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In Bogota, as in Belfast, the hard part is balancing the demand for peace with the thirst for justice

Colombia faces many of the same challenges on the road to normality as Northern Ireland, says Alban Maginness

Published 26/10/2016

Juan Manuel Santos was awarded Nobel Peace Prize
Juan Manuel Santos was awarded Nobel Peace Prize

Next month, the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, will visit Belfast to see for himself the progress that we have made here since the Good Friday Agreement. Of course, the Colombian peace process and our own peace process are markedly different narratives, but they do have some points of comparison. Some of the same issues that mark the present Colombian peace process are reminiscent of the issues we had to deal with.

The one-day trip to Belfast is also a recognition of the role played by politicians from Northern Ireland in assisting the Colombian peace talks. He may also thank politicians from here, such as the much-experienced and skilful negotiator Mark Durkan MP, who helped to assist in the development and the sustaining of the difficult and protracted Colombian peace process by way of good counsel, advice and political encouragement.

Mark Durkan, who was one of the major players in the successful Good Friday Agreement negotiations, has spent considerable time and effort in both Colombia and Cuba, where the actual peace negotiations were hosted by President Raul Castro's government in Havana.

Those talks stretched out over four years and led to the signing of a peace plan between the Colombian president's government and the Farc rebels in Colombia.

The Left-wing Farc insurgency has been going on for 52 years and has claimed the lives of at least 260,000 people and has had a crippling impact on economic, social and political life of that country, most particularly in the remote rural areas.

The huge scale of the violence and the prolonged nature of the conflict puts our own Troubles into the second division.

Even the worst atrocities of the Provisional IRA are hard to compare with the appalling barbarity and sustained cruelty of the Farc.

The kidnapping and subsequent captivity for six years of presidential candidate Senator Ingrid Betancourt serves as a cruel example of Farc's extraordinary inhumanity and brutality. Most of her time in captivity was spent chained to a tree, restrained with a metal collar around her neck.

It was these very same Farc terrorists that the Sinn Fein-supported 'Colombia Three' collaborated with. Although they were sentenced to 17 years in prison for training the Farc, they dishonoured their bail and absconded back to Ireland.

But it should also be acknowledged that the Colombian army were guilty of abuses of civilians and the extra-judicial execution of many Farc personnel.

But the courageous and patient Colombian president has been rightly awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his outstanding efforts to end the civil war and create a peaceful and fairer Colombian society.

He was formerly a hawkish minister of defence, who waged a strong offensive against the Farc between 2006 and 2009.

His military offensive substantially weakened - though did not militarily defeat - the Farc. On being elected president in 2010, he changed from hawk to dove and sought to negotiate a lasting peace agreement with the Farc rebels.

His task is to rebuild the country politically and socially - a very difficult task, given the intensity of the violence and the intense divisions and injustice that it inevitably caused.

But, sadly, the peace agreement which he signed with the Farc leader 'Timocenko' Jimenez failed - by the narrowest of margins - to receive the endorsement of the Colombian people in a nationwide referendum.

As a result, the agreement has been put on hold, but the bilateral ceasefire remains in place until such time as there is an amended agreement worked out.

This time, the triumphant 'No' side's more hawkish political representatives, in particular former president Alvaro Uribe (a former political colleague and friend of the current president), are involved in talks with President Santos to 'correct' the agreement. They say the agreement was too soft on the Farc and few, if any, of their leaders will serve any time in jail for their crimes.

They also resent the preferential treatment to be given to them to have a fixed, 10-member representation in the congress, or parliament, of Colombia. Whether these issues can be successfully resolved is difficult to predict, for there has always been a tension in any peace process - not least our own - between the desire for peace with the competing demands for justice.

Getting that balance right - between peace and justice - is tantalisingly difficult; even more difficult, as we all well know, is selling that hopefully well-balanced agreement to the public.

However, the Farc say they are prepared to 'fix' the deal and that the disappointing result of the referendum does not mean that the battle for peace is lost.

Hopefully, the president's visit here will encourage his pursuit of a lasting peace. Let us hope that his exhaustive battle for peace is not lost and let us warmly welcome this brave president into our home.

Belfast Telegraph

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