Balancing Peace and Justice: Interview with President Juan Manuel Santos

Balancing Peace and Justice: Interview with President Juan Manuel Santos

. 15 min read

President Juan Manuel Santos served as President of Colombia from 2010 to 2018. For his work negotiating a peace agreement with The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), he was the sole recipient of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize. Prior to his presidency, Santos served as Colombia’s Minister of Foreign Trade, Minister of Finance and Public Credit, and Minister of National Defense. Before his political career, Santos was a journalist with El Tiempo and was a Nieman Fellow. He also served previously as the Head of the Colombian Delegation to the International Coffee Organization.

Santos spoke with Pandey over Zoom on April 21, 2021. The interview was lightly edited for clarity.  

In light of COVID-19, a new administration, and recent reports of rising violence from militant groups, how would you assess the legacy of the 2016 peace accords?

This specific peace accord was negotiated with the FARC, which was the oldest and strongest guerrilla movement in the whole western hemisphere. In assessing the agreement with the FARC, I think the process has been very successful.

What they call the DDR (demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration) was done in record time. 92 percent of the guerrillas that submitted to the process and gave up their arms are still in the process and accounted for. That is a much higher percentage than any other similar peace agreement in other parts of the world. What has been lacking is the implementation of various points of the agreement.

This agreement is considered the most comprehensive and most ambitious agreement ever signed, and the current government has not been very enthusiastic in accelerating the implementation.

Very little has been done to implement the rural reform, which was the first point in the agenda. There's another specific point in the agreement, which has to do with the voluntary substitution of illegal crops, one of the measures agreed upon to fight drug trafficking that the current government has not been enthusiastic in implementing. They want to go back to the old policy of chemical spraying and forced eradication, which has proved ineffective. The government has also failed to give enough security and protection to social leaders and demobilized members of the FARC.

How do you anticipate the government potentially fulfilling these points that you view as important? Or do you think that a new route needs to be taken now that there are certain parts of the agreement that haven’t been fulfilled?

The government has a double message. They tell the international community, the United Nations, and the United States that they are implementing the agreement, but if you go to the territories, to where the people are, you see something different. I am not very optimistic about this government. They will continue at a very slow pace. But, fortunately, the agreement is shielded and is part of our Constitution. The next three governments, including this one, are obliged to implement the agreement. I hope that the next government—and we have elections next year—will be much more committed, and this is something that everybody is expecting.

So, moving onto the negotiation process, a negotiation involves compromise on both sides. In the context of the 2016 peace accords, opponents of the deal viewed it as too lenient to lower-level members of the FARC, contributing to its referendum failing. How did you and your administration go about balancing interests? Do you think you struck the correct balance?

Every peace process of this sort is really about where do you draw the line between peace and justice. The instructions that I gave my negotiators were to try to achieve as much justice as possible that will allow us to have peace. This is the first agreement in the history of the world where the two parties involved negotiated a special transitional justice system and agreed to submit to it. This has never happened before, and the transitional justice system is working. It's a very difficult process. I do believe we struck the correct balance. You always find people from both sides, one arguing for more justice and the other arguing for more peace, but that is inevitable. I truly believe that we struck the right balance even though no peace agreement is perfect.

Santos signing the 2016 Peace Accord with the FARC.

Colombia’s reparations program has been described as one of the most ambitious in the world. It is particularly praised for its attention to transitional justice for women victims and victims of gender-based violence. Why did your administration decide to prioritize women’s rights in this way? What have been the impacts?

One of the unique aspects of this agreement is that the victims were at the heart of the negotiations along with their rights to justice, truth, reparations, and non-repetition. We have repaired more than 1 million victims, something no country has ever done. In almost every war, a greater proportion of victims end up being women, so we decided to give them a priority in the implementation of the agreement. That is why we included a gender chapter and also included an ethnic chapter because women as well as the Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities were the ones that suffered the most.

You mentioned that victims were really centered in the negotiation and in the creation of these transitional justice programs, how did your administration work with, for example, Afro-Colombian groups or women's rights groups in the creation of these programs?

We not only listened to them but also gave them a voice because they were present at the end of the negotiation in Cuba. In the chapters that were addressed specifically to women and to ethnic communities, they had the chance to give their views on how this would be implemented. Unfortunately, this is another aspect of the agreement that has yet to be implemented correctly.

While the various transitional justice programs are ambitious, the implementation of reparations or prosecution of crimes has often lagged behind the mandates of the laws. What are the obstacles to more successful implementation? How can those obstacles be remedied?

Quite frankly, what I feel is lacking is political will and a specific interest from the government in implementing the programs that are addressed to these two specific target groups: women and the ethnic communities. This is tied to the territorial development plans in the regions where social and economic investment were needed the most because those were the regions that suffered the most during so many years of war. This has advanced in some ways, but not enough. I hope that if there's more political will and more resources, we would see a much better result in addressing these specific objectives.

Land restitution specifically is a large portion of reparations that were guaranteed in the Victims Law of 2011 as well as referenced on the 2016 Peace Accords. You mentioned reinvesting money into impacted territories, so how does land restitution fit into these sorts of programs? What obstacles exist for land restitution?

This is, for me, one of the most important points of the agreement. We not only decided to recognize the victims, but we started giving them back the land that was taken from them through violence. And, even before we reached a peace agreement with the FARC, we began land restitution due to the Victim’s Law that was passed in 2011.  When I left office, we had given back almost 400,000 hectares to the peasants that claimed the land was taken from them. We also left more than one million hectares of land in the pipeline under the jurisdiction of judges. The current government has been advancing but at a very slow rate. What is needed is for the government to press the judges to accelerate the decisions to give back the land to the peasants. However, we are now having a new obstacle in that drug traffickers and big landowners, who acquired the land through violence, now feel threatened because the peasants are claiming their land back. They are financing paramilitary groups, or assassins, that are killing the peasants that are leading movements to claim their land. This is a specific obstacle that the government should address much more effectively because many of the social movement leaders that are claiming their land back are being killed.

Santos signing the 2011 Victim's Law.

How should Colombia continue to reconcile with an ongoing history of civil war? What protections are still lacking for victims? How should Colombian society heal from the violence?

Well, this is something that Colombia and the world in general need: to be much more tolerant with people who think differently. This has to do with education, how you are raised in a society, the values and principles that guide you, and how you tolerate others who think differently from yourself. The work of the truth commission should help to heal the wounds of the violence because the truth is what many victims ultimately desire. Many of the victims that I talked to, hundreds, told me that the only real reparation that they wanted was the truth. Why did they kill my daughter? Why did they rape my daughter and kill her afterward? Where is my son? So, by bringing out the truth, which many times is difficult to digest, the Commission is completing the necessary process of reconciliation after more than 50 years of war.

There have been a number of truth commissions around the world since the famous ones in Bosnia in the 1990s. Truth commissions oftentimes have to balance what you were mentioning earlier, the idea of peace and reconciliation with truth and justice. How do you envision the Colombian truth commission's engaging with this issue of how much truth is necessary or good or how much reconciliation is necessary and good?

Well, this is a major, major challenge because to bring out the truth of 50 years of war is impossible. They have to be selective and produce a balanced and objective result, which the majority of the victims will feel is satisfactory.

This is a very difficult job, and they have very little time because the Truth Commission is scheduled to end its work at the end of this year (2021). They're doing very good work as far as I know. The final report should also show the atrocities of the war and help Colombian society say, "This can never happen again.”

Relations with Venezuela have been increasingly fraught with years of increasing numbers of migrants and refugees fleeing from Venezuela to Colombia as well as violence along the border. The Colombian government has established temporary protected status to allow migrants to live in Colombia with basic benefits for up to 10 years. However, this policy obviously does not address the root of the growing humanitarian crisis in the region. What do you view as the future of regional instability? What steps can be taken now?

Since the beginning, my government took the decision to welcome the Venezuelans because the Venezuelans had been very generous to Colombia for decades.

Many, many Colombians migrated to Venezuela because of the violence here, and they were welcomed with open arms. I thought, and I still think, that it is our obligation to also welcome the Venezuelans who wanted to come to Colombia. Fortunately, this government continued the policy of welcoming Venezuelans and giving them access to our education and health systems as well as allowing them to work. But that is a very big problem because this cannot be a permanent solution. You have to go to the root of the problem, which is restoring democracy in Venezuela.

My conviction is that you need a negotiated solution to the Venezuelan problem where the major stakeholders participate in building a golden bridge for the regime, as it is called in peace jargon. Those stakeholders are the ones that can force a solution and at the same time guarantee that the solution will be implemented. Those are Russia, China, the United States, Europe, and Latin American countries. I personally think that this should be done through the United Nations.

Without negotiating a peaceful transition, there will either be an implosion, which would be terrible, or the conflict will drag on for many, many years, and we will see the situation deteriorating, year after year. Unfortunately, Colombia, besides Venezuela, is the country that is most affected.

In your opinion, how likely do you view multilateral negotiation on this subject in the coming years?

Well, with the change of government in the United States, I think that the conditions are ripe. President Biden has said that he wants a negotiated solution and I think he also wants to strengthen multilateralism, so the participation of the United Nations would be very convenient. Through the United Nations and the Security Council, you can bring in China and Russia, and even Cuba, which is a country that has a lot to say in this negotiation. So, I believe that with sufficient political will, this is possible. I can tell you that both parties are interested in this type of negotiation, both the Maduro regime and the Venezuelan opposition.

Santos at the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

Colombia has traditionally maintained a strong relationship with the United States from military cooperation to trade. What areas would benefit from further cooperation? Where does the partnership need to be strengthened or even altered?

President Biden has established new priorities, which I think are the correct priorities. The Trump administration concentrated only on a very hard-line approach to drug trafficking and to Venezuela. The rest was virtually ignored. Biden has said that the implementation of the peace agreement is very important for Colombia. He is correct. The pandemic has left Colombia in a very bad position in terms of poverty and inequality. We need to address this problem, and the Peace Agreement has the elements to address a very important part of this problem. They are reestablishing the importance of human rights, which is very good for our relations, something that unfortunately was disregarded in the recent past.

Of course, we need a lot of cooperation in the economic and the social sphere. There we can complement each other precisely through something that Colombia is in a very important position to help with, which is building back better from the pandemic with a sustainable approach. Colombia is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of biodiversity. President Biden is very interested in the issue of the environment, so you have two countries that can work beautifully together to attain the same objective.

Transitioning towards the economy, you just mentioned that the pandemic has led to a lot of inequality. Colombia’s poverty rate rose from 34.7 percent in 2019 to about 47 percent at the end of 2020. However, its economy is growing and is on track to reach 2019 levels within a few years. How should the Colombian government address the growing distance between macroeconomic performance and poverty?

You need to be very pragmatic in this approach. I do think that the Colombian economy has the conditions to recover its growth rate, but we need the political will to redistribute the proceeds of this economic growth. What we did in the last government was to implement a new approach to fight poverty called a multi-dimensional index approach. You don't measure poverty by how much you earn, which the World Bank and the IMF focus on, but rather on your basic necessities. This worked extremely well. Between the years 2010 and 2018, Colombia lowered poverty and inequality by the highest amount across Latin America. I think that type of approach after the pandemic is needed, you combine economic growth with microeconomic policies that address poverty and inequality. You need progressive taxation combined with focused expenditure.

Building off of that question, you previously mentioned sustainable development goals as a long-term economic strategy. However, a lot of those sustainable development goals are about renewable energy transition and more efficient use of energy. Colombia is obviously a major oil producer, and the government has partially nationalized the oil industry. How do you reconcile the obvious interest the Colombian government has in the oil industry and revenue from it with sustainable development?

Well, we fortunately have a very clean matrix in our energy production in Colombia. 70 percent of our energy comes from hydraulic power because we have many rivers and lots of water. But, yes, you're quite correct in saying that we are very rich in coal and oil. We must take a political decision to reduce dependence, especially for foreign trade income, from sources like oil and coal and transfer that to sustainable, clean energy. We also have a lot of sun and a lot of wind. We have completed a few sustainable energy projects that have been small but very successful. I think we need to make a political decision to keep the oil in the ground and especially to keep the coal in the ground. This is where the international community and rich countries can help because it costs money to do this. Colombia is going to be in a very difficult financial and fiscal position in the near future. If we want a clean world—a sustainable world—developed countries have to help underdeveloped countries to finance the transition towards a more clean economy.

So, moving on from the topic of the economy, I did want to talk a little bit about your career as a journalist. You have a very unique experience in that you worked for El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest newspaper, as well as had a very long political career. So, having been on both sides of the dynamic between politicians and the government and the media, what would you describe the dynamic as? What’s the media’s role in democracy?

I have always said that you need a press that criticizes the government, that points out not only what is working, but especially what is not working. I know that governments—because I felt it and I suffered it—don't like that. But, it is very necessary. I learned in a lesson at Harvard the definition of a good journalist: he should be like a watchdog. If he sees that things are working, he barely wags his tail, but if he thinks that things are not working, he should bark or bite.

Governments don't like that, but for democracy, this is necessary. You should consider criticism every morning as a bath of cold water. It wakes you up to reality and shows you what people are really thinking and living, not the reality your close advisers try to create because that is usually too optimistic.

Santos and his family celebrating his reelection in 2014.

In the last few years, we’ve actually seen the Global Press Freedom Index decline quite precipitously in a way that we have not seen in previous decades. How does the international community deal with more restrictions on the press and people viewing the presses adversarial to the general good as opposed to being a part of democracy?

Unfortunately, social media and technology have put journalism in trouble because you're not being guided by those objective intermediaries that choose what really is news and what is really important for the community. You are now being guided by the so-called trending topics, which can be completely illogical or completely wrong, but if that is what social media thinks is news, then it will be replicated. So, we are going through an existential crisis, and I speak here as a journalist. We have to, in a way, reinvent ourselves with pertinent news and with more objectivity and less ideology, if that is possible. We need to give our readers and our viewers information that will earn back their trust because the media in many countries has lost trust and credibility. That is a fact, and this is dangerous.

A good journalist’s best asset is his credibility. This is something that we have been losing in the world, not only the media but our institutions in general. We need to recuperate the trust of the people if we want good journalism and a strong democracy.

What are the biggest challenges Colombia is currently facing? What should be prioritized?

We are facing a very big challenge due to the consequences of the pandemic. The backlash of this pandemic is going to be extremely severe, not only in Colombia, but in all of the world, and especially in Latin America, where there's a complete lack of leadership. I've never seen Latin America with such a vacuum of leaders. Populism is on the rise. We need to create a different type of leadership, different from what we have traditionally had: the caudillo, or an authoritarian leader. We need more leaders like the Prime Minister of New Zealand or the Prime Minister of Norway, who, by the way, are women. They inspire trust, they tell the truth, they are empathic, they connect with the people, and they have the courage to take bold and unpopular decisions. This is the type of leadership that is extremely important to have both in the region and in Colombia.

We face the challenge of reducing inequality and the challenge of again lifting the majority of our people above the poverty line; a country so rich like Colombia simply cannot have half of its population living in poverty. This is very difficult to live with and we are already suffering social protests. To reduce poverty and inequality, we need a different type of leadership. We need to never forget the importance of institutions and the importance of data and science. This pandemic fortunately has also taught us that data and science are important. If we move from ideology to facts and to a more pragmatic approach, I think we will be better off. We should never forget that we live in one house, which is our planet, and we are one race, the human race. It is the only way to confront the biggest of all challenges: climate change.

Santos visiting Bojaya.

All images courtesy of the Presidencia de la República de Colombia.

Indu Pandey

Indu Pandey is the Editor-in-Chief of the HIR. She is interested in human rights, state-building, and social movements. She has previously written about police brutality and the Afghan peace process.