Reparatory justice struggles, but will close FARC wounds, says peace court chief

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On one side of the court were former members of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), with their leader Rodrigo Londoño, aka Timochenko. The hearing, in which a report was presented listing more than 21,000 kidnappings orchestrated by the guerrillas, was broadcast live to the victims’ families.

Timochenko took “individual and collective responsibility” for what he called “abominable crimes”. The recognition by the group’s leaders is part of the work of the Special Justice for Peace (JEP), a court formed with the 2016 agreements to try to end the conflict that started in the 1960s.

JEP will be responsible for cases involving guerrillas and soldiers accused of crimes during the period. The court will soon issue convictions to those involved, but these penalties will be reparatory, not punitive. In general, they do not involve prison sentences. Those found guilty will have to carry out community work and other redress actions for the families of their victims.

Eduardo Cifuentes, president of JEP, says he believes that, despite the difficulties and resistance to the model, the mechanism will close the wounds opened by the FARC. He also states that an expansion of reparatory justice must be a debate between the elected president, Gustavo Petro, and Colombian society.

What is your assessment of the management of JEP since the beginning of the works? In these four and a half years, JEP has gone through several stages. In the first one, we face the challenge of creating the mechanism through which the cases presented, from the moment of the complaint, pass. Then came the formation of investigation and prosecution teams. The purpose was to found a new system of justice.

For this, we were able to count on the laws passed in 2016 after the signing of the peace agreement, which determined the exceptional resources that the JEP could have, especially with regard to alternative sentences. Then we had to overcome the obstacles posed by President Iván Duque, who tried to reduce JEP’s functions. He was unsuccessful, but we lost important time.

Then came the opening stage of the first macro-processes, which bring together several causes related to the same crime. Today we have seven of them open and we are on the way to opening new ones, with which we hope to advance quickly and rigorously in the investigation, trial and conviction of the most serious crimes committed during the armed conflict with the FARC.

What to expect from macroprocesses? At this beginning of hearings, we present an overview that demonstrates the number of kidnappings investigated and recorded. In this case, we carried out the investigation based on 900 reports submitted by victims, civil organizations and State entities.

The most advanced processes are the kidnappings by the FARC and the “false positives”, which involve the military as the perpetrators of massacres against civilians, making them look like guerrillas. This week, there is the public admission of former guerrillas. Then comes the sentencing phase. It is a work that has had difficulties, but that has not deviated from the objective of healing the wounds of 50 years of internal war through reparatory justice, to bring conditions for the reconciliation of society.

The concept of reparatory justice was met with rejection by a sector of the population. Is this changing? The concept of justice to which many societies are accustomed today is that of punitive justice. It was from experiences in countries like Northern Ireland, Rwanda and South Africa that we started to discover new models. We adopted the first model of reparatory justice for members of paramilitary groups, in which they demobilized [devido a um acordo com o Estado, 35.317 paramilitares entregaram suas armas e receberam penas reparatórias entre 2003 e 2006].

JEP is the second time that we have applied justice with a reparatory approach in Colombia. It was created to investigate and punish the most serious crimes of a very long and cruel war between compatriots. This has opened deep wounds and, of course, can produce resistance in certain political sectors more in favor of a military victory than a negotiated solution. We are convinced that these resistances are giving way and that the possibility of closing these wounds will no longer seem unlikely.

Will JEP have enough time to work to process the cases and offenses raised? Our term of office is 15 years. Taking into account the robust work that has been carried out to date, with the number of reports and the number of victims who have asked for an investigation of their cases, we hope to have sufficient information and supplies to achieve our objective within the given time. It is still too early to talk about JEP working longer, or in cases other than the FARC, but the door will be open. It is a debate that must take place between the new president and society. The mechanism is created and can be adapted to a new conflict or to end a confrontation with another hostile group.

​We have created a justice system of reparatory, non-punitive penalties, which we believe is capable of bringing peace to Colombians and closing this cycle, the war with the FARC. Decisions about its application in other cases is a discussion that is on the table and depends on political decisions.


x-ray | Eduardo Cifuentes Muñoz, 68

Lawyer, professor and jurist, he graduated from the University of the Andes (Colombia) and the Complutense University of Madrid (Spain). He is currently president of the Special Justice for Peace (JEP).

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