Colombia’s Santos tells world leaders peace near, amid worries at home

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon listens to applause after his address the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. Headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015.
Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon listens to applause after his address the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. Headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015. AP

Bolstered by the recent breakthrough in ongoing peace talks with Colombia’s guerrillas, President Juan Manuel Santos told the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday that he hoped it would be the last time he addressed the body from a nation at war.

Speaking in New York, Santos said he was confident his administration will end “the oldest and last conflict in the Western Hemisphere” by early next year.

“I’m here today to tell the world that — of the more than 20 armed conflicts that exist on the planet and that generate so much pain, so much poverty and so much suffering — there is one, in my country, in Colombia, that’s on the final stretch toward a real solution,” he said amid applause.

Last week, the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC guerrillas, announced that they would have a finalized peace deal within six months, or by March 23, 2016.

They also reached an agreement on transitional justice — perhaps the most contentious point of the negotiations.

Under the scheme, many rank-and-file soldiers may be eligible for amnesty, but those accused of major war crimes — including rape, torture and extrajudicial killings — will receive sentences of five to eight years in locations other than prisons, as long as they tell the truth about their activities.

While there are still few details about the exact nature of the detention program, the government has assured critics that those who go through the transitional justice program will be supervised, see their movement restricted and live in “conditions of austerity.”

Santos described the regime as the “maximum justice that still allows us to transition to peace.”

One of the key components of the deal is a truth commission. Those who do not help shed light on atrocities and war crimes they’ve committed will serve their sentences in regular prisons. And those who maintain their innocence, but are found guilty, could face up to 20 years in prison.

Santos said this is the first peace process to link a truth commission to the judicial process, rather than having the commissions established after the fact.

“We’re setting a precedent that could be a model for other conflicts on the planet,” he said.

While the transitional justice program has been hailed around the world as an important step toward reaching peace, it also has its skeptics.

Human Rights Watch said that, while it supports Colombia’s effort to obtain peace and create a special jurisdiction to encourage confessions, “it would also allow those most responsible for mass atrocities to completely avoid prison, denying their victims the right to justice in any meaningful sense of the word.” 

Former President Alvaro Uribe, a prominent critic, has balked that the deal that will not strip FARC commanders of their ability to run for office.

The administration “just accepted to give terrorists the chance to participate in politics, without excluding those responsible for atrocious crimes,” he said in a statement.

Juan Manuel Hernández, 34, was in the army when a FARC car bomb almost killed him in 2002, leaving him blind in one eye. He said guerrilla commanders responsible for the worst crimes deserved stiffer sentences than an eight-year maximum. But he also said it might be a necessary evil.

“Yes, justice fell short,” he said. “But if that’s the price we have to pay for peace, then so be it. I don’t want to condemn my children to live through what I lived through.”

Santos hasn’t been deaf to the criticism. On Tuesday, he asked Colombians “and all the citizens of the world, to give peace a generous opportunity.”

“The most valuable legacy we can give our children and future generations is peace,” he said. “Nothing can be more important or more urgent.”

Venezuelan Diplomacy

Venezuela, which has been at odds with its neighbors lately, also celebrated the prospect of peace in the hemisphere.

But President Nicolás Maduro also used his moment in the UN spotlight to decry what he said are attacks on his socialist administration.

He called on the Obama administration to rescind a decree from March that declared Venezuela a threat to U.S. interests. Maduro said the decree was tantamount to a “Sword of Damocles” hanging over the country.

He also said recent troubles with neighboring Colombia and Guyana were a “pincer movement meant to fill our borders with conflict.”

In the case of Colombia, Venezuela began shutting down border crossings and deporting Colombians beginning Aug. 19, amid a crackdown on contraband and crime.

Now, both sides are in talks about reopening the border and on Monday Venezuela agreed to allow deported Colombians to return and legalize their immigration status.

In Guyana, Venezuela reopened a historical territorial claim that dates back to the 1800s after Exxon Mobil announced a large oil find in disputed waters earlier this year. The dispute has lead to military movements on both sides. But on Sunday Maduro and Guyanese President David Granger met in New York and agreed to exchange ambassadors.

Both Guyana and Colombia accuse Venezuela of being the instigator of the problems. But Maduro suggested his nation had gone to great lengths to avoid confrontation.

“The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela will keep facing these threats and difficult circumstances,” he said, “through the diplomacy of peace.”