“Transitional Justice” is always morally ambiguous. At its core, it’s about treating some crimes as less criminal than others. It’s about treating some murderers as less murderous than others, punishing them differently — or not at all — for the sake of the “greater good”.


At some point, there has to be a utilitarian calculus that says if putting that one person in jail for the rest of his life is going to cost 10,000 more casualties and putting him in congress gets us to peace now, that’s a deal you take.

Transitional justice can’t help but disgust us on some level, because that calculus contains an obvious element of extortion: “give us a break, or we’ll keep killing people.” The idea of FARC leaders getting unelected seats in congress is obviously disgusting. It should revolt anyone who hears of it. But that doesn’t answer the question of whether it’s right.

Nobody reaches a deal like this because they want to. They reach it because they realize that it is a fact that unless some such deal is reached, many more innocents will suffer.

Me? I’m not opposed to transitional justice deals on principle. At some point, there has to be a utilitarian calculus that says if putting that one person in jail for the rest of his life is going to cost 10,000 more casualties and putting him in congress gets us to peace now, that’s a deal you take.

I have no patience for people who dismiss that kind of reasoning out of hand. It’s the kind of disgusting deal it took to end apartheid in South Africa, to end the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.


But the devil is always going to be in the detail. How lenient is too lenient? How much more violence is it reasonable to tolerate to avoid making these compromises?

But the devil is always going to be in the detail. How lenient is too lenient? How much more violence is it reasonable to tolerate to avoid making these compromises?

Well, that’s a legitimate question for democratic politics to settle, because those are deeply personal judgment calls that people not directly affected by the violence have no standing to make.

I support the principle that the Colombian state should swallow hard and treat FARC leaders less harshly than regular courts would in return for peace. But whether this particular deal went too far in making those concessions or not is categorically not for outsiders to say. It’s a question for Colombians. And Colombians thought the deal was too lenient on FARC, which I think should settle the matter.

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