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Peace & Trust
visita de Kofi Annan a Colombia, foro en el Hotel Tequendama

Truth Commissions and Peace Processes

International Conference: “Truth Commissions and Peace Processes: International Experiences and Challenges for Colombia”


Mr. President, Excellences, Ladies and Gentlemen, Allow me to thank President Santos for honoring us with his presence in opening the conference. I also want to express my appreciation to the government of Norway for its generous support which has made this conference possible.

I sincerely thank as well the International Centre for Transitional Justice and its President David Tolbert for their great support and hard work in preparing this event. The path to peace is never an easy one and I salute the determination of the President, and all Colombians, as you pursue that path despite the many hurdles along the way.

I am fortunate to be visiting Colombia at a critical time in the peace process. After 50 years of war, the men and women of Colombia today yearn for peace.

This effort should become an exciting national project, which can mobilize all sectors of society in the service of peace. For when peace comes, all Colombians will benefit. The aim of this conference and the workshops that will follow is to share with Colombia some of the experiences gained from around the world on truth seeking and peace processes.

When visiting Sri Lanka recently, a country that was torn apart by an extremely violent conflict, Pope Francis said that the pursuit of truth is important “not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity”. He added that peace could be found by “cultivating those virtues which foster reconciliation, solidarity and peace”. I think you will agree that the Pope’s words ring true for Colombia too.

So today, I want express my support for your collective struggle to close the long cycle of violence and foster the virtues of reconciliation, solidarity and peace. Your efforts deserve our encouragement and empathy.

We all want peace.

Nevertheless, we must recognize that peacebuilding is a complex process fraught with difficulties and dilemmas. There is often tension between what the parties at the negotiating table may decide and what some victims demand. There is tension between the negotiators aiming for a settlement and those who want stringent accountability for all crimes committed.

There is tension too between the duty to prosecute and the desire to end violence and move on. In sum, there is tension between peace and justice. We must therefore ask ourselves:

– How can both justice and peace be achieved?

– How can violence be ended while accountability is ensured?

– How can we secure justice for victims?

– And how can political space open up for former adversaries?

There are no simple or quick answers to these questions. Every conflict has its own, particular characteristics. However, there are some common denominators of experience; let me mention three in particular.

First, trust is essential for peace to take hold. Trust must be built, step-by-step, into a momentum of confidence that takes the peace process forward.

Second, for any peace process to succeed, it must be inclusive and based on a frank dialogue among all the protagonists.

Third, but equally importantly, the voice of the victims must be clearly heard.

And the consultation of victims in the Colombian peace process is an important and unprecedented step forward. I was pleased to meet some of them yesterday. They come from different regions and sectors of society and I was moved by their stories and impressed with their determination to work together for peace.

Victims are owed the right to the truth, however grim and appalling it may be. They also want justice. But most crucially they want to know that it will not happen again. The Argentinian truth commission famously used “Nunca Más” (never again) as the title of its report.

Remember, however, that the Argentine commission dealt with only one issue: the disappeared. Since those days, the mandate and reach of truth commissions have expanded quite dramatically, sometimes creating unrealistic expectations and in, some cases, disillusionment with the peace process itself.

So expectations must sometimes be tempered by the painful compromises that underpin a peaceful society based on the rule of law. Ladies and Gentlemen, Working together, ICTJ and my Foundation have reviewed many truth seeking experiences coming out of peace processes.

We have found that successful truth commissions have a number of common elements. I will mention four. At the outset, parties to a peace process have to be clear about why a truth commission is being established; clarity is vital to avoid later disappointment. Second, truth commissions must reflect local realities and not blindly follow a global template. Third, we should be aware that truth commissions are not a panacea for a divided society. A society cannot be reconciled by a truth commission’s work alone. And finally a point which I cannot emphasize too strongly: good leadership is crucial for success.

Too often we have witnessed truth seeking processes derailed because of inadequate leadership. Those who lead truth seeking efforts must be beyond reproach, known for their impartiality, integrity and competence. So what should truth commissions strive to achieve?

– They can establish the facts about past crimes;

– They can give victims a voice and a claim for effective redress;

– They can establish an authoritative narrative of the past;

– And they can propose measures to avoid the recurrence of human rights abuses.

This last point is especially important but frequently overlooked. Truth seeking should, of course, help determine the accountability of individuals. But truth seeking is not only about individual responsibility; it’s also about society, about the state and its institutions.

This is the truth that is needed for making changes to the system, learning from past failures so as to prevent future ones. Nevertheless, I would caution that truth seeking cannot substitute for criminal justice. Both are essential building blocks in the reformation of the state and the healing of societies riven by brutality.

So too is reconciliation even though we should recognize that reconciliation is a long-term process, not an event. Peace makers as they work to craft peace agreements should carefully balance these elements.

I am often asked, should peace come before justice?

From my own experience, I can say that we have learnt that justice need not be an impediment to peace – it is an essential partner. Of course, the parallel pursuit of justice and peace does present testing challenges for peace-makers.

Clearly, in today’s world peace agreements cannot accept impunity and must meet international standards. My advice is that we must be ambitious enough to pursue both justice and peace, and wise enough to know when and how to do so.

This usually means, we are looking for that narrow middle ground where compromise is possible for all parties. In truth seeking, as in other mechanisms that are aimed at supporting peaceful transitions, we must always recall that cohesive and healthy societies rest on three pillars:

– Peace and security;

– Inclusive Development; and the

– Rule of law and respect for human rights.

There can be no long-term security without development, and there can be no long-term development without security. And no society can long remain prosperous without the rule of law and respect for human rights. Truth seeking is a way forward to that essential but often elusive goal.

Abraham Lincoln once said: “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.” A truth commission can give the facts to you as a society and with this truth you can move forward based on a shared understanding of the past and a common vision for the future.

So in conclusion, I wish you every success in your discussions and in your ambitions to shape a brighter and peaceful future for Colombia.