On 5 April this year, the Government signed Decree 588 creating the Commission for Clarifying the Truth, Cohabitation and Non-Repetition, which was put forward in the peace agreement signed by the Government and the FARC. This body is part of the Integral System for Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition approved by the Congress in March, and is one of the most important human rights components of the peace deal.
The Commission for Clarifying the Truth will be crucial for turning the page on the war and looking forward. Its functions include investigating practices which generate human rights violations and creating spaces for listening to different civil society voices. It is made up of eleven experts, yet to be named, and will function for three and a half years.
There are many challenges the Commission must overcome if it is to be a success, and this was the subject of a conference at Los Andes University in Bogota, “International gathering of experiences about memory and peace”, in which took part experts on Truth Commissions, memory projects and accompanying the victims of war.
Victims at the forefront
One of the most important areas for the Commission will be to talk to victims about human rights violations and “know how to deal with pain” highlights Carlos Beristain, a physician and psychologist who has spent 28 years working with victims around the world. Beristain recalls the example of Guatemala, the Recuperating Historical Memory project, Remhi. They gathered 5,000 testimonies, despite people saying that it was madness to embark on this kind of initiative because they believed that the victims of the war in Guatemala, most of whom were indigenous Maya, would be too afraid to talk. But at one of the hearings a man said in public: “it is time to talk”, and in that sentence he expressed the collective feeling of the Mayan community.
Beristain underlines that, for victims, the truth process is painful, and utmost care must be taken with the methodology. One must be certain that people are ready and that the conditions are there for them to tell their stories, including security. Beristain also highlights that the final report is just as important as the process of accompanying the victims because it can strengthen the fabric of society in the regions.
Every process of documenting memory is different, and the territorial and ethnic focus is therefore important. Beristain tells of how in a Guatemalan village, the victims came to the Remhi group to help them in the bureaucratic process of passing down the land titles from parents to their children. In another village, the Maya community sought help to find their disappeared relatives.
From the bottom up
According to Father Javier Giraldo’s experience investigating memory-building processes in countries like Argentina, El Salvador, Guatemala, South Africa and Yugoslavia, it is clear that the commissions that work best have come from civil society. There is a lot of truth in what people say, that it was the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who brought down the dictatorship in Argentina, the Father explains. He tells of when the fourteen women sat down for the first time on the cement paving of Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, with photograph of their disappeared children in their hands, and a policeman came to tell them that it was forbidden and they should move on. The mothers have been walking around the obelisk for forty years, and their actions are one of the most successful initiatives ever to put enforced disappearance on the global map.
Lack of justice
Many truth commissions have succeeded in shedding light on what happened, but the violations go unpunished. In Colombia, Father Giraldo considers that one of the commissions that worked the best was in the case of Jhonny Silva, the student from Valle University murdered by members of the Police riot squad, the Escuadron Movil Antidisturbios (Esmad), in 2005 during a student demonstration. In fact, it was the Truth Commission that found the Police responsible for Silva’s death. But there was no justice.
Another example he cites is the Trujillo massacre committed between 1998 and 1994 in which approximately 340 people were murdered. The Final Report of the Investigation Commission on the Violent Events of Trujillo called on the criminal courts and disciplinary authorities to investigate, bring to trial and punish those responsible. But by last year, the only thing to have happened was an event at which the Colombian State recognised its responsibility.
Investigate the past as soon as possible
The Chilean Truth Commission only had six months to investigate the crimes of the Pinochet dictatorship, a task that would have been impossible but for the Vicariate of Solidarity, an organism of the Catholic church in Chile which had documented State crimes and handed over large amounts of information to the Commission. “Starting to systematically document human rights violations” says Father Giraldo, “is of crucial importance”. This is something that has happened in Colombia, according to investigator Jefferson Jaramillo, and since 1958 there have been fourteen unofficial commissions launched to document the facts relating to human rights violations, and we must learn from them. The question now is how to process all the information generated during half a century of war.
The commissions’ reports are important to the extent that they become historical documents, but the question is also how to ensure that fifty years of war leads to collective recognition of the violence and a moral rejection of the armed conflict. All the experts present agreed that narratives must be produced through documentaries, theatre or art to tell the country what happened during fifty years of armed conflict, who were the victims and who were the perpetrators.
There are many uncertainties, doubts and questions about participation, access to information and State crimes, but nevertheless, the people who investigate these historic events agree that the Commission for Clarifying the Truth must be engaged with from the bottom up. “If the social movement takes action, the Commission takes action” says Mariana Gallego, of the organisation Ruta Pacifica, with conviction. The investigation cannot be left in the hands of eleven commissioners and their verdict, civil society must be proactive and take part at every stage of the process of bringing clarity to the past.
In this sense, the investigator Jefferson Jaramillo drew the conclusion at the International gathering of experiences about memory and peace that the new Commission for Clarifying the Truth must become a mechanism for imagining the future on a cultural, political, cultural and environmental level.