the “Colombian model” be exported to other countries? “Well, we can share our experiences, but I have learnt that every peace process has a unique character. It has to be shaped accordingly, but we need to learn from each other and share experiences. Bringing victims into a peace process will always help,” he concluded.