Guest Opinion: Colombia shows how to wage peace

Chicago Tribune
Aug. 26
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No one won the guerrilla war in Colombia. The conflict dragged on for decades, killing 220,000 people and destroying many more lives. That’s Colombia’s tragedy. Now there is hope, and a lesson: how two sides, accepting that neither would prevail in battle, can find peace by talking.

The deal to end hostilities between Colombia’s government and the rebels of FARC is such a marvel of compromise and trust between bitter foes that bells should ring around the world, especially in those places where civil war rages: Yes, it’s possible to resolve an entrenched, stalemated conflict through negotiation. In the Middle East as well? Well, someday there, too, we hope.

The Colombia settlement isn’t unprecedented, which is part of its allure. There are similar cases, creating an instruction manual of sorts for potential success ending war. The Northern Ireland peace process worked, and holds. South Africa came together after apartheid.

In each of those cases, the end to fighting included a promise to heal wounds through a truth and reconciliation process, in which the participants acknowledge their roles in violence and other wrongdoing, providing victims with closure. Truth commissions set the record straight for the sake of history at the cost of pursuing legal charges against individuals. They worked in South Africa but didn’t get off the ground in Northern Ireland.

A version of that process is a key component to Colombia’s peace plan. Should the rebels and soldiers and others sit before their country to confess their crimes, it will be an extraordinarily emotional moment for Colombia. This was a bloody conflict dating to 1963 that involved killings, kidnappings, torture, extortion and other traumas. FARC, a leftist insurgency officially known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, sought to overthrow the government. Right wing paramilitaries, FARC drug trafficking and assassinations were big parts of the mix.

Representatives of FARC and the government met over the course of four years in Havana to try to find peace. The deal they came away with required ego-crushing sacrifices by both sides. FARC relinquished its aim to displace the political and economic system of Colombia. The government was forced to recognize that it could not vanquish FARC or even imprison its leaders.

Their agreement, announced Aug. 24, calls for FARC members to disarm. Guerrillas and government forces will appear before a tribunal, and if they hold back nothing in their testimony will avoid jail time, agreeing to an alternate form of restricted liberty such as community service. FARC members will get compensation and the group will morph into a political party with guaranteed participation in the legislature for several years. The government promises to invest more in rural areas.

This peace deal is controversial. The current president sees “a new stage in history” for Colombia. A former president says the terrorists are getting away with war crimes. That disagreement matters because the deal must be approved in a referendum Oct. 2. If voters approve and the accord sticks, Colombia will get a better future. If it fails, war may reignite.

So much work went into this agreement, and so much is at stake, that optimism seems warranted. Mostly for Colombia’s sake, but a little for the rest of the world. Maybe even the Middle East.