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Colombia’s Peace Process Just Took a New Big Step Forward

The Government and the FARC have signed an agreement on how to recognize and compensate the victims of the country's long armed conflict, and with it moved their three-year peace negotiations into what looks like its final stages.
December 15, 2015, 8:45pm
Imagen por Ramon Espinosa/AP

The Colombian government and leftist rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, have signed an agreement on the difficult question of how to recognize and compensate the many victims left by over 50 years of fighting.

The agreement — signed at a solemn ceremony in Havana, Cuba, on Tuesday — appears to take the peace process into the home stretch.

"After six million victims, any discussion about who started the conflict is not relevant [anymore]," government negotiator Humberto de la Calle said after signing the agreement.

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He was referring to the civilians displaced by the conflict that has also killed an estimated 220,000 people, and left 45,000 disappeared.

Related: Can a Truth Commission in Colombia Help Heal the Wounds of War's Atrocities?

"Our greatest desire is that all those who've suffered from the conflict can identify with the agreement and consider it theirs," the rebels' chief negotiator and spokesman Iván Márquez, said.

Over the decades the war has not only involved the government and the FARC but also a number of smaller rebel groups as well as state-backed paramilitaries. Atrocities have been committed by all sides.

What to do about the victims has been a major sticking point in the peace talks that began in November 2012.

Tuesday's accord promises compensation for the victims as well as the creation of an "Integral System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and No Repetition" that is supposed to provide a framework for the implementation of this as well as of previous accords touching on the victims. They include an agreement to set up a truth commission to establish who committed what atrocities, special tribunals to give more lenient treatment to those who confess, and a pledge from both sides to look for the disappeared.

Related: Colombian Government and Rebels Are Going to Help Search for People They Disappeared

The agreement also includes a pledge from both the government and the guerrillas to ensure that the violence does not happen again.

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"They have finally gotten past by far the the most difficult point on their agenda," said Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America. "Everything that remains is much easier than this and something incredibly tragic would have to happen at this point to stop this peace process from reaching an accord. It's a certainty at this point. We are 90% done with this peace process."

The three year process has stuttered at times, with the most obvious breakthrough coming in September when President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC's highest commander Rodrigo Londoño — better known by his alias Timochenko — shook hands and said they planned to have a final deal in place by March 23 next year.

That was in the context of the accord on special tribunals that, at the time, received criticism for not being tough enough on human rights abuses and war crimes.

The two sides have also reached other accords on land restitution, political participation, and the drug trade — which the FARC have partially relied on to fund their insurgency.

Tuesday's signing ceremony stood out from the rest of the agreements announced so far by including a delegation of 10 victims of the conflict, pictured above. Judith Bedoya — a journalist who was abducted and gang-raped by government-backed paramilitaries in 2000, and later kidnapped by the FARC in 2003 — read a statement on behalf of the assembled victims.

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"We are putting our faith in you, we want the country to believe in this agreement," she said, addressing the negotiators of both the government and the FARC. "If you don't fulfill it, you will fail history."

The only point now left to negotiate is the so-called End of Conflict agreement, which concerns the practicalities of the FARC's demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration into Colombian society.

The deal is believed by both parties to represent a point of no return in the talks. However, any final peace deal must be approved by the public in a plebiscite which, given widespread animosity towards the guerrillas, is by no means a foregone conclusion.

The day's announcement received blanket coverage in the Colombian media, with a number of outlets calling it a "historic day for victims." The mood on social media was largely positive following the announcement though a minority criticized the government's perceived leniency towards the FARC.

President Santos, who has staked his political career on these peace talks, took to Twitter to praise the accord. "We have never before been this close to a definitive agreement," he posted.

Related: Guerillas in the Mist: Seven Days in Rebel-Held Territory in Colombia

Follow Joe Parkin Daniels on Twitter: @joeparkdan