The fourth point on the six-point agenda guiding the Colombian peace process, victim participation, has been the focus of the latest round of talks. The 7th June ‘Declaration of Principles for the Discussion of Point 5 on the Agenda: Victims’ laid a framework for this phase of talks based on ten principles agreed upon by government and FARC representatives. The tenth principle articulates the parties’ commitment to a Human Rights Approach, with the idea that the rights and needs of victims should ultimately guide any agreements reached and shape the kind of peace created. One of the most critical principles agreed upon is the recognition by both the government and the FARC of their responsibility in perpetrating human rights abuses and violations, and the assertion that they did not come to Havana to “exchange impunity” (https://www.mesadeconversaciones.com.co/comunicados/comunicado-conjunto-la-habana-junio-7-de-2014?ver=es). Additionally, the declaration calls for the creation of three new bodies to supplement the work of the Bureau: a technical committee to organize talks on the next agenda item; a “historic commission on the conflict and its victims,” which is not to substitute for a later truth commission, and a subcommittee on gender to ensure that future agreements have a sensitivity to gender issues (https://www.mesadeconversaciones.com.co/comunicados/comunicado-conjunto-la-habana-junio-7-de-2014?ver=es).
Negotiators also called upon the United Nations and the National University to organize regional and national forums where victims could provide input for negotiations. The Villavicencio forum convened first, drawing four-hundred direct victims, followed by the Barrancabermeja and Barranquilla regional forums. On 5 August in Cali, a National Forum for the Victims of the Armed Conflict convened with over 1,500 direct victims in attendance. For three days, victims could share their experiences with international leaders from countries including El Salvador and Northern Ireland. Starting 16 August, at least five victim’s delegations comprising up to 12 victims each will meet with Colombian government and FARC representatives in Havana. This is a novel mechanism, but besides the assurance that victims will have “complete autonomy to state their views,” it is unclear how much sway those views will have in the deliberation and formulation of concrete agreements (http://colombiareports.co/colombia-govt-farc-agree-victims-will-represented-peace-talks/). Still more problematic is the attempt to define who a victim is. As Fabio Diaz Pabon notes, FARC members consider themselves victims, namely victims of the state – yet remain one of the biggest perpetrators of violence (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/08/colombia-violence-victimhood-pea-20148492134105810.html). At the same time, calls by the military to be included as victims at the negotiating table have been met with protest by the FARC. As a solution, government negotiator Humberto de la Calle announced that negotiation teams would hear civilian victims before any armed actors (http://colombiareports.co/government-prioritizes-colombias-civilian-conflict-victims-military-victims/).
Furthermore, this progress on victims’ participation comes in the midst of continued terrorist acts by both the FARC and ELN. FARC bombings in recent weeks left Buenaventura without electricity and nearly 16,000 residents in the department of Meta without water (http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/30/us-colombia-peace-idUSKBN0FZ04820140730). Meanwhile, the ELN has continued its front, detonating explosives around Bogota and damaging highway and other infrastructure. An emergency security summit was called by President Santos in late June, followed by a warning from Santos to the rebels that peace talks would cease if attacks continued (http://online.wsj.com/articles/frustrated-by-rebels-colombias-president-calls-emergency-security-meeting-1406745294). At the heart of this continuing violence is the refusal of either side to agree to a cease-fire. Senior FARC negotiator Marco Leon Calarco expressed the underlying tension succinctly: “It’s not as simple as we hand in our arms and we can enter politics – because they will kill us” (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/30/colombian-peace-talks-fail-farc-leaders-interview). On the other side of the table, Juanita Goebertus Estrada of the government’s peace high commission maintained that the state’s duty to protect civil society made a bilateral cease-fire impossible. And so the attacks continue. Recognition of victims and their rights as the basis for any lasting peace accord is essential, but what meaning does such a principle have when the flow of new victims of human rights abuses continues unabated in the background?