‘We finally created real trust between victims and perpetrators’: Colombian Truth Commission’s Father Francisco de Roux
by Emma DeSOUZA
21 December 2022
As Northern Ireland struggles to address the legacy of its past, Colombia’s peace process and the approach of the Commission provide considerable lessons.
The Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-repetition, commonly referred to as the Colombian Truth Commission, was constituted as part of Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement and serves as one arm of a comprehensive, victim-focused approach to transitional justice.
Following over three years of extensive work, the Commission has released a detailed and ambitious report with broad, intersectional recommendations to further encourage peace and reconciliation. The Commission was nominated for this year’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought and Human Rights. Though the prize was ultimately awarded to the Ukrainian people, as a runner-up, the Commission was at the ceremony in Strasbourg, where I sat down with the President of the Commission, Father Francisco de Roux, to discuss the Commission’s approach.
One striking feature of the Commission’s work is the remarkable level of participation from victims, survivors, perpetrators, and others impacted by Colombia’s 60-year conflict. The Commission heard testimony from 30,000 people and received 1,000 reports from organisations and institutions.
The impact of this process was “tremendously important” for those giving testimony, according to de Roux, “especially with the Colombian indigenous people and with the African people in Colombia and also the women groups in Colombia. We have to prepare people.”
The Commission had to build considerable trust. When it came to approaching indigenous communities, for example, there was a process of seeking permission from the indigenous authorities, and an aim to “create trust in order to be received by people.”
“We spent a lot of time creating trust among us before entering into deep conversations,” de Roux shared, adding that most of the individuals within the Commission “have been working in rural areas and human rights issues, so there was already preparation and operational knowledge on building relations.”
The Commission adopted an intersectional definition of victimhood, to foster the development of appropriate differential and gender-based approaches to restorative justice. Article 22.214.171.124. recognises the differential impact of the conflict on a variety of groups, from women, children, indigenous people, and LGBT individuals, to journalists, human rights defenders, and farmers, as well as the business community. It is incredibly broad and inclusive and stands in sharp contrast to the tired and binary perceptions of what defines a victim commonly evidenced elsewhere, including in Northern Ireland, which, to date, has failed to take any significant strides toward an intersectional definition of victimhood.
A particularly daunting challenge, and the subject of one of the more pressing questions I put to Father de Roux, was the participation of perpetrators in addition to victims. He replied, “At the beginning, even the possibility of having victims encountering the perpetrators was extremely difficult, and also extremely difficult for the perpetrators to accept to present themselves in front of victims. And little by little, we build trust. But we have to be honest; there were cases — really to this day — where to arrive at a conversation was impossible. But we learnt from the mistakes, and because of that, we finally created a situation of real trust between victims and perpetrators, and they continue to maintain that.”
De Roux added, “In my opinion, the moment when you have people asking for forgiveness, you are in the presence [of] — I will say a miracle — because you cannot produce it. You cannot ask a victim to forgive — but little by little, by improved conversation and especially when victims understand that they have a strong moral power. Because when a victim forgives and invites others not to go through a process of revenge, but to build community thinking on the future, it’s really powerful.”
Access to the courts remains in Colombia’s approach, though with reduced sentences for those perpetrators convicted. In speaking of the process, de Roux outlined, “It was accepted by the guerrillas and the government and the military that they have to go through the process of restorative justice, to start telling the truth, not only recognising responsibility, but also telling the particular aspect of any violation of human rights or war crimes, and then they are sentenced.”
The Commission’s report has made recommendations ranging from appointing a minister for peace, to prioritising rural regeneration, to eliminating cycles of impunity. The Commission will now move into an implementation phase, with newly elected Colombian president Gustavo Petro committing to the outlined recommendations and calling for a “total peace” in Colombia.
So what of Northern Ireland’s approach to legacy? There have been several failed attempts to address the legacy of the past. The Good Friday Agreement, for instance — whilst acknowledging victims — gave little detail or scope on restorative justice or reparations.
The Stormont House Agreement in 2014 went further with the mechanisms, including but not limited to a fully independent investigative unit with full disclosure and police powers, an international information recovery mechanism where information could be volunteered, an Oral History Archive, and an Implementation and Reconciliation Commission (IRC). However, much like the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement itself, Stormont House was never fully implemented, and the heavy weight of injustice has continued to be passed down from generation to generation.
New Decade New Approach, the 2020 Agreement that temporarily restored Northern Ireland’s power-sharing institutions, included a commitment from the British government to legislate on the Stormont House Agreement within 100 days. This commitment was broken. The UK government’s practice of backsliding on commitments they’ve made offers a stark contrast to Colombia’s more consistent approach. Perhaps one of Northern Ireland’s greatest barriers to advancing restorative justice is the absence of the political commitment necessary to deliver it.
Much condemnation has been levied at the UK government’s de facto amnesty bill — the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill — which currently sits in the House of Lords and unilaterally departs from Stormont House Agreement and is opposed by Northern Ireland’s political parties and victims and survivors’ groups on both sides of the conflict’s traditional dividing lines. This absence of support from those most impacted makes this approach wholly untenable. As has been witnessed in Colombia, a collective victims-based approach founded on the principles of truth and restorative justice is a better pathway to reconciliation.