University of Notre Dame
Kroc Institutde for International Peace Studies

Jennifer McCoy

Jennifer McCoy is Distinguished University Professor at Georgia State University and Director of the Carter Center’s Americas Program. She has met frequently with negotiators and other Colombian actors during peace talks.

The year 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), and thus the 50th year of continuous violent conflict in Colombia. Now in their 26th month of formal talks, the negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC have reached a delicate but propitious stage to end the conflict and begin the long arduous task of peace implementation. The children born in 2015 could be the first Colombians in generations who will not know war.

The talks have achieved agreements on some issues and now are addressing the difficult questions of victims’ rights and the mechanisms to end the conflict. After conducting talks in the midst of war for two years, on December 20 the FARC announced an indefinite unilateral ceasefire. On January 14 President Santos instructed his military negotiators to analyze the possibilities for a bilateral ceasefire.


The most formidable challenges for the negotiations remain, however:  negotiating a formula for transitional justice that meets international obligations while still achieving peace and gaining public support for a peace deal among a populace weary of war but skeptical of the guerrillas’ commitment to peace. The simple formulas of ‘forgive and forget’ that ended 20th century civil wars and eased transitions from authoritarian regimes with blanket amnesties for all parties are no longer feasible. There are several reasons for this.

First, the world has changed and international treaties now require justice for the most grievous crimes. The International Criminal Court is obliged to step in to help where national courts are unable or unwilling to hold the most responsible violators accountable. Second, past peace deals have taught us that simply to ‘forgive and forget’ is often unsustainable — it can mask the traumas of victims, and it can leave old grudges and invite later attempts to settle differences or seek revenge. The Chileans learned this when two decades after the end of the military dictatorship the needs for truth and accountability were still pressing. The Northern Ireland peace remains fragile even after 16 years.


The 21st century brings a greater recognition of the need to address the rights of victims and to achieve holistic justice. The first step is learning the truth about what happened to loved ones. At least as important is the healing that may emerge from being able to confront one’s victimizer and tell one’s story, and hearing an apology or acknowledgment of responsibility from the other. The Colombians began this process when five sets of victims’ groups and three sets of women’s groups were invited to visit the negotiating table in Havana in the latter part of 2014 to make proposals for reparations and reconciliation.

The political challenge is equally daunting. Any negotiated agreement will require legislative action by the Colombian Congress, which now includes the most vocal critic of the peace process – former president and current Senator Alvaro Uribe. It will also require public approval most likely in the form of a public referendum. Thus, perceptions of the legitimacy of the deal are crucial to a successful peace.

Colombian public opinion favors peace, but opposes political participation of former guerrillas and demands justice in the form of jail terms. The guerrillas argue they are not the only victimizers in the five-decade old war and in fact took up arms because they were victims of a state and elite class promoting exclusionary and unequal development. The FARC expect reduced or suspended jail sentences at least comparable to those granted paramilitaries in a 2005 deal. They also expect to participate in the political process to pursue the policy goals they have long sought by arms.


To identify potential legitimacy deficits in Colombia, a Georgia State University research team fielded the first in a series of online surveys to a nationally representative sample of 3,400 persons in June 2014. The questionnaire included hypothetical vignettes describing two actors who share common goals and motives but differ in leadership and consequences of their actions. The results demonstrated significant legitimacy deficits both for the idea of low-level guerrillas running for political office, and for the possibility that high-level commanders responsible for grave human rights abuses would be given alternatives to jail sentences, or serve any less jail-time than their paramilitary counterparts.

A sustainable peace requires an acceptance that no negotiated agreement will satisfy everyone; that no justice is perfect; and that the process will require continual vigilance and nurturing. It may take a generation or more to reunite a society torn by war, but for the children born today it will be worth the effort.