Students campaign for a "yes" vote © Leonardo Munoz
It's the last hurdle before Colombia's historic peace deal between the government and Farc guerrillas, if the majority of voters approve it. But many citizens fear war crimes will go unpunished.
Colombia faces a turning point. On Sunday, citizens will vote on a peace deal to end 52 years of civil war. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict, millions displaced. It is a mammoth task to transform politics, economy and society from war to peace. For many Colombians, reconciliation is still a long way off. One point of contention is how to deal with massacres, attacks and other war crimes.
Conservative opposition to peace
Polls predict majority in favor of peace effort by President Juan Manuel Santos and Farc guerrilla chief Timochenko. But the vocal conservative opposition is agitating against the painstakingly negotiated peace. It has its sights set on the central element of the treaty: a transitional justice system that focuses not on retribution but on reconciliation and finding the truth.
"We are facing a scenario of total impunity," criticized former president and current senator alvaro Uribe. With the agreement, Colombia would fall into the hands of the guerrillas. "Lack of justice and punishment will trigger feelings of revenge instead of forgiveness," right-wing hardliner predicts in newspaper interviews.
Government denies amnesty for perpetrators
The Santos government is countering those fears. She stressed that there would be no amnesty for perpetrators and that the interests of victims would be secured in the best possible way through the agreed peace tribunal. "This agreement contains the maximum amount of justice that was possible," Santos told the British broadcaster BBC. However, he personally would have liked to see harsher punishments for war criminals, the president admitted.
Tom Koenigs, the German government's special envoy for Colombia, also believes transitional justice is the right way to go: "Those who accept responsibility in court and ask for forgiveness have a chance of lighter sentences. That is positive," the Green politician told the Evangelical Press Service (epd). He said it would be a painful process, but one aimed at "preventing a repetition of such excesses".
Creation of a peace tribunal with international participation
The transitional justice system in Colombia, which was already agreed upon last September, provides for the creation of a special peace tribunal with international participation and a truth commission. Unrepentant offenders face maximum sentences of up to 20 years in prison. Provided defendants cooperate with the court, however, the sentence will be limited to eight years and can be served as community service. Amnesty is only provided for politically motivated acts, but not for crimes against humanity or other serious acts such as sexist violence or kidnapping.
The chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Fatou Bensouda, welcomes this solution. "I am glad that the text of the treaty excludes amnesty and pardons for crimes against humanity," she said.
Koenigs also dismisses Uribe's criticism as "politically colored position statements". Transitional justice applies equally to leftist guerrillas and accused civilians and state employees, he said. Soldiers held responsible for numerous human rights abuses.
Human rights organization sees weaknesses
And the far-right paramilitary groups with which the Uribe family is said to have maintained close ties are also accused of the most serious crimes. "In certain circles, the actions of the transitional justice could still cause astonishment," said Koenigs.
For the international human rights organization Human Rights Watch, on the other hand, it is precisely the legal agreement that is the greatest weakness of the peace agreement. Because of the often vague text of the treaty, human rights violations by guerrillas and the military would not be punished. "To 'punish' confessed and convicted war criminals only with community service is grotesquely inadequate," criticizes Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch.