OPINION

Opinion: Colombia agreement must be first step toward long awaited justice

384090 01: ***EXCLUSIVE*** Two members of the AUC, the United Self Defense Force of Colombia, the extreme right paramilitary group, patrol a coca leaf plantation where a manual eradication of the coca leaves has gone into effect January 8, 2001 in the province of Putumayo, Colombia. Since the U.S. aid plan for Colombia began last December 15, the AUC are manually destroying coca leaves with machetes in and around the vast areas of coca leaf plantations south of Putumayo. The Colombian leftist guerrilla group, the FARC, is attempting to take control of areas that were under their control, not more than a year ago. (Photo by Piero Pomponi/Newsmakers)

384090 01: ***EXCLUSIVE*** Two members of the AUC, the United Self Defense Force of Colombia, the extreme right paramilitary group, patrol a coca leaf plantation where a manual eradication of the coca leaves has gone into effect January 8, 2001 in the province of Putumayo, Colombia. Since the U.S. aid plan for Colombia began last December 15, the AUC are manually destroying coca leaves with machetes in and around the vast areas of coca leaf plantations south of Putumayo. The Colombian leftist guerrilla group, the FARC, is attempting to take control of areas that were under their control, not more than a year ago. (Photo by Piero Pomponi/Newsmakers)  ((Photo by Piero Pomponi/Newsmakers))

What happened last week in Havana marked a great milestone in Latin America’s history.

The handshake between Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the top FARC leader, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, alias "Timochenko,” signaled one of the most significant developments we have seen in decades toward peace in Colombia.

It brought hope to to the millions of victims of human rights violations and abuses committed during the country’s 50-year brutal armed conflict.

People’s rights to truth, justice and reparation must be an intrinsic part of any final peace agreement. Without it, Colombia will never be truly able to move on from its dark present and enjoy durable and sustainable peace. The voices of the victims must be heard loudly.

- Erika-Guevara-Rosas

The two sides announced that, with only one item left to resolve, disarmament and demobilization, a peace deal would be signed no later than March 23, 2016. The FARC has agreed to lay down its arms 60 days after that.

The question now is how far the final agreement will go in ensuring that those responsible for the killings, torture, sexual abuse, disappearances and forced displacement, among other crimes that have destroyed so many lives across Colombia, face justice.

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Some of the vague definitions included in the agreement, as well as the potential for amnesties, raise fears that not all human rights abusers from all sides of the conflict will face the courts.

The FARC and the government have agreed to set up a “Special Jurisdiction for Peace” consisting of a tribunal and special courts with Colombian judges chosen by both sides and some limited participation by foreign experts.

These courts will have jurisdiction over all those who directly or indirectly participated in the armed conflict and are implicated in “grave crimes” (including crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes).

This judicial process will, however, focus only on “the most serious and representative cases” and, in the case of the FARC, only on those men and women deemed the “most responsible.” The lack of clear definitions might leave many out of the reach of the courts. It is also extremely worrying that the system could make it very difficult to obtain convictions for crimes including extrajudicial executions and sexual violence.

In addition, a new Amnesty Law will benefit those accused of “political and associated crimes.” The Attorney General said some 15,000 members of the FARC could benefit from amnesties.

On June 4 this year, the government and the FARC also announced plans for a "Truth Commission," but there are concerns that the courts may not be able to use any information that arises there.

The issue of justice is not a minor one. It has actually been one the thorniest discussion points in the peace talks, which have been ongoing in Cuba since 2012.

Ensuring justice should never be seen as a token gesture, as a simple "add-on" to an agreement. Millions of victims are still facing the consequences of conflict, being displaced from their homes, crying for the ones they lost and living the horrors of violence.

Unless the Colombian authorities show that the horrors its people have suffered for more than half a century do not go unpunished, it will send the wrong message that these crimes are actually allowed.

People’s rights to truth, justice and reparation must be an intrinsic part of any final peace agreement. Without it, Colombia will never be truly able to move on from its dark present and enjoy durable and sustainable peace. The voices of the victims must be heard loudly.

Erika Guevara-Rosas is Americas Director at Amnesty International.

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