On Erasure and Transitional Justice

The first time that a Colombian woman narrated to me her experience of sexual violence in the conflict was in 2005, 14 years ago.

I was travelling across little villages in Antioquia doing workshops on human rights with teachers and students in secondary schools. The idea was to help them to introduce into their curriculum human rights and more democratic practices. In this particular village, the work had been difficult. People had very little trust in the State, and the paramilitary violence experienced had been overwhelming. Many teachers saw the workshops as mere 'words' as their everyday experience was shaped by the sustained violation of their human rights by all the actors present in the region, and the absence of state institutions. Some landmarks in the town were renamed and were a constant reminder of the conflict. I remember a particular bend in the road named ‘The seven torsos’. There the torsos of seven dismembered men were placed by the paramilitaries as a warning, while the rest of the severed body parts were dumped in other places across the town, some never found.

At the end of a three day workshop on human rights, democracy and education practices, one of the female teachers (there were just two in a group of 10) invited me to have a coffee with her. She was a slender woman with long black hair, taller than average and dressed in a pale pink suit. We sat in one of the corridors of the empty school. I do not remember how the conversation started and most of it has been lost in my memory. However, I remember fragments of her story. She was on her motorbike which she had just bought with her savings. Men dressed in military clothes, a balaclava covering their faces, stopped her. They had a list, her name was on it. They took her aside to a clearing. They beat her, tore her clothes and took turns to rape her. It was more than one, although I do not remember how many. At some point, she took off the hood of one of them. They tied her to a tree and left her there to die. She was found almost dead all covered in blood and naked, but she never told her husband she had been raped. The motorbike left on the road, untouched, was the clue to locate her. After a couple of days, she went to the local army battalion to report what had happened. She recognized the man who was going to take the declaration, the voice, the face; it was one of the attackers. She left in silence and never spoke about it again. I wonder if now, after all this time and the visibility that sexual violence in the armed conflict has gained in the country during the last years, she has finally reported what happened.

I had completely forgotten her story until now. Maybe because at the time only a few organizations in the country were talking about the sexual violence committed by all the armed actors (paramilitaries, guerrillas, state forces, gangs). Maybe because at the time I felt unable to do anything about it. 'Erasing' this woman's story from my mind was my way to unconsciously deal with it. Many of the male and female victims of conflict-related sexual violence who I have interviewed during recent months in different regions of the country have talked about their need to 'erase' what happened to them. 'Erasing' the episode or the event, as they refer to their experience of sexual violence in the armed conflict, has become for some of them a way to be able to move on and keep on living, despite the pain that 'is and will always be there'.

During the last month, several developments in the country around the Centro Nacional de Memoria Historica or CNMH (National Centre for Historical Memory) and the Jurisdiccion Especial para la paz or JEP (Special Jurisdiction for Peace) have highlighted the contextual and political character of every transitional justice process and the importance of the term ‘erasing’ in this context. President Duque has appointed as the new director of the CNMH a man who has denied the existence of an armed conflict in the country, who refutes the responsibility of the state in the armed conflict and who embraces the narrative – supported by the political party in government – that everything that has happened in Colombia is a result of terrorism. A couple of weeks later, in a televised address, President Duque objected to six items of the JEP’s statutory law. This is the law that will regulate the transitional justice system that resulted from the peace agreement with the FARC, signed in November 2016. This decision has no precedent in Colombia as never before has a president objected to a statutory law already approved by the Constitutional Court. 

The day after the President objected to the JEP’s statutory law, I attended a meeting organized by the JEP's Unidad de Investigacion y Acusacion or UIA (Investigation and Charges Unit) with women victims of conflict-related sexual violence coming from different regions of the country. The aim of the event was to commemorate International Women's Day, to present the UIA’s understanding of restorative justice in the JEP and to introduce LAYNA, a special software developed by the JEP to process and analyse cases of sexual violence in the armed conflict.  The mood of the meeting was ambiguous. On one hand, the joy and happiness of the women when they saw each other was clear. On the other hand, there were deep concerns about the presidential objection to the JEP. For many of the women present in the room, the JEP represents their only chance to get some justice and some truth.

A week later, a massive march supporting the JEP, organized by members of the opposition, showed that an important number of Colombians shared these women's assessments. I was moved by the diverseness of the people who attended the march. There were members of opposition political parties, students, indigenous groups, all kind of victims' organizations, housewives, teachers from public and private schools, artists, academics, women's and feminist organizations, office clerk workers who joined the march after work, street vendors, couples, and grandparents walking next to their children and grandchildren. The discussions around the President's objections to the statutory law have again showed a polarized country. And once more they have highlighted how the institutions and models that shape transitional justice are not immune to the dynamics and tactics of power that for many years have served to exclude, abuse and erase people and entire communities in the frame of the armed conflict.

I wonder if the case of the female teacher I met 14 years ago is one of 2,300 cases of sexual violence perpetrated against women and children during the armed conflict presented to the JEP in October 2018 by different women's organizations.[1] I imagine her listening to President Duque on 10 March as he objected to the JEP. I imagine her heart tumbling in her belly with the final remarks of the President. His government wants to propose a constitutional reform to modify Legislative Act 01 of 2017, which created the Integral System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-repetition and underpins transitional justice in the country. One of the proposed reforms is to exclude from the JEP sexual violence committed against children and adolescents because, according to President Duque, ‘nothing, no ideology, absolutely nothing, justifies the aberrant aggression against the most vulnerable in society’.[2]

President Duque argues that the inclusion of conflict-related sexual violence in the JEP is the result of an ‘ideology’. He was referring to the ‘the gender ideology'. This is a theory developed in the 1990s that conceptualizes the struggle to expand the rights of women and the LGBT+ community as radical and dangerous. The concept has been adopted by conservative and right-wing politicians in Europe and Latin America to mobilize against issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.[3] In Colombia, the term ‘gender ideology’ was adopted in 2016 during the national plebiscite for peace by several sectors that rejected the peace agreement, among them Pentecostal churches and right-wing political parties. They argued that the transversalization of a gender perspective in the agreement was the result of an ‘ideology’ that undermined family values, and promoted homosexuality.[4]

The President's argument for excluding sexual violence committed against girls, boys and adolescents from transitional justice mechanisms is based on ‘protecting the vulnerable'(children). In so doing, he erases in a couple of words the experiences of lack of justice, impunity, silencing, and re-victimization that victims of conflict related sexual violence had when approaching the justice system.[5] In recent years, these women (and some men) have put to one side the shame, fears, unhealed physical and psychological wounds in order to speak out about their experiences of sexual violence at the hands of paramilitaries, the guerrillas, the army and the police – and in some cases multiple actors.

The statements around sexual violence made by the President figuratively speaking erase several points. The first is the fact that Colombia is the first country to specifically address conflict-related sexual violence in the transitional justice mechanisms designed to investigate, judge, prosecute and sanction the crimes committed in the context of the armed conflict, namely the JEP. This is thanks to the lobbying efforts of different victims’ and women’s organizations. The second is that conflict-related sexual violence in the JEP is treated as a crime against humanity that is no less serious than other crimes against humanity. The third is that conflict-related sexual violence crimes will not receive amnesty; they will always be prosecuted and punished.[6] Finally, the main argument of the President is to protect children. However, although many women and men whose cases of conflict-related sexual violence that are going to be investigated by the JEP were children when the crime was perpetrated, today they are adults looking for the recognition of the crimes that were committed against them, and the long lasting impacts that conflict-related sexual violence has had on their lives. An example is the case of Yolanda Perea Mosquera, who was raped in 1997 by members of the FARC when she 11 years old. Today, at 35 years old she is a human rights defender, a spokeswoman for victims of conflict-related sexual violence and a supporter of the JEP.[7] Besides, the JEP only has jurisdiction for crimes committed before 2016. Therefore, because the JEP does not have jurisdiction over crimes committed after the signing of the peace agreement, it is very probable that it is not going to deal with cases in which the victims are currently children and adolescents. This leaves the President's argument without foundation.

The current debates around the JEP’s statutory law show that it does not matter how sophisticated are the transitional justice mechanisms put in motion to guarantee truth, justice, reparation and non-repetition if other state institutions and the government in power do not have the political will necessary to back up these mechanisms. The terms used to name the violence (armed conflict or terrorist threat) are not insignificant and are linked to particular politics of memory building that have the potential to perpetuate the structural and historical exclusions, abuses, domination and exploitation that generated the conflict in the first place. Alternatively, they can became an opportunity to start a conversation that allows us to come to terms with the crimes committed during the conflict, recognise our complicity as a society and think of how to generate reparative actions.


[1] Así se contrastará la verdad de la violencia sexual en la JEP, El Espectador (14 October 2018) https://colombia2020.elespectador.com/jep/asi-se-contrastara-la-verdad-de-la-violencia-sexual-en-la-jep

[2] Presidente Iván Duque objeto seis artículos de la Ley Estatutaria de la JEP, El Espectador (10 March 2019) https://www.elespectador.com/noticias/politica/presidente-duque-objeto-seis-articulos-de-la-ley-estatutaria-de-la-jep-articulo-844242

[3] Duncan Hosie, What is Gender Ideology, SLATE, (March 22, 2019) https://slate.com/human-interest/2019/03/gender-ideology-trump-bolsonaro-lgbtq.html 

[4] A feminist Peace in Colombia? https://reliefweb.int/report/colombia/feminist-peace-colombia; Roxanne Kristalli and Kimberly Theidom, Here is How Attention to Gender Affected Colombia’s Peace Process, The Washington Post (October 9, 2016) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/10/09/heres-how-attention-to-gender-affected-colombias-peace-process/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.5b52060170e7

[5] According to the Mesa de Seguimiento de los Autos 092 y 009 of Colombian Constitutional Court, the level of impunity of sexual related conflict violence cases is 97 percent. 

[6] Patricia Ollé Tejero (24 March 2018). Transitional justice in the Colombian peace process and the need to ensure male survivors of sexual violence are not left out http://allsurvivorsproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Colombia-Transitional-Justice-English.pdf

[7] Natalia Herrera Duran (3 August 2018). Por la verdad la violencia sexual que atravesó el cuerpo de las mujeres. El Espectador. https://colombia2020.elespectador.com/justicia/por-la-verdad-de-la-violencia-sexual-que-atraveso-el-cuerpo-de-las-mujeres. Victoria Stunt (3 March 2019) Colombia Conflict: ‘If I keep quiet, I become an accomplice’, BBC News, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-47375488