02 Nov Who Is Afraid of a Truth Commission? The Narratives of the Opposition to the Final Report of the Colombian Truth Commission
[Adriana Rudling is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Chr Michelsen Institute, Bergen Norway. Post-Doctoral Visiting Fellow at the Instituto Pensar, Bogota, Colombia working on issues relating to the interactions between victims and transitional justice mechanisms.]
Eduardo González Cueva once told me the worst thing that can happen to a truth commission is that nobody talks about it, that it goes by unnoticed. This has certainly not been the case of the Colombian Commission for Clarification of Truth, Coexistence, and Guarantees of Non-Repetition, known locally as the CEV, so far. The issue of the implementation of the 2016 Final Peace Agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP) guerrilla, which established the CEV, had slowly lost its prime position in the news cycle during the Duque administration. But the release of the CEV Final Report in June breathed new life into these efforts, not lastly because of the Petro administration’s public support for the CEV Report findings and recommendations.
This post is about a very specific audience of truth commissions, namely their opposition. I argue that the strategy of the opposition to the CEV situated at the centre of electoral politics has stayed much the same since 2016. Legitimate forms of critique of (the work of) the CEV certainly exist (inter)nationally. Yet, the (largely unchallenged) appraisals made by this section of the opposition reflect a disloyal form of engagement that fails to recognise this body as part of a state commitment to a long-term transitional justice (from here, TJ) and peacebuilding project. This constitutes a serious threat to the future of this project.
The Critical Assumptions of TJ
Empiricists working in the field of TJ have long been concerned about the motivations and the benefits of applying mechanisms such as truth commissions to deal with political violence. While truth is now an internationally recognised right of victims of conflict-related harms, it remains unclear to what extent they actually serve victims as their primary beneficiaries. Concerns regarding the afterlife of truth commissions, particularly their role in social, legal and political transformations, have been recently added to initial preoccupations about who testifies before a truth commission, their expectations in doing so, and the personal and social impact of participation. Yet, contrary to Mendeloff’s call to curb our enthusiasm, many advocates of truth commissions continue to make sweeping claims about their benefits and these bodies have proliferated since the 1980s.
It has been argued that TJ theories of change obviated serious engagement with critical assumptions once TJ became a global project in the early 2000s. The encounter with development studies, particularly the application of evaluation methodologies popular in this field, somewhat recovered this issue in TJ of late. Acceptance of TJ as a state project as well as its acknowledgement as a key element of long-term peacebuilding are amongst the core critical assumptions of TJ yet to be unpacked. I argue that understanding the narratives of the groups and individuals at the centre of political power, especially the political opposition involved in the ‘democratic game,’ relating to these critical assumptions is fundamental to the capacity of truth commissions to contribute to (post-)conflict transformations.
The Opposition to the CEV Final Report
The CEV closed its doors in August 2022 after a six months extension granted by the Constitutional Court on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. This period included a two months’ interval for social appropriation, as the activities aimed at disseminating and gathering support for the Final Report were dubbed. The Senate Plenary Session of 23 August 2022 stands out amongst the social appropriation events because it was geared at one of the groups in the best position to ensure a place for the Report in the peacebuilding project Colombia embarked on in 2016. Calling for reflection and committed action by legislators on the recommendations of the CEV, Father Francisco de Roux, its President, raised similar points to those in his June speech during the launch of the CEV Report.
The responses from Centro Democrático senators, the party at the forefront of the opposition to the CEV and the Peace Agreement, reveal three different narratives taking hold with respect to the Report. Despite their different levels of sophistication, all these reactions appeal to the two critical assumptions discussed above.
First, the least refined form of opposition builds on references to the Report that are openly false. Despite the relative ease with which they could be discounted, they appeal to the public’s resistance to regarding the FARC-EP, turned political party now under the name Comunes, as legitimate political actors. Fuelled by decades of stigmatization of the Left, usually based on distorted reporting on the conflict by the media, this narrative considers the CEV an actor biased in favour of the FARC. For instance, Senator María Fernanda Cabal contends in the session that de Roux headed a strategy to shield a false truth from critique by overstuffing the Report with facts, while failing to explain that forced recruitment and other “violent acts by the FARC were part of a war strategy.” She closes by noting that the Report should not address its recommendations to those who, like her, did not participate in kidnappings or killings during the conflict.
Second, Senator Carlos Manuel Meisel is the representative of a more sophisticated narrative. He opens by saying he has no intention of refuting any of the numbers of the Report because it is precisely these numbers that contest the rhetoric of some political sectors that believe the work of the CEV is contrary to the political leader of his party, two-term President Uribe. Since the Report shows that the numbers of certain human rights abuses plummeted starting with that administration, his main issue with the text is the unequal treatment of the armed actors. On the one hand, he claims, the Report and the pedagogical initiatives based on it will teach children that the abuses committed by the state security forces were a matter of policy, not errors committed by a few of its members. On the other, justice initiatives emerging from the Final Peace Agreement have fallen more heavily on the military although they are not the main actor responsible for conflict-related harms.
Third, the representative of the most sophisticated form of opposition is Senator Paloma Valencia. Like the emerging narrative on the truth commission in Peru that relativises, stopping short of denialism, its findings, Valencia claims that the CEV Report should be read on par with the experiences and interpretations of other social and political groups. The hardest hitting critique she levies is that she feels excluded from the work of the CEV. Her position is best summarised by the final minute of her intervention: officialising a narrative of the conflict is antidemocratic because it erases the pluralism of views in Colombian society. She also takes issue with the treatment of the Report of state security forces. Focusing on the withdrawal from the CEV of their representative, Major Ospina, she claims his voice was cut out of the document in order to vilify the Military and impose a twisted narrative on school children.
The Opposition to the CEV, its Report, and the Peace Agreement
These three positions resonate perfectly with the approach of the opposition to the 2016 Final Peace Agreement. Put to a referendum in October 2016, the document signed by then President Santos and the FARC had to be renegotiated when it lost by a small margin. It has been argued that this loss can be tied to a strategy of misinformation led by the opposition as well as the length and the complexity of the Agreement itself. Despite the fact that several of the opposition’s core points were taken into account in the Final Peace Agreement presented before Congress, there are those who still dispute it. Their opposition ranges from principle-based objections, to questioning the legitimacy of the text approved by Congress, seemingly against the wishes of the Colombian people, to the contents of its implementing legislative acts.
Like in the run-up to the referendum, there is erroneous information circulating about the contents of the Report, which motivates some of the opposition to the work of the CEV. As with the statements made in 2016 about the Peace Agreement, it is easy to fact-check these points, but they carry such emotional weight that few actually will go beyond the words of their trusted political leaders. False or misleading references, such as those made by Cabal, will not pass the threshold of confirmation bias for many Colombians. It is unlikely that those opposed to any agreement with the guerrillas on principle and those questioning the legitimacy of the renegotiated document will try to access the CEV Report to judge for themselves whether the body was biased in favour of the FARC in its description of forced recruitment or its narrative of the causes of the conflict.
The critiques expounded by Meisel and Valencia are related to the mechanisms and politics of post-truth in different ways. Senator Meisel arguably does what the CEV expected Colombians to do: social appropriation. It is true that his reading of the Report as favouring the Uribe administration is highly instrumental, if not directly questionable based on a full reading of the Report, but he is mostly correct in his selected references. Meisel and Valencia share a critique of the treatment of the Military in the Report: based on their experiences, they say, they cannot accept a Military immersed in the conflict as a violent actor, a Military responsible for systematic human rights abuses. But others had other experiences according to CEV information. Based on more than 1,800 reports, more than 14,000 testimonies, and the integration of 500 databases, the CEV concluded that the security forces subjected the civilian population to certain human rights abuses, such as false positives, in response to (extra-)legal incentives, effectively constituting government policy under Uribe.
The position of Meisel and Valencia on this point overlaps with the critique of the Final Agreement as an imposition in an important respect: the equality-in-diversity premise of democracy. What they are saying is that, as they voted no in good faith in the referendum, why should the CEV, a body that emerged from the Congress-approved Final Agreement, be trusted to deliver an official truth, one that excludes their views and experiences? This is, at least in part, a problem that the CEV mistakenly set itself up for by taking a weak post-structuralist stance on their state-sanctioned responsibility for the production of truth: page 15 of the Report states “[the CEV] does not purport to turn these texts into an ‘official truth’ [but] we hand over this Report to the country as a milestone for reflexion on the past.” Thus, while the CEV sought to make room for social appropriation and potentially a polyphony of voices on the past, to pre-emptively respond to critiques of this nature, they inadvertently opened the door for relativism. Valencia, in particular, responds to this in bad faith: while the CEV clearly did not claim to have a ‘final’ or ‘official’ truth, they certainly have more grounds to speak about the conflict than any one commissioner, like the exiting Mayor Ospina, or indeed Valencia herself, given the amount of evidence they had access to.
The CEV commissioned a report in 2020 that showed that only 26% of Colombians were aware of its existence two years into its operations. Although this situation is unlikely to have changed much throughout 2021, there are reasons to suspect the disloyal engagement with the CEV Report since June 2022 by those situated at the centre of the democratic ‘game’ will mean a missed opportunity for regular Colombians to familiarise themselves with its work. The transference of the narratives of opposition to the Final Agreement to the CEV are particularly concerning amongst the groups that are directly responsible for the legacy of this body, notably the implementation of its non-binding recommendations. The rejection of TJ as a state project as well as its dismissal as a key element of peacebuilding, both important critical assumptions of TJ, by this group threaten the future of the Final Agreement in the long term and should be carefully analysed by those working in TJ.