BOGOTA (Reuters) - The commission meant to expose the truth behind killings, kidnappings, sexual violence and other crimes committed during Colombia’s five decades of war officially began work on Tuesday, in a bid to help victims heal from the trauma of the conflict.
The 11-member truth commission, part of a 2016 peace deal between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels, will operate for three years and convene hearings on select incidents of violence.
More than 220,000 people have been killed during the Andean country’s conflict between the government, leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitaries and drug traffickers. There are an estimated 8 million war victims, 7 million of whom are displaced. One Marxist guerrilla group and myriad crime gangs remain active.
“Today we are taking a new step in the construction of peace and in respect of the rights of victims,” President Juan Manuel Santos said at a ceremony to mark the start of the commission’s work. “Many victims, and I have talked to hundreds of them, maybe thousands, many times they don’t even ask for reparations, what they want is truth.”
The commission will not be able to hear about every injustice, Santos said, because there are simply too many after such a long conflict, but it will help “to heal wounds.”
Besides public hearings, the commission will also facilitate private meetings between victims and perpetrators. Hearings and meetings will take place across the country and the commission will report publicly on their work every six months.
The commission is one of a trio of organizations started under the peace accord intended to provide victims with judicial redress and investigative help, no matter whether they were victimized by rebels, paramilitaries or state security forces.
The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) tribunal will try FARC leaders and military officials for war crimes and can dole out five-to-eight-year sentences of restorative work such as rebuilding roads or schools for those who accept responsibility.
Ex-fighters who lie or do not tell the whole truth but are later convicted could receive harsher sentences of between five and 20 years in regular prisons.
A special investigative unit will focus on looking for the remains of tens of thousands of people who disappeared during the conflict and providing families with information about what happened to loved ones.
Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb editing by Grant McCool