Why Truth & Justice Matter in Colombia – Remarks

EU Special Envoy Gilmore Remarks

Why Truth & Justice Matter in Colombia

 Webinar organised by ABColombia, Christian Aid Ireland and

the Transitional Justice Institute of Ulster University

12 May 2021


Good afternoon to everyone in Europe and good morning to everyone in the Americas.  It is a pleasure to be with you today and my particular thanks to the organisers, ABColombia, Christian Aid Ireland and the Transitional Justice Institute of Ulster University, for hosting today’s very timely discussion. 

Transitional justice in Colombia is at a crucial point and the next few months will be extremely important.  However, this comes in the midst of very challenging circumstances.  Firstly, the global health crisis.  I would like to express my sincere condolences to all those who have lost loved ones during the Covid-19 pandemic.  As in many countries, the pandemic has had a profound impact on Colombia and has aggravated inequality, poverty and social exclusion.

I recognise that for many, survival during the pandemic is now a greater preoccupation than issues related to the peace process.  However, the implementation of the peace agreement, in its entirety, provides the best way of addressing many of the major challenges which Colombia faces today.   This is because the agreement addressed the interlinked root causes of the conflict and those causes mirror many of the same challenges that Colombia faces today – inequality, stigmatisation, political participation, resources, land ownership and drug trafficking.

Over the past couple of weeks, Colombia has witnessed considerable unrest and violence.  While this originated in the now withdrawn tax reform bill, it has now evolved into broader popular protests over many issues.  I am deeply concerned and indeed shocked by the violence we have seen and I want to express my sincere sympathy to the families and friends of the people who have been killed as well as the hundreds that have been injured.  These protests were not specifically about the peace process, but they clearly point to mistrust, disenfranchisement and anger.  That frustration can only be dissolved through dialogue.  In that vein, the peace agreement offers elements to strengthen participation and enhance the protection of human rights.

Such dialogue needs to involve all political actors and sectors of society to reduce tensions.  This includes young people, those who have lost their loved ones and the families of the disappeared.  I welcome the willingness of the Government to engage in dialogue with different sectors and strongly hope that it be inclusive and structured towards meaningful solutions.

All actors should refrain from language that alienates, stigmatises or provokes violence.  Any violations or abuses of human rights should be investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice.  Any excessive use of force is unacceptable.  And indignation and outrage, while understandable, should never be accompanied by violence, vandalism or blockades.  The right to peaceful protest is fundamental in any healthy democracy.  As is trust between the population and those who protect it.  And that trust can only be created through action.

Against this complex background of massive protests and the ongoing health crisis, the implementation of the peace agreement is advancing.  Implementation of any peace agreement is often more difficult than negotiation and does not always move as swiftly as we would like.  We have seen good progress in some areas, for example in reincorporation and in the development of local development plans, known as the PEDTs, but implementation of other areas needs to happen more quickly.

The commitment of the parties is absolutely vital to the peace process.  President Duque, and his Administration, has consistently reiterated to me his commitment to the implementation of the peace agreement.  So too has the FARC leadership and their recent response to the contents of Auto 019 from the JEP, fully recognising their collective role in kidnapping during the conflict, is a very important step forward for victims, and for truth and reconciliation.

Despite the events of the past couple of weeks, the Colombian peace process is seen as a success internationally, a good news story and a model for other peace agreements.  This is why the UN Security Council continues to closely track the implementation of the agreement.  The consistent attention of the UN Security Council has played a very valuable role in sustaining the Colombian peace process.  Indeed, the support and solidarity of the international community has been consistent throughout the peace process.

The United Nations continues to play that crucial role through the work of the UN agencies and the UN Verification Mission, under the guidance of UN Special Representative Carlos Ruiz.  This has been fundamental in monitoring the compliance of the Parties to the commitments undertaken in the agreement.  And that work is again underpinned by support from the UN Security Council.

The European Union has been involved in building peace in Colombia for well over two decades. This is because we know from our own experience in Europe how difficult peacebuilding is.  The EU itself was born as a peace project and earlier this week on 9 May, we celebrated Europe Day.  The opening words of the Schuman Declaration make very clear the challenge Europe faced then and that Colombia faces now: “peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.”

That is why the European Union has worked with civil society and local communities in Colombia, supporting peace from the ground up, through the Peace Laboratories Project and its successor programmes.  It is largely due to this work that the EU was named as a supporting actor in three areas in the final peace agreement: rural development, reincorporation of former FARC combatants into civilian life and the establishment of a Special Investigation Unit in the Prosecutor General’s Office.  And we established the EU Trust Fund with €127 million in 2016 to support the implementation of the agreement.

Civil society has and continues to play a central role in peacebuilding in Colombia and this is crucial for implementation of the agreement to be truly successful.  The killings of social leaders, human rights defenders and ex-combatants since the agreement was signed remains one of my biggest concerns. The pandemic has exposed even further the prevailing insecurity in some regions of the country.  As with the current protests, dialogue and concrete, practical solutions are the only way to address such a serious and complex situation.  The National Commission for Security Guarantees has to be utilised to its maximum potential to reach such solutions.

At the heart of the Colombian peace agreement is restoration, reparation, reconciliation and reconstruction.  Transitional justice cannot be about retribution or recrimination and I recognise that can be difficult for many.  Victims must always be at the heart of the search for truth and justice.  I believe the Colombian transitional justice system is designed exactly for that purpose.

We have seen much progress in recent months and incredible leadership by the three heads of the different institutions.

As the report by the Truth Commission will be published later this year, I want to mention in particular the moral courage and dignity of Father Francisco de Roux.  His leadership and dedication have been absolutely critical since the Commission started its work, just a couple of years ago.   His belief that: “the truth must be a public good, a right and an inescapable duty when it comes to explaining why life and dignity were destroyed in thousands of massacres, forced disappearances, kidnappings, extrajudicial killings” and many other crimes; this is what drives the work of the Commission.

In addition to supporting the work of the other transitional justice institutions, the EU is very proud to support the work of the Truth Commission. And we are doing that in concrete ways, including through a project worth €4.5 million which is currently being implemented by Redprodepaz.

That project seeks to strengthen the Commission’s work in rural areas of the country where so-called “truth houses” have been established.  It also seeks to promote and guarantee the broadest possible participation of victims and perpetrators, to facilitate the participation of different ethnic groups and to strengthen communication around the work of the Commission.

The Truth Commission’s work is not just to produce a final report.  It is also to cultivate an inclusive social dialogue around ownership of the truth and to persuade all Colombians, even those who are sceptical or indifferent, how critical the truth is to peacebuilding and to breaking the cycle of conflict in the country.  That is a painful process.  Testimonies are deeply personal stories and experiences of suffering and tragedy.

To gather these stories, we have seen how the Truth Commission has had to reinvent itself during the pandemic.   Instead of public hearings and meetings with victims, there have been live-streamed conversations, podcasts, TV shows and concerts and countless private conversations.  Despite this, there have been some incredibly powerful moments; for example with landmine victims, family members of police officers who were victims of enforced disappearances and public requests for forgiveness by former guerrilla and paramilitary leaders.  The contribution of the military and police to the Truth Commission has also been an important step forward.  Other actors must do the same.

So that, as Father de Roux said at the inauguration of the Commission, “by exposing the complexity of barbarism and horror, instead of deepening retaliation and revenge among us, an understanding of ourselves in the sincerity of our responsibilities and our differences is achieved and opens us to the collective construction that future generations of Colombia deserve”.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to today’s meeting.