The latest threat to peace in Colombia: Congress
Fabio Andres Diaz, 4 Dec 17

Colombians look on as House of Representatives prepares to vote on transitional justice framework after 10 months of delays. Jaime Saldarriaga/Retuers

The peace process in Colombia has reached a new landmark.

On Nov. 30, both houses of Congress approved a bill establishing an alternative criminal justice system to judge those accused of war crimes during the country’s 52-year conflict.

But, like every step in this arduous multi-year peace effort, this latest victory was hard won. For 10 months, congressional representatives who oppose Colombia’s controversial November 2016 peace accord with the FARC guerrillas have used all manner of delays to slow implementation of the complex deal, of which the new criminal justice system is just a small part.

The filibuster is their latest tactic. The strategy of stopping legislation from passing by whatever means necessary occurs in many countries – most famously in the United States, where minority party members can speak for hours nonstop to run down the clock and compel the opposition to amend a bill.

In Colombia, conservative lawmakers have been impeding their country’s peace process by filing nonstop petitions to modify bills while they are being drafted in Congress, and systematically skipping key debates on implementing the Havana accords.

This, to my knowledge as a peace and conflict researcher, is the first time in the world a legislative body has tried to derail its government’s own peace process.

It is a risky move. Numerous international observers, including the United Nations, have warned the government that failure to fulfill its end of the bargain with the FARC could prove a lethal mistake, provoking the former guerrilla group and reigniting war.

Filibustering justice

Colombia’s peace deal with the FARC has seen powerful opposition since the start. In October 2016, it was narrowly rejected at referendum.

And though in November 2016 President Juan Manuel Santos strong-armed Congress into approving the accords – which had just won him a Nobel Peace Prize – he still needs them to put the deal’s provisions into action.

That’s because while the 2016 peace deal was ambitious in envisioning the goals of Colombia’s transition to peace, the 300-page document – like most peace agreements – did not answer every question that would arise in getting there.

For example, it was up to Congress to interpret, design and determine the details of Colombia’s transitional justice system – a special tribunal for trying war criminals and doling out reparations to victims.

Likewise, the accords assert that former combatants may now run for public office, but can they do so before they’ve been tried and before victims have seen their recompense? And if a FARC fighter is elected to Congress but later found to be guilty of war crimes, must he or she resign?

The peace deal offered no guidance on these troubling questions. Hence, in recent months many conservative politicians seemed hesitant – justifiably, perhaps – to allow former combatants to run for elected office when victims had yet to be recompensed. As a result, a substantial number of lawmakers simply failed to show up to votes on the transitional justice system, making a quorum impossible.

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