Justice, Forgiveness, and the FARC

On October 2nd, 2016, Colombian citizens voted against a peace treaty between the Colombian government and the FARC, a left-wing radical extremist group that has waged bloody guerrilla warfare against the Colombian government for the last 52 years. This was not supposed to happen—most involved or observant parties predicted a win for the “Yes” movement—and yet with 50.2% of the vote, “No” triumphed. The proposed treaty was the result of four long years of negotiations between the Colombian government, led by President Juan Santos, and the FARC rebels, led by Timoleón Jiménez.

While the referendum was technically nonbinding and the government is still therefore free to do as it pleases, ignoring the will of the people is unlikely to be politically viable. While a peace deal is certainly still a possibility (and in all honesty, an eventual probability) such a deal will have to be renegotiated. This could take years.  

The leader of the “No” movement, former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, argued that a renegotiation of terms is necessary for a just deal—one that holds the FARC, and particularly its commanders, accountable for their crimes. His point of view is understandable. Over the last 52 years the FARC has done many monstrous things: they have peddled drugs, kidnapped, raped, tortured and murdered innocent civilians, and even assassinated Colombian government officials. Yet now they want to be allowed to peacefully re-enter into society? They want to form their own political party? Some of their commanders wish to run for office? After 52 years of politically motivated kidnapping, rape, torture and murder, after 52 years of terrorism, the FARC wants to apologize and get a do-over? Under the terms of the rejected peace deal, they would have received these privileges. Is that not fundamentally absurd?

Yet the alternative to this moral absurdity is the continuance of war: more violence, more instability, more fear. The current ceasefire is scheduled to end on October 31st; it may be extended further or it may not. Regardless, it is fairly likely that because this peace deal failed, more people will die. This is a steep price to pay for the possibility of justice; far steeper than the cost to justice of a guaranteed peace.

Now here is a relevant phrase that is well-known to the United States: “We do not negotiate with terrorists.” This is not a policy that our country always follows, but our government—like most governments—is generally unwilling to negotiate with terrorists (and for good reason). Negotiations with terrorist groups reward their operations and legitimize their existence, thereby encouraging future terrorist activity. Such negotiations are really just a form of appeasement. One might look at our own nation’s policies regarding dealings with terrorists and conclude that Colombian voters were right to reject this treaty.

However, the rationale behind US policy does not really apply to Colombia’s negotiations with the FARC.  The proposed peace deal would have disbanded the FARC, rendering the organization unable to continue its activities. Furthermore, while the deal did grant ex-FARC members the ability to participate in the Colombian political process, it did not grant any sort of policy concessions relating to the organization’s communist goals. In other words, while the deal did forgive the FARC for their actions for the sake of peace, it did not reward them politically or financially. There was no appeasement.

Looking at the issue from this perspective, it seems clear then that Colombians erred gravely. Trading human lives for the ability to avoid, or possibly merely delay, making a deal that is deeply troubling but not ultimately dangerous is both a moral and pragmatic mistake. Yet here I encourage the reader—who, like me, very likely enjoys a considerable distance from this sort of violent conflict—to consider the limitations of their own perspective. After all, no one I know has ever been killed by the FARC or any other terrorist group. I doubt that the average “No” voter could say the same. From the perspective of someone who is uninvolved, the conflict might look like an abstract equation of moral mathematics; but for those who have been directly impacted by the atrocities of the FARC, the need for justice, and not just peace, will understandably be distorted and magnified.

On October 2nd, 2016, Colombian citizens chose to stand on moral principle against terrorism and lawlessness, yet in doing so they likely condemned more people to die. Those of us in countries without a constant threat of domestic terrorism, who are able to lead safe lives, may argue that they made the wrong choice. Let me be clear: they made the wrong choice, but we have no right to blame them for it.

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