Bojana Djokanovic examines new and hopeful prospects for accounting for tens of thousands of missing and disappeared persons in Colombia
In September 2015 the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) began the latest round of peace talks in their long-running conflict, agreeing in principle that a peace agreement would be signed in March 2016. The talks in Havana reached agreement on issues such as sentence reduction for those who admit to crimes, and the FARC accepted a disarmament plan. However, the peace deal deadline was missed after the opposing sides failed to agree on ensuring a permanent cease-fire.
The conflict in Colombia between left-wing insurgents on the one hand – mainly the FARC and the ELN (National Liberation Army) – and the Colombian armed forces and right-wing paramilitaries on the other began in the mid-1960s and has been regarded as one of the longest running internal conflicts. It has resulted in large numbers of casualties, as well as missing and disappeared persons.
While the 23 March deadline for a formal peace settlement has not been met, the ELN have now joined in the negotiations and the process will continue in Ecuador.
Negotiators on both sides insist that the peace deal will not deliver impunity for those responsible for serious conflict-related crimes, including enforced disappearances. However, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have raised concerns about legislation that could lead to or increase high levels of impunity, “especially for members of the security forces implicated in human rights violations, including unlawful killings, torture, enforced disappearances, death threats, forced displacement and rape.” 
Nevertheless, some important progress has been achieved during the talks, most significantly in relation to addressing the issue of disappeared persons. The number of persons who went missing as a result of the conflict in Colombia is believed to be anywhere from 49,000 to 79,000. In October 2015, agreement was reached on setting up “a specialized unit to search for people who are considered disappeared” once the peace deal has been signed. The Cuban and Norwegian representatives facilitating the talks announced that both the government and the FARC have agreed to disclose information on the location of clandestine graves across the country that hold the remains of persons who were disappeared.
The causes of Colombian disappearances are diverse and have been perpetrated by a variety of groups, including paramilitary and guerrilla forces and state actors. Children and indigenous peoples represent two groups within the general population that have been particularly vulnerable. It is alleged that the unidentified remains of more than 4,000 children have been found in mass graves. According to the Centre for Autonomy and Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Colombia (Observatorio ADPI), indigenous peoples have suffered from forced displacement and disappearance due to the presence of legal and illegal armed actors linked to drug trafficking and other criminal activities. Further, organized crime is a major source of disappearances. Criminal syndicates and juvenile crime gangs are reported to have developed effective ways of making bodies disappear permanently – a key way of avoiding prosecution.
Between 2008 and 2010, during ICMP’s direct involvement in Colombia, the country made progress in setting in place the legal and institutional mechanisms to locate and identify missing persons. Among other things, ICMP advised on the 2010 law that codified aspects of the country’s approach to accounting for the missing; it helped to draft the first public report on enforced disappearances in Colombia; and it provided training for Colombian forensic scientists in DNA extraction. The creation of laws on missing persons has raised public awareness, which can be seen by the high number of families of the missing applying to government institutions for support, answers and compensation.
Cooperation with government authorities is one of the basic prerequisites for addressing the issue of enforced disappearances. The signal sent from the peace negotiators in Havana on creating a specialized unit to focus on missing persons could reinvigorate the process that is already underway to account for the missing. However, it remains unclear as to how this new unit will coordinate with other institutions that were created to deal with the missing persons issue during previous administrations. Other prerequisites include the active inclusion and participation of civil society, particularly the family members of the disappeared, as primary actors in providing and collecting data and information on the disappearance of their loved ones.
The steps that have been taken are crucial in advancing a strategy for Colombia to address one of the most painful legacies of a decades long conflict – the issue of missing and disappeared persons – which, if addressed in a holistic way, will support long term peace and stability.