Colombia: Violence, victimhood and peace

It is through recognising the victimsation on both sides of the conflict that historic cycles of vio

Some 220,000 people have died in Colombia's decade-long conflict [EPA]

History has shown us countless examples of violence reproducing itself through the terrors of victims who become the new persecutors. Civil wars are often preceded by violence, marginalisation and oppression. And Colombia is no exception, having suffered several decades of violence.

Violence in Colombia is most often witnessed in the pitched battles staged between left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug traffickers’ private armies. Yet this conflict is the product of more than a hundred years of history, in which violence was exerted in the quest for political power.

Colombia FARC victims to meet perpetrators

The period known as La violencia split the country along its blood-soaked political fault lines. The birth of groups such as FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Liberation Army) followed. Their emergence cannot be de-coupled from the previous era: Some of FARC’s founding members were victims of the “political” violence which ruled between 1920 and 1950. Some, but not all, recruits were keen to avenge the violence of the security forces and right-wing paramilitary groups.

Clearly this does not constitute a justification for the violence they have caused; they are jointly responsible for the forced displacement of more than five million victims, alongside 220,000 deaths and more than 1,982 massacres.

In the present peace process between the government and FARC, the rights, reparation and recognition of the victims of the Colombian conflict is being discussed. Victims’ rights and the guiding principles of truth, justice and non-repetition are all being negotiated.

And this is where the dilemmas start: FARC has the dual condition of being one of the most important actors – and one of the biggest perpetrators of violence – in the Colombian conflict, while at the same time, it sees itself as the conflict’s victim – an observation that is partially correct.


The FARC’s narrative of its victimisation is central to the mythology surrounding its birth and ongoing existence.

The resolution of FARC’s claims of victimhood is not only important to the government’s future, but for the very legitimacy of the peace process and the state. For the government, it is necessary to reach a compromise that extends beyond FARC – who do not, despite their beliefs, hold a monopoly on Colombian victimhood – in order to recognise all the victims of the conflict.

A balance must be struck between recognising the emergence of FARC as a by-product of the absence of a strong state, a state that – both through negligence and cooperation – facilitated violence against its own citizens, and rejecting any absolution of FARC’s responsibility for the violation of human rights, murder and displacement of Colombians.

The problem any such deal will face is in the response of the broader community of victims of the conflict in Colombia.


As the government and FARC have been negotiating between themselves for months, they did not include direct representatives of the victims in their talks. In spite of the fact that there are mechanisms in place to facilitate the participation of victims, the FARC and the government were not negotiating the topic of the victims with the victims.

Fault Lines – Colombia: The Deadly Fight for Land

Only recently, the negotiation table in Havana was expanded to include the direct participation of the victims, although it is not clear whether they will have any negotiating power. 

The complexity of this issue goes beyond the borders of the country, as Colombia ratified the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction over the country in 2002. This could imply that if any deals reached are “lenient” on members of the FARC or the security forces, they risk facing legal action in international circles. This raises further dilemmas, such as to what extent negotiations should consider international standards and treaties, in relation to the possibility of peace within the country.

Options that follow the examples of Mozambique, or the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, are apparently no longer feasible according to the current “standards” of the international community. As international standards give priority to justice, reparation and non-repetition to the undersigning, this raises interesting questions regarding national sovereignty versus the importance of the ICC’s international jurisdiction.

Assuming success

Interestingly enough, the Colombian government has implemented a series of legislative mechanisms to deal with this problem. The “victims’ law” of 2011 could be the first in the world governing reparations to and justice for the victims of a conflict to be ratified while the conflict is still ongoing.

The government of President Juan Manuel Santos has also established a series of reparation-giving institutions for the conflict’s victims.

The logic is pre-emptive – the government is putting into place the institutions and the administrative capacity for a post-conflict scenario before the peace agreement has actually been reached.

It is in this scenario that the current debate is being held. If peace is reached, these agreements, and in particular those in relation to the victims of this conflict, could define a new social covenant between the Colombian state and their citizens.

But failing to grasp this opportunity to recognise victims’ rights to justice, reparation and non-repetition will surely create the grievances that will spark future conflicts within the country.

Fabio Diaz Pabon is a researcher on peace, conflict and development based at the Public Service Accountability Monitor (PSAM) of the School of Journalism and Media Studies, Rhodes University.