The Role of Religious Groups in the 2016 Colombian Plebiscite for Peace and the Implementation of the Peace Agreement

Carlos Bernal Pulido is a professor of law at the University of Dayton School of Law and University of La Sabana (Colombia), serves as a commissioner at the Interamerican Human Rights Commission, and was a justice at the Constitutional Court of Colombia (2017–20). The following is an edited summary of his remarks at the ICLRS 29th Annual International Law and Religion Symposium, 3 October 2022.

The topic of this Symposium, “Religion’s Roles in Peacebuilding,” is important and relevant in many regions of the world. But I would like to talk today about the peace process in Colombia, my country of origin, and the role of religious groups in that process, or lack thereof. There are lessons to be learned from Colombia’s experience, and I would like to highlight several relevant points.

First, some historical background: In Colombia, a long, drawn-out conflict took place over a century between political factions. During that time, the Catholic Church was deeply involved with one of the two major factions—the Conservative Party. That phase of the conflict came to an end approximately 60 years ago, when the Conservative and Liberal Parties agreed to distribute the exercise of political power between themselves. However, they closed the political system to those who had no affiliation with either party. At that time, guerilla groups were created and began to threaten the Conservative-Liberal alliance. The most important guerilla movement at that time was the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army). Many of the Catholic priests who were left-wing oriented were aligned and fought with the guerillas.

In 2012, the possibility of a peace agreement was created by means of a transitional justice framework. That year, the Congress passed a constitutional amendment that created a special “parenthesis” in the constitutional life of Columbia, enabling the government to negotiate a peace agreement with the guerillas. In my opinion, however, that top-down framework was not well considered because it went against current conventional wisdom and foundational literature, which prescribes that such processes should be bottom-up. The government began negotiations with guerilla leaders, but these negotiations excluded various key parties, such as victims of the conflict, the military, foreign military, and importantly, religious groups. As a result, the draft of the peace agreement lacked legitimacy.

A plebiscite on the peace agreement was held in late 2016, and the Colombian people voted to reject the agreement. Despite that rejection, the Colombian government, applying a dubious constitutional interpretation, requested that Congress pass the peace agreement on behalf of the people who had voted against it. And the Constitutional Court (in a decision predating my time on the Court) allowed that interpretation to be applied.

This resulted in a great deal of tension between the peace agreement and Colombia’s Constitution because the agreement implied too many exceptions to constitutional principles. For example, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz or JEP), which was created as a transitional justice mechanism, has been controversial, and guerillas have not been forced to compensate the victims. In addition, while a Truth Commission was created, it lacks balance, since guerilla groups have influence in the appointments of the commissioners. This has resulted in a version of the “truth” that is designed solely by people whose ideology is close to that of the FARC leaders.

Given this context, many religious leaders oppose both the peace agreement and its implementation. Because churches were not brought into the process as vehicles to try to make the peace agreement legitimate or “real,” we have a peace agreement without peace. And Colombia faces the potential of reliving past problems. Human rights reports, for example, indicate that Colombia is now experiencing some of the same violations of human rights it experienced in the past, in the same parts of the country: disappearances, drug cultivation, drug trafficking, and others.

One lesson from Colombia’s experience is that the involvement of church leaders and religious groups in the peace process can create legitimacy to procedures. Religious institutions can commit to implement and manage strategies and measures for achieving peace, reparations and compensation to victims, truth and justice through time, and non-repetition. They can engage in dialogue with people at the grassroots and create community awareness, decrease polarization, and create processes of deliberation.

In Colombia, we lacked that potentially powerful instrument. This is one explanation, among others, as to why Colombia’s peace agreement has not produced the results the people sought and hoped for. The lesson to inform future peace processes is that the involvement of religious groups can help make a peace agreement not just a piece of paper to show to the world but a strategy that is successfully and sustainably implemented in communities.