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  • When the Shooting Stops:How transitional justice turns knowledge into acknowledgment
  • Robin Kirk (bio)

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On June 23, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos shook hands with Timoleón Jiménez, the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), at a signing ceremony in Havana. With that simple gesture, the longest-running conflict in the Western Hemisphere was officially over. [End Page 32]

Nearly 70 years after its rebellion began, the FARC agreed to demobilize its estimated 6,800 troops and 8,500 militia members. Many details remain unclear, but for the first time since 1948, the FARC seems as committed to peace as the government. Announcing the agreement, Jiménez said through tears, “May this be the last day of the war.”

The cease-fire agreement was the result of years of negotiations. But now another even more difficult challenge looms: how to ensure peace in the lives of people who have become accustomed to the fear and daily toll of violence. No one claims that dealing with history’s ghosts on the many battlefields of Colombia will be easy, but the country can learn from others that have faced a similar predicament.

Grappling with the past is never straightforward, cheap, or quick. But it can help a nation heal, especially when a balance between retribution and absolution can be found. For Paul van Zyl, who served as executive secretary of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, transitional justice is “a middle path between an uncompromising insistence on prosecution on the one hand, and a defeatist acceptance of amnesty and impunity on the other.”

This requires compromise for all involved. For former combatants, it can mean giving up status, power, and money for the uncertain life of a civilian. And for civilians, especially those who’ve lost loved ones, it means accepting that murderers, bombers, kidnappers, and the like may never face harsh punishment. These sacrifices can leave many dissatisfied as they must work, shop, and worship with their former mortal enemies.

Colombia is an excellent example of the challenges of peace, but it’s not the only one. To construct this agreement, Colombia relied on expertise developed in other countries, especially Northern Ireland. While different in many aspects, both countries’ peace deals required negiotating a truce with irregular fighters, in the case of Northern Ireland with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and loyalist paramilitaries.

From the late 1960s to 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, over 3,600 people died as a result of sectarian violence known as the Troubles. Many more were wounded or lost loved ones. But leaders on both sides rejected any accord where they would face punishment for their actions. Instead, they negotiated peace in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

Colombia has borrowed key elements of the Northern Ireland deal. Convicted FARC members will be prosecuted, but will serve only sentences of community service at worst. The FARC will deliver its weapons to the state, subject to international verification. A few leaders may be convicted, but most of the rank and file will be amnestied. FARC troops will concentrate in designated areas, register with the government, and gradually reintegrate into civilian life. Most other details remain subject to negotiation. For the victims, though, establishing truth commissions or other mechanisms remain on a to-do list.

For the Irish, a similar arrangement was good for peace, but remains devastating for the families who can cross paths with their loved one’s murderer in the vegetable aisle. The same will be true of Colombians. Among those most outraged by the current peace proposal is former President and current Senator Álvaro Uribe, whose father was kidnapped and killed by the FARC in 1983. Now a leading critic, Uribe has pointed to the guerrillas’ well-documented past of profiting from the cocaine trade [End Page 33] to claim that the deal is fatally flawed: “With the agreement that those responsible for crimes against humanity like kidnapping, car bombing, the recruitment of child soldiers, and child rape are not going to spend a single day in jail and can be elected...


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pp. 32-38
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