Finding Truth: Navigating the Successes and Challenges of Colombia’s Truth Commission

This roundtable formed part of the Legatum Institute’s Peace and Reconciliation work, the vision of which is to document how nations have forged pathways to long-lasting peace so others can draw from their experiences.

A commentary for the Peace and Reconciliation programme by Anna Caffell

Published 19 Mar 2020

I don’t know of any conflict which has been resolved without passing through the truth…no conflict has resolution unless you go to the roots…that is what Colombia is gaining with this Truth Commission, we are analysing why.

 Alejandra Coll-Agudelo, member of the Gender Working Group of the Colombian Truth Commission.

In September 2016, the Colombian Government and representatives from the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército Popular (FARC-EP) signed the final peace agreement to end the country’s protracted 52-year conflict. During the war at least 260,000 Colombians were killed and more than 6.7 million people – roughly 13% of the population – were displaced.

In order to help secure victims’ rights, the peace agreement created a transitional justice mechanism, known as the Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition. As part of the national effort to implement this complex system several bodies were established, including the Commission for the Clarification of the Truth, Coexistence and Non-Recurrence (the Truth Commission), the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, and the Unit for the Search for Persons Presumed Disappeared.

The Truth Commission was established in November 2018 in order to produce a report with recommendations that would lay the foundations for reconciliation, and a stable, lasting peace. The Commission seeks to piece together the historical narrative of the conflict in Colombia and, crucially, to give voice to the thousands of victims whose suffering has so far been in silence. Currently its key priority is the collection of thousands of testimonies from across different sections of Colombian society to try to build a comprehensive picture of what happened, and why.

Earlier this month, we welcomed two representatives of the Truth Commission for a private roundtable discussion, held in collaboration with Embrace Dialogue. During the discussion, they explained the key innovations the Commission has pioneered, and outlined some of the challenges faced so far.

Peter Drury, the UK Representative of the Truth Commission, highlighted that its remit has already gone beyond previous Commissions in other countries by seeking to include the perspectives of thousands of Colombians who fled the conflict. Forced displacement has been one of the main consequences of the war, and it is estimated that half a million people have migrated abroad. In the UK and elsewhere, the Commission has been holding meetings, events and conferences, in order to build confidence among the diaspora and to collect testimonies on an impartial and voluntary basis. Promisingly, the Commission has so far reached Colombian diaspora in 23 countries, and the team believes that through this process the Commission has recovered an important collective history residing outside of Colombia.

Alejandra Coll-Agudelo, a member of the Gender Working Group of the Truth Commission, explained how the Commission is the first to place gender at the heart of its mandate. Women accounted for roughly 58% of the victims of the conflict, yet, along with other groups, such as victims from the LGBTI+ community, their voices were not heard and their views were not incorporated in to the design of public policies seeking to remedy the particular impact the war had on them. This is something the Commission is addressing by making a particular effort to listen to, record and include testimonies from these groups. Keen to acknowledge the strength and resilience these victims have shown in rebuilding their lives, Alejandra commented: “We don’t only want to tell a story of pain, we want to talk about the coping mechanisms of the victims.

Dr. Andrei Gómez-Suárez, the Co-Founder of Embrace Dialogue, and one of the individuals  documenting interviews for the Truth Commission in the UK, outlined challenges the Commission has faced in two key areas: tackling the distrust present in society as a result of the five decades of war, and the difficulty of operating in the middle of a polarised society. Dr. Gómez-Suárez emphasised that polarisation leads people to have difficulty in understanding the role of the Commission, which is simply to “open a forum for Colombian society to come to terms with the past.” However, he added that he believes “the Colombian Truth Commission is going to create a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in terms of Truth Commissions so far.”

Concerningly, the situation within Colombia is still critical, with ongoing violence and the continued killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. However, the Truth Commission continues to seek to place Colombians’ lived experiences in the public eye. The Commission hopes its final report will create a foundation for meaningful dialogue to take place within wider society, to help embed peace and create a framework to support the other mechanisms working towards justice.

This roundtable took place as part of our Peace and Reconciliation work, the vision behind which is to document how nations have forged pathways to long-lasting peace. We aim to analyse common patterns and assemble lessons learnt, so that others can draw from their experiences.

  • You can listen to podcasts of interviews we conducted with representatives from the Truth Commission and Embrace Dialogue, in which we discuss the importance of collecting testimonies from Colombians who have fled the country; the role that gender has played in the conflict and its aftermath; and the challenges faced by the Commission so far.

The Colombian Truth Commission: Peter Drury on the innovative approach of the Commission


The Colombian Truth Commission: Dr. Andrei Gómez-Suárez on the importance of diaspora testimonies


The Colombian Truth Commission: Alejandra Coll-Agudelo on gender perspective in the armed conflict