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Taking back Donbas: Will Columbia experience fit Ukraine

17:50, 11.07.2018
8 min.

Armed conflict in Colombia between the government and militants of the paramilitary organization FARC lasted more than fifty years and ended only in 2016 with the signing of a peace treaty. UNIAN tried to figure out from the former head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Colombia how this experience could be useful to Ukraine.

The undeclared war has been ongoing in Ukraine for four years already. And although there are no clear signs that it is nearing completion, the state is obliged to look for mechanisms to this end. It is also important to understand how we will build a post-conflict dialogue, support victims of the conflict, hold accountable those who took up weapons against Ukraine, and much more. The process of reintegration of the occupied territories and the people living there will not be an easy task. Therefore, now it is necessary to develop tools to this end and take into account possible risks.

In principle, at least, the officials have long declared they are doing so. So, against the backdrop of arguments about possible scenarios and the world experience of resolving armed conflicts in the information space, from time to time a variant of the "Croatian scenario" is voiced (a sharp offensive allowed for the liquidation of the separatist republic of Serbian Krajina). A few months ago, Ukrainian parliamentarians took up the study of the post-conflict dialogue in Colombia. Armed conflict in this country between the government and the rebels of the FARC organization began in 1964 and lasted 52 years. More than eight million people were affected by the conflict, more than 200,000 Colombian citizens were killed.

Last week in Kyiv, Colombian ex-Minister of the Interior Juan, Fernando Cristo, spoke about Colombian experience of reintegration of former militants into Colombian society.

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History of the conflict

The conflict in Colombia between the government and the revolutionary movement FARC can rightly be called one of the longest in the world. When in the 1980s the organization began to be funded through drug trafficking, the so-called insurgents lost their former popularity among the population. Nevertheless, by 2010, there were 10,000-12,000 armed militants in its ranks.

According to Juan Cristo, attempts to resolve the protracted conflict by destroying the revolutionary movement would have continued the armed clash for another twenty years. Therefore, the Government of Colombia decided to begin the process of negotiations with the militants. In addition, victims of the conflict also participated in the negotiations. In addition, even before the dialogue began, a law was adopted on the victims of this armed conflict. In the document, the Government of Colombia acknowledged that not only the actions of militants led to casualties - many civilians also complained over the actions of government soldiers. "This has strengthened the credibility of the government, both among the victims of the conflict and FARC," Cristo said.


"We started with secret negotiations between the government of Colombia and FARC under the patronage of the Government of Norway. Then they developed a specific agenda, which was based on six main areas: rural development, political engagement, countering illicit drug trafficking, introduction of a justice network, reimbursement for the victims of conflict, full cessation of conflict, and a peace agreement. And in November 2012, negotiations were officially announced to the people of Colombia," he recalled.

In 2016, an agreement was signed on a ceasefire, disarmament, amnesty and security guarantees for former militants. Particular attention was paid to the so-called transitional justice (a system of legal measures allowing the state to move from one stage to another following social cataclysms). In this case, from armed conflict to peace.

"Important agreements were reached in the field of transitional justice. It has been decided to try those who committed serious war crimes, both on the part of FARC and Colombian government forces," says Juan Cristo.

The former Interior Minister of Colombia explains that their model of transitional justice implies the creation of a special tribunal (before which will stand all those who have committed serious war crimes), the Truth Commission (which collects the testimonies of participants and victims of the conflict) and the Commission for the Search for Missing Persons (more than 4,000).

According to the Colombian model of transitional justice, gang members who did not commit serious crimes were subject to amnesty. For serious crimes or concealment of a crime they would be sentenced to up to twenty years in prison. It was also decided to replace the traditional imprisonment with the reintegration of former militants. In case of pleading guilty, they would pay the victims reparations and provide guarantees not to take up arms again. Militants would then be sentenced to four to eight years of restraint of liberty, not in prison, but in specially designated territories. There they would do community work, for example, participate in the construction of schools or hospitals.

Cristo emphasizes that, of course, there are many critics of the chosen model of transitional justice. There are a lot of those who would like the entire FARC command to face a forty-fifty years' imprisonment. "But let's think about the future of the country. Let them pay a lower price for their crimes if this benefits the whole of society," he notes.

"The main task of transitional justice in Colombia is to ensure that there are no new victims. And for the past two years, we have been able to fulfill this - there was not a single victim of the conflict," the Colombian ex-minister underlines.

However, in fact transitional justice in Colombia began to function only a few months ago, so it is still too early to draw deeper conclusions about the effectiveness of this model.

Columbia experience for Ukraine

The head of the analytical department of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Group, Oleh Martynenko, notes that there are simply no identical models of transitional justice in the world. For example, in Northern Ireland, emphasis was laid on reconciliation and prosecution, Mozambique and Cambodia abandoned the Truth Commission, believing that the restoration of historical truth would lead to an outbreak of social conflict and a new civil war. And in Bosnia, a hybrid court was established.

"It is important that we do not even try to just put together a model now, but rather make the main emphasis of both civil society and government bodies on information and educational work. For everyone to know at least the general provisions of transitional justice," says Martynenko.

"The process of transitional justice does not rest solely on criminal prosecution, but also covers compensation for the victims of armed conflict, restoration of historical truth and, most importantly, reforms, as guarantees for not repeating the national tragedy," he adds.

Of course, it is possible that in some ways the Ukrainian model of transitional justice can be guided by the Colombian experience. Representative of Ombudsperson, Andriy Mamalyha, for example, is convinced that our model should also include a law on victims of the conflict. "Such a law is already relevant for us, so we need to develop it. It will reduce social tensions, and this will be a step towards reconciliation," says Mamalyha.

In his opinion, Ukraine needs to think about creating a special tribunal, taking into account the fact that many foreign citizens participate in the armed conflict in Donbas. "Obviously, when developing a model of transitional justice, one must take into account that Russia is recognized as an aggressor. And it is also important that our transitional justice concerns not only the de-occupation of Donbas, but also that of Crimea," Mamalyha emphasizes.

The human rights activist is convinced that similar to the Colombian model and considering that today in Ukraine we know of at least three hundred missing people, we need to pass a law on missing persons and create an authorized body to work on the issue. According to him, the Ombudsman's office is ready to help with this.

In turn, the head of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on Human Rights, Hryhory Nemyria, notes that Ukraine already has Bill No. 5435 on the legal status of missing persons, which was developed with the assistance of experts from the International Committee of the Red Cross. In particular, the document presupposes the emergence of the Unified Register of Missing Persons - an electronic database containing information on missing persons, information about unidentified remains, and the presence or absence of a court decision on recognizing wanted persons as missing or dead.

The draft law was supported in the first reading in January of this year. However, it was never voted as a whole. "So, unfortunately, due to various non-transparent reasons, it was blocked and it was not adopted," complains Nemyria, without going into details.

Chairman of the board of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Group, Yevhen Zakharov, notes that in Ukraine today, in principle, there is no mechanism to take into account the victims of the military conflict in the east of the country. And since the number of victims is unknown - the question of providing them with proper assistance is also not being raised. Zakharov is convinced - the state threw these people to the mercy of fate. "There is an urgent need to create a state register of those who was somehow affected by the conflict, so that it could be possible to raise the issue of helping these people," he said.

Indeed, in the latest report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (the timeframe of the report covers February 16-May 15 of this year) it is reported that the Government of Ukraine has not yet created an effective restitution and compensation mechanism for private property destroyed or damaged as a result of the armed conflict on both lines of collision.

It is noted that the issue remains one of the most urgent and unsolved socio-economic problems of the victims of the conflict. As of the end of 2017, because of the fighting, more than forty thousand houses of the local population were destroyed or damaged. And this figure does not yet include houses abandoned by internally displaced persons and houses damaged during their use for military purposes.

Meanwhile, in Colombia, for example, a single register of victims was created, where those who lost their relatives, land, or house, who were tortured, those who survived the violence are registered. The state pays them a one-time social benefit from the fund, which is formed by reparations by former FARC militants.

Experts also emphasize that Ukraine continues to have a rather strange policy towards almost two million internally displaced persons (Ukraine occupies the ninth place in the world in the number of IDPs). In particular, they still do not have the right to vote, given that the next year is the year of elections.

Nemyria recalls Bill No. 6240, which could solve the issue. However, for more than a year, the bill has been lying in parliament without consideration.

The only win, which Nemyrya recalled at the round table regarding the rights of IDPs, concerned the decision of the Kyiv Administrative Court of Appeal of July 4 of this year, which canceled verification of settlers at the place of registered stay. These special inspections were introduced in 2016 by the relevant regulatory acts of the Cabinet. The essence of the checks was as follows: representatives of social protection agencies or other authorities would come to people's homes to draw up an act on the fact of their actual presence at the registered place of stay. If there was no person there, they lost their pension and targeted assistance for IDPs.

These government decrees two years ago provoked a wave of indignation among settlers and social activists. Activists filed a lawsuit demanding to simplify the checks of settlers and the court satisfied it. Then the Cabinet tried to appeal the decision but the Kyiv Administrative Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the first instance court without changes. And this means that since July 5 this year, such checks of immigrants are prohibited.

"I am convinced that the strength of a strong state should presuppose activities that would demonstrate to that [occupied] side that the state of Ukraine cares about its citizens. After all, internally displaced persons are those who have family members left in uncontrolled territories," Nemyria argues.

Head of the Ministry for Temporary Occupied Territories, Vadym Chernysh, shares this view: maintaining ties with citizens in the occupied territories is a guarantee of the restoration of Ukraine's integrity. "The state should solve a lot of issues to facilitate the lives of people suffering from conflict. In particular, it is necessary to change the approaches of some authorities regarding the procedures for crossing the line of contact, it is necessary to move in the direction of liberalizing the rules, in every way to maintain and deepen communication with our citizens living under the occupation," he said.

The minister notes that the government's Donbas reintegration plan, adopted a year and a half ago, has partially found its reflection in the new de-occupation law. However, the plan alone is not enough - it is important that the dialogue with the occupied territories continue.


Separatist movements and armed conflicts exist all over the world. The vast number of possible scenarios that have already been experienced by other states sometimes push Ukrainian politicians and experts to take note. Despite the fact that each conflict has its own peculiarities, the need for a post-conflict settlement unites them.

"The system of transitional justice means that to reach a solution it is necessary to take into account the origins of the conflict and its causes. On the other hand, there is the increase in the weight of justice, weight of fairness, and weight of peace for the whole society, and, as an additional factor, the improvement of all aspects of life ... But the main thing is to avoid more victims in the future. This is a very big deal," emphasizes Juan Cristo.

Despite the fact that in our case we are talking about military aggression on the part of Russia, and not civil conflict, in some ways the Colombian experience, perhaps, can be useful for Ukraine. At least, in matters of concern for the victims of the conflict. The main thing is that the declared readiness of Ukrainian politicians to follow a good example finds practical implementation. Unfortunately, the example of their participation and interest in the fate of the people living in the "gray zone" pushes us to think different. Everyone seems to be helping people there - volunteers, military, UN - but not the state of Ukraine.

Iryna Shevchenko

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