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The Grey Zone in the Colombian Conflict and Why Traditional Justice is Not an Option

Maria Paula Unigarro Alba

Posted on May 6, 2019 23:12

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Justice in the wake of the Colombian conflict is very complex.

In protracted conflicts, there is a very diffuse line between good and evil.

Primo Levi, Holocaust survivor, reflected on this ambiguity and introduced the concept of ‘Grey Zone’. The term refers to the impossibility of identifying two rigid blocs of victims and persecutors in concentration camps. According to Levi, inside the Lager there were “regular” and “privileged” prisoners. The latter were victims that were treated as low-ranking functionaries. They collaborated with their oppressors in exchange for preferential treatment.

This dynamic created a scenario of high moral complexity. Victims were induced to a situation in which the only option to preserve some of their dignity was to become allies of their own perpetrators.

A parallel of this perverse system can be identified in the Colombian armed conflict. Illegal armed groups have forcibly recruited minors systematically to swell their ranks. Generally, these groups target poor families from isolated rural areas of the country, and exercise physical and psychological violence to force their children to join them.

In the case of the now demobilized FARC guerrillas, the attorney’s general office has reported investigations of 5,252 minors forcibly recruited. This number demonstrates that assigning responsibility is not an easy task. Thousands of ex-FARC members joined the guerrillas against their own will. It was the only option they were given to preserve their lives and those of their families.

This Grey Zone is one of the reasons why traditional justice cannot account for all crimes committed in the context of the Colombian armed conflict. The moral ambiguity of this long-lasting conflict demands sophisticated justice mechanisms. Consequently, the peace accord contemplates a comprehensive system of truth, justice, non-repetition and reconciliation. The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) is the core component of such a system. It provides judicial benefits to those who acknowledge truth and responsibility for their participation in the conflict, and that stick to the reintegration process. In this sense, beyond sanctioning perpetrators, the system aims at satisfying the victims’ rights, guarantying non-repetition and promoting reconciliation.

This has turned out to be unacceptable to many who demand strong punishments for all perpetrators. However, the reintegration process of ex-FARC members is showing encouraging results that should not be ignored. A group of 54 former combatants created a publishing house and they have already issued four books. They are currently participating in the Bogota International Book Fair. The water rafting team, that will represent Colombia in this years’ World Rafting Championship to be held in Australia, is formed by three civilians and five ex-combatants. These are just a few examples.

Hopefully, many low-ranking FARC ex-combatants, some of whom joined the guerrillas forcibly, will follow similar paths. They have the obligation to redeem the wrongs they have done, but they also deserve to be given new options of life different from war.

In the morally complex Colombian conflict, it is not possible, nor ethical, to pass easy judgement on thousands of perpetrators who became such forcibly.  

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Source: Al Jazeera

Families fear transitional system will delay justice for those killed by Colombian military during war with FARC.

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