“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.

48 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with what you say, but there is also a strategic element to consider. From what I know of this deal, and I confess to not being very well-informed, it appears to me that it allows time and space for the FARC to regroup and re-arm. It allows too much time for the FARC to continue growing and selling the drugs that would allow them to rebuild their war-chest and buy more weapons and power, under the cover political legitimacy. I see no sign that they have recanted their ultimate goal of defeating the democratic government of Colombia and installing themselves as a sovereign force. I think that the Colombian public got this one right… for themselves, and for Venezuela.

  2. This is a nice perspective. I applaud it!

    Given some of the statements made by the FARC in the early months of the public stage, I’m not too surprised by the outcome. They added quite a lot to the height of the mountain that needed to be climbed.

    That it was a campaign dominated on both sides by logical fallacy and manipulation, and that the government was so clumsy in making its case was distressing from my perspective as an unaffected but interested observer. The initial bitter response to the outcome, from many supporters of the agreement, is also not heartening. However, the initial response of the FARC allows room for hope. It would be hard for either side, and maybe especially for the FARC to walk away from the table now and return to things as they were. Maybe it’s for the best. The divisiveness will endure long after any agreement is finalized. History suggests the possibility that that divisiveness could be expressed in a very ugly fashion. An equally narrow victory would probably not a good thing. Having had an opportunity to express their feelings, some no voters may be more likely to vote “yes” with relatively small improvements to the deal.

    Now, if only the ELN will board the bus. Anyone remember the talks with the ELN that were sabotaged by pressure from the FARC? IIRC that was 2007. There is quite a lot of concern that a deal with the FARC is not enough to guarantee “peace”.

  3. The history of the world is full of this kind of deal that, while reprehensible from some perfect morality point of view high on heaven, are “the best” you can do in this imperfect reality we live in.

    For all the people that sincerely believe the No was a better option, I have to say that maybe, but they are trading in unknowns. Unknown number of deaths, unknown years this will still not be resolved, unknown decisions all of the players will now take, lots of unknowns.

    The peace may have not been just, but it rarely is.

  4. The Colombian government flopped big time making its case of “the greater good”, allowing uribismo to get away with their string of lies or half-truths (Colombia would have turned into Venezuela had Sí” won, WTF?). Also, it’s devastating how indiferent Colombians are about this (or maybe it’s because as a Venezuelan, I take Politics so serious), but an awful lot of people didn’t have a clue about the substance of the deal, or its long term implications. Turnover was low considering the expectations, many didn’t make it to voting booths before 4 p.m. (no “…o mientras haya electores en la fila” rule here), and a lot of those who showed up only did it to get a day off at work. Also, many “Sí” supporters took it for granted and didn’t even bothered (#Brexit style). However, I think this deal would have needed a great popular consensus to get legitimacy, so a ~1% victory wouldn’t have been good either.

    • I’d be interested in your thoughts but it seems to me there is an excellent case to be made that generally speaking, elected leaders should make the hard decisions they are elected make, rather than hedge their political capital with referendums.

      • Given the history of violence in politics in Colombia as well as its cultural role (obviously those are related), an effort to give “ownership” of the deal to the the people is possibly a very wise thing. There’s no guarantee that any deal with the FARC will be allowed to function while the current FARC leadership is alive and seeming happy, but this method *may* help.

      • I certainly agree with you. Too much direct democracy is extremely risky, considering the majority of voters are either ignorant or blinded by partisan bias.

      • The recent history in Venezuela and the world has shown several instances where referendums have gone very bad.

        Referendums can never be precise instruments for shaping policy, they are too blunt and generic, people as a whole are not knowledgeable enough or rational enough to decide important and/or nuanced matters.

        Apart from elections every few years, decision making should be made by few people not many.

  5. 50-50 really is a “win” of sorts for both sides; the FARC unlikely will abandon deal-sweetening talks, and the “No” side was correct in demanding more favorable conditions.

  6. Yeah, Venezuela has ZERO experience with “transitional justice”, of course…

    Gotta disagree with you in this thing, Mr. Toro, but where did the thick of the chavista leadership come from and how they managed to seize power?

    It wasn’t forced through a coup, that’s for sure.

    It was thanks to the IMPUNITY they gained with the agreements made “for the greater good”

    I guess people wouldn’t have thought the same way if the “peace talks” were between let’s say, the mexican government and the Chapo when he was at the height of his power, or if the Zetas have been sitting on the “peace table”.

    But, due to the whole ridiculous “left is good” and “right is ebul” dogmas, people got blinded enough to babble nonsense such as the “uribismo to get away with their string of lies or half-truths” in the other coment above.

    • No, sorry, you are confusing things. The whole “chavista” thing doesnt come from any “transitional justice”.

      It comes from Caldera being an asshole that wanted to get popularity.

      “Transitional justice” is when you have to deal with the realities of a conflict and realize you have to give something up to get the conflict to stop.

      Chávez was already in prison, and there was no need to release him at all, except Caldera’s polls.

      • Uhh, actually, the whole “let’s get impunity for the criminals for the sake fo the greater good” thing fits like a glove for chavismo’s heads.

        Because the other coupsters threatening to provoke a bloodbath across the whole country and then Caldera chickening out on them sounds more plausible to me than the other theory that claims that he released Chávez from prison only because he was his godchild (“ahijado” in spanish)

        AND, the communist terrorists from the 60s, who destroyed lots of precious propetry or murdered in cold blood their good share of people in Venezuela got away with it too, or what did you think the urban communist guerrillas were doing just after Castro was kicked out of the country by Betancourt? Alí Rodríguez Araque was infamous for blowing up PDVSA’s oil ducts, just to mention an example, with another example being Jesse Chacón who put a bullet through the face of a VTV’s sentry during the 4F coup.

        There was no “war conflict” in Colombia, what there was is a drug cartel killing people left and right, and said cartel’s lords are now asking to be granted impunity and full political rights to escape from their responsibility.

        This is like Charles effin’ Manson getting to sign a peace treaty with the US government because otherwise he would keep killing people, but with the difference that Manson wasn’t a drug dealer.

  7. This peace deal is the way the left find to not let Las Farc go extinct before their eyes. It would be too sad (for them).

    I would understand a peace deal with the Farc in the 80’s, 90’s, even in the early 2000’s, but now, when the FARC are dying? This is something so malicious that only the minds of Fidel Castro and Lula could conceive it. You don’t make peace deals when the war is already won. You crush the enemy first. Peace follows, with deals or not. Of course, left-wing people will be dramatic like they always are and make comparisons with South Africa’s apartheid, Pinochet, Vietnam (can we find a picture of a burned kid running naked from Napalm and say that this is what the peace deal is trying to avoid?), but the truth is that this peace deal was not only not necessary, it would be fruitless, example: Manuel Santos said that Farc had vowed to stop producing coke in the deal, only to hear Farc’s leader saying that they couldn’t stop that, given that they have never produced one mg of coke in their lives, hehe. Thank God the Colombians are not like their neighbours that like baseball.

    • While FARC is much reduced from its former power (which is the main reason it came to the table), it’s hardly on its deathbed. They could keep up a low level insurgency in many rural parts of the country for years to come, which is no small thing. Personally, I’m happy like you are that NO prevailed, and my wife’s relatives in Colombia were almost all NO voters, but FARC was not on the verge of extinction.

      • This is an important point. It doesn’t take a very large group of people to terrorize a society in the modern world if that’s what they’re determined to do.

      • Colombia could handle them in the 80’s and 90’s, not perfectly, but at least it was not defeated, when the economy was in shambles and their military was a joke. Now the Colombian GDP grows as if it were an Asian tiger, and has state of the art military, even drones going after the terrorists. It’s a matter of time before they defeat Farc, ask your wives’ relatives if they think Farc can survive another three years. Hell, not even Timochenko believes that. That’s why Lula and Fidel came out with this idea of a “honourable exit” for FARC, preserving their power and even the coke plantations. I wonder if their concentration camps (thousands of kidnapped people are still there) will be preserved too.

  8. You have to be very optimistic to think that there will be any kind of justice here. In six months everything will be forgotten.

  9. Good points, but what about that adage “you don’t negotiate with terrorists”? Time will tell, but if you ask Uribe (look for his interview with Bayly) he’ll tell he’s disgusted. I admire Uribe and despise Santos. Uribe had the Farc on its knees, and Santos betrayed him, and messed it all up again.

  10. Transitional justice is not morally ambiguous.
    A definition:
    “Transitional justice refers to the set of judicial and non-judicial measures that have been implemented by different countries in order to redress the legacies of massive human rights abuses. These measures include criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, reparations programs, and various kinds of institutional reforms.
    Transitional justice is not a ‘special’ kind of justice, but an approach to achieving justice in times of transition from conflict and/or state repression. By trying to achieve accountability and redressing victims, transitional justice provides recognition of the rights of victims, promotes civic trust and strengthens the democratic rule of law.

    Why is Transitional Justice Important?

    In the aftermath of massive human rights abuses, victims have well established rights to see the perpetrators punished, to know the truth, and to receive reparations.

    Because systemic human rights violations affect not just the direct victims, but society as a whole, in addition to satisfying these obligations, states have duties to guarantee that the violations will not recur, and therefore, a special duty to reform institutions that were either involved in or incapable of preventing the abuses.

    A history of unaddressed massive abuses is likely to be socially divisive, to generate mistrust between groups and in the institutions of the State, and to hamper or slow down the achievement of security and development goals. It raises questions about the commitment to the rule of law and, ultimately, can lead to cyclical recurrence of violence in various forms.

    Colombia wants and needs justice.

    The NO won because Colombians could not stomach a more lenient treatment for the terrorists and murderers of FARC. They could not accept a deal made in Cuba, w/o transparency and later sold to Colombians wrapped in 297 pages of trash. This document has to be read to be believed.

    • Talking about lenient treatment, what happened to the paramilitaries who were “inserted” into society during the period of Uribe? How many of them went to Jail? If not for drug trafficking which is a different matter.

  11. It would be better if the Colombian military had pushed all the FARC members into the sea.

    Then, the citizens of Colombia could celebrate an enduring peace, without worrying of those FARC members left behind that didn’t lay down their arms and accept peace.

    Why would anyone negotiate with terrorists? uff.

  12. I think a discussion of transitional justice in Colombia merits recognition that Colombia has already engaged in a very significant policy of transitional justice, in respect of which there was no referendum. Which is of course the demobilization of the right wing paramilitary AUC forces responsible for massive human rights abuses, and drug trafficking, which have made Colombia famous around the world.

    The concern has long been that this OTHER transitional justice policy, now a matter of history, has implicitly endorsed impunity for the worst kind of human rights abusers.

    We can argue (or not) about whether the Colombian public got it right in rejecting this deal, but I think the arguments about avoiding the integration into society of human rights abusers and drug traffickers as a matter of principle, and not allowing them a political voice, need to be weighed against the realities of the conflict, and recent history. These things have already happened.

    It is therefore not as if yesterday somehow vindicated the forces of good and of justice against the forces of evil and capitulation- that particular narrative of events is a fairy tale.

  13. Maybe the NO vote reflects something going on world wide where people are rejecting deals made by and between elites, our betters, the experts who dont consult us because they always know what is best for us. BREXIT, the Trump candidacy, the rejection of open borders in Europe, the Islamic fundamentalist movement in the Middle East. Lots of distrust of elites out there. The folks are restless and is spreading like the flu.

    • That’s true, we witness now the total despise for some old TV channels, newspapers, opinion poll companies and magazines as public opinion makers. The people just don’t care about what they think.

      CNN said that the UK would implode after Brexit, and no one gave a flying fuck in the UK; CNN said that Colombia would implode without the peace deal, no one gave a fuck
      in Colombia either; the NYT said that Brazil would implode if Dilma Rousseff ended up impeached, the reaction about that in Brazil was laughter. They can’t control anything anymore. Bad times to be a socialist, the people are breaking the chains.

      • Because nothing is more liberating than voting down economic, social and political integration!

        Build that wall! Erect those trade barriers! Crap on that political stability! Ignore the news! Freedom! Fuck yeah!

      • “the NYT said that Brazil would implode if Dilma Rousseff ended up impeached”.

        I read the NY Times world section daily. “They” never said such a thing.

        • Not only they did it multiple times, they did on editorials too.

          They presented the new president as a ridiculous, pathetic and corrupt person, a real idiot that could only increase the country’s problems, even his younger wife was reason enough to attack him.
          Try to find similar articles about Dilma, metioning her relatives in a mocking way, presenting her as an idiot leading the country to the abyss, what she was actually doing, and you won’t find a single one there.

          Look, I have no problem with newspapers making fun of political leaders, even atacking their families, because a public person must have a thick skin. My only problem is with biased partisan newspapers, they are only harsh with the one side they dislike, the other goes unpunished, and that’s the difference between real journalism and political activism.

          http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/19/world/americas/brazil-michel-temer-poet.html

  14. A Day when Colombia Felt Ever So Far Away…

    You got that right! they got away from the shithole that Venezuela had become.

  15. How can everyone speak about this deal and not metion, you know, cocaine? This is not about peace, folks, This is about drugs and corruption. There is no way way to address this issue seriously without mentioning that! All that propaganda about “peace, oh peace”, and about Uribe being the antichrist and about the “No” voters being retarded is tiresome. The main issue here, for both the Guerrilla and the State is drugs and how to keep that business profitable! So are we really that gullible to believe otherwise? Por qué alguien en su sano juicio pensaría que el acuerdo de paz tiene que ver con otra cosa más que…con drogas? Y por qué alguien querría legitimar políticamente a las FARC…en el 2016?.Es un asunto en el que nadie profundizó, y es EL ASUNTO.

  16. “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.”

    Wasn’t Pinochet arrested and imprisoned until he was almost agonizing? And I guess the guy died in the middle of the trials being held against him, so he didn’t precisely get away with what he did.

    The farcs want complete impunity for their crimes, the timo-whatever-his-nickname-is guy even today claims that the farc has never, EVER produced a single gram of coccaine, when everybody and their mothers know they are the best providers for diosdado and chavismo’s cartel here in Venezuela.

  17. Farc has committed so many horrible atrocities that they are loathed by the mass of both SI and NO voters , The No voters are simply more adamant about their loathing . Militarily they are also at a dead end , they know their chances of ever winning a war against colombian democracy are none so they now try to gain a safe comfortable way out of their predicament by accepting to agree to a negotiated peace which gives them three things , the chance of retaining control over the money being produced by a largely protected coke traficking business (with all the advantages that implies) , coming off practically scot free from any punishment of their wartime crimes and acquiring an institutional platfomr (10 guaranteed congressional seats for 10 years) from which to launch a demagogic assault on the democratic institutions they so heartily want to destroy ( inmitating the tactic used in Venezuela) …….to get what they want they have three cards, the desire for peace which is a real desire for all Colombians (even for the NO voters) ,peoples fear of its capacity to inflict painful damage even while waging a lossing war and three the ambitions of Santos and others to gain fame and applause both in colombia but specially abroad for having brought peace to the country !!

    As is natural in a country divided by rabid partisan politics , those opposing Santos presidency will take a hostile position to whatever makes Santos happy, that certainly strenghentens the NO vote because underneath it all peope tend to follow their tribal allegiances into the polarized antagonism born of other political processes ( i.e the peace process) . the peace process is a Santos initiative which favours Santos prestige and image so by opposing the peace process you embarrass and discomfit Santos the man you have learned to hate ( if you are one of his many political opponents) . That probably had a bigger impact that would appear looking at the peace initiative from the outside…!!

  18. “Yo vivía en un poblado llamado Jamundí y comíy una sola vez al día. Para poder comer, le ayudaba a una mujer que vendía morcillas y cosas de esas en el parque. Por las tardes cargaba las cajas con refrescos, le ayudaba en su trabajo y estaba allí colaborándole horas y horas. ¿Y sabes qué? A la medianoche, antes de irse, ella me regalaba una papa rellena. Eso era lo único que yo comía en todo el día. Apenas a la medianoche, no cuando despertaba. No. Eso era a las doce o a la una de la madrugada. Para mi, un rico es el que tiene con qué desayunar cuando abre los ojos. Un rico hijueputa es el que puede comer dos veces al día, no una sola vez, a las doce o a la una de la mañana. ¿Sabes qué es la revolución? Comer dos veces al día. Esa es la revolución colombiana, si quiere saberlo.”

    Germán Castro Caycedo, Con las manos en alto. Episodios de la Guerra en Colombia,
    Bogotá 2001, P. 16

  19. “This is not about peace, folks, This is about drugs and corruption. ”

    Exactly. The Farc might cool off for a while, but they will resurface in one form or another, another name, another place, another mask. There’s too much profit to be made in the drug trade. Some rich Farc drug lord and assassin might retire, but another “Sarc” or “Tarc” will emerge.

    Also, these “peace” deals set a horrible precedent. Just like in Vzla, criminals and drug dealers learn that they can get away with murder. Impunity brings more crime.

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