Reintegration of Former Combatants: The End to Colombia’s Reign of Blood?

Lucia Syder and Federica Lombardi, University of Cambridge, UK

Lucia is currently a third year student at Cambridge University studying Politics and International Relations. She is greatly interested in conflict and peace building studies, and hopes to go into the field after graduating this summer.

Federica is a third year undergraduate at Cambridge University, studying Human, Social and Political Sciences. At Cambridge she has focused on Politics of the Middle East, Peacebuilding and Peacekeeping and 19th century History of Political Thought. She is particularly interested in the role of justice in international peacekeeping, with a focus on the links between justice, reconciliation and truth in post-conflict settlements.


The purpose of this paper is to evaluate the variables that will play a fundamental role in establishing a long-lasting peace in Colombia. In the first section, the paper focuses on the role that the social, political and economic reintegration of former combatants will play in the establishment of peace. The second section contrasts the role of reintegration with the additional variables of social and economic governmental reforms. The paper concludes that although reintegration is necessary to ensure the success of reconciliation and the triumph of democracy, it must be complemented with social reforms and an increased state presence.


In November of 2016, the Colombian government led by President Juan Manuel Santos signed a revised peace agreement with leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), ending more than 50 years of conflict. Colombia has played host to the longest-running civil war in the Western hemisphere, resulting in at least 220,000 (mainly civilian) deaths and the world’s second largest population of internally displaced people (GMH, 2016). With the signing of the ceasefire and a peace agreement between the FARC and the Colombian government it appears peace finally looms on the horizon. However, the rejection of the referendum on this peace deal on October 2nd2016 by the Colombian people and the subsequent need to take an alternative route and secure the approval of Congress on November 30th highlights the fragility and uncertainty of this agreement (BBC, 2016). Santos, during his Nobel Peace Prize Speech in Oslo, admitted that, “like life itself, peace is a process with many surprises” (Santos, 2016). Thus, this essay addresses the question of whether peace in Colombia depends primarily on the successful reintegration of ex-combatants. The dependent variable within this analysis is the achievement of peace, while the independent variable under scrutiny is the reintegration of ex-combatants.

The term ‘peace’ will be broadly conceived according to Galtung’s (1969) multidimensional account as both an absence of violence (negative peace) and the absence of structural violence (positive peace). Structural violence is defined as the difference between the actual and the potential of individuals within a given society: in other words, the degree of social injustice and unequal life chances. Violence is thus embedded into the social structure through mechanisms leading to inequality of power and resources. This two-sided understanding of peace is appropriate to examine the Colombian case because it moves beyond a conceptualization of peace as merely the absence of armed fighting, granting visibility to ‘hidden’ systems and mechanisms at work in the socio-economic spheres of the Colombian state. Significantly, this extended understanding of peace allows for a greater range of actors to be held accountable for ensuring peace – in a positive and negative dimension – is sustained in Colombia. Too often, stability and order are mistaken for peace. This essay suggests this narrow understanding of peace often masks a deeper and pervasive type of violence: widespread social injustice. It will therefore allow for an appreciation of fundamental conditions that led to the shattering of peace in Colombia, including socio-economic grievances, rural and urban inequality, and the perceived incomplete role of the Colombian state.

It will be argued that the consolidation of a stable and enduring peace requires the completion of a successful DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration) process. While disarmament and demobilization are short to medium term goals, reintegration deals with the long-term need to support the inclusion of former combatants into society through social, economic, educational and psychological policies. Reintegration can be accurately conceptualized according to the following UN definition: “Reintegration is the process by which ex-combatants acquire civilian status and gain sustainable employment and income. Reintegration is essentially a social and economic process with an open time frame, primarily taking place in communities at the local level” (United Nations, 2014). This essay will assess the hypothesis that building a sustainable peace for Colombia depends – to a large extent – on “successful reintegration” defined as a multifaceted program of social, economic and political reincorporation into civilian life. Using analysis from three former Colombian DDR programs, it will be concluded that reintegration is the primary ingredient that will allow for reconciliation and the mending of the broken social-tissue of Colombian society. Thus, the shape of the peace Colombia has chosen will be determined – to a large extent – both by the success of the socio-political reintegration of ex-combatants, and by the way in which the tension between reconciliation and justice is resolved. However, the essay will also contend that peace depends not only on the successful reintegration of ex-combatants, but also on the ability of the state to strengthen its institutional capacity and fill the void left by the demobilised groups. The enduring peace Colombia deserves will only be achieved if all the socio-political conditions that led to the sustained armed conflict are improved; peace will be the final result of tackling multidimensional national problems.


This paper’s methodology is grounded in the analysis of a wide range of literature reviews. We reviewed the findings of academic journals from both national and international spheres to provide ample coverage and multidimensional perspectives on the current conflict resolution. Moreover, we relied heavily on the analysis of numerous official documents produced by the United Nations and the Colombian government to establish the official outcomes of the peace process and to incorporate standardised definitions of contested terms.

Section 1Social, economic and political reintegration and its overall impact on establishing peace

The final phase of DDR involves the reintegration of ex-combatants into society. This allows them to “acquire civilian status and gain sustainable employment and income” (United Nations, 2015). Because reintegration is a multifaceted process, it is useful to examine three types of reintegration – social, economic and political. The building of a sustainable peace depends largely on the government’s ability to institutionalize the lessons of Columbia’s recent past and its former DDR programs. There are three immediate precedents that can be used to guide the new DDR process. The first example is the collective DDR of the guerrilla group M-19 in the late 1980s. The second is the demobilisation of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) between 2003 and 2006. Finally, the process and implications of individual demobilisation of FARC and ELN members since 2002 is also telling.

To begin, ‘social reintegration’ refers to the way in which “ex-combatants and their families feel they are a part of society and are accepted by the community” (Casas-Casas and Guzmán-­Gómez, 2010, p. 62). Yet Guáqueta (2007) notes how the FARC are likely to “encounter high entry barriers when reintegrating, as their popularity among Colombians and the international community has eroded”. This is largely due to their involvement in systematic kidnapping and the cocaine industry. These tensions were exacerbated in the rejection of the peace deal in the referendum held in October 2016.  Many of those who voted ‘no’ “said they thought the peace agreement was letting the rebels ‘get away with murder”(BBC, 2016). Many Colombians are therefore critical of the transitional justice elements of the peace deal. They are not only sceptical about the amnesty for those who have committed minor crimes but are alarmed by the fact that those who have been found guilty of serious crimes such as massacres and sexual violence can avoid jail time (if they confess before a special tribunal within a two year period). Hence, there is clearly a sentiment amongst substantial portions of the population that the victims of the conflict will be side-lined for the interests of former fighters. De Grieff (2009, p. 150) argues, “if you leave victims at a comparative disadvantage it gives rise to new grievances, which may exacerbate their resistance against returning ex-combatants”. Subsequently, in order to establish a lasting peace it is necessary not just to focus on providing benefits to former FARC members but the population at large. This is certainly a need the government has attempted to tackle as evidenced by Law 1148 (Law of Victims), passed in June 2011 requiring the Columbian state to provide “care and comprehensive reparation to the victims of the internal armed conflict” (Balanta Moreno, 2014, p. 158).

Examining ‘economic reintegration’ requires us to look at the ways in which ex-combatants “restore their livelihoods through production and/or other types of gainful employment” (Casas-Casas and Guzmán-­Gómez, 2010, p. 61). The importance of this tenet of reintegration is demonstrated by the success of aspects of the education programmes. The importance of reintegration programmes to provide basic and lasting skills is highlighted in a 2016 survey in which 56% of ex-combatants stated the main advantage of demobilising was ‘being able to study’ (Kaplan and Nussio, 2016). However, arguments concerning the current peace process and lessons from past DDR programmes in Columbia show a tension between many demobilised who criticise the lack of resources to reintegrate them successfully into Colombian society, and the Colombian population who resent having to pay taxes towards the rehabilitation of illegal combatants. Without sufficient resources, reintegration programmes cannot create necessary educational and employment prospects. According to Kaplan and Nussio, this is problematic because “if socially desirable material goods are unattainable due to a lack of financial opportunities, it can lead to frustration and anger and fuel illegal behaviour” (2016, p. 6). Therefore it is crucial that the Colombian government takes full advantage of the international community and their involvement in the peace process to obtain funds for the full reintegration of FARC. In this regard the USA has a key role to play; indeed, the Obama administration has pledged $450 million under the Peace Columbia (Paz Columbia) framework to implement the peace plan (Rampton, 2016). Despite this, the importance of financial resources in supporting reintegration must not be overstated, as pillars of reintegration such as employment are reliant on the wider acceptance of ex-combatants by society as a whole.

One of the fundamental problems with the demobilisation of the AUC between 2003 and 2006 was a lack of resources. The government provided 18 to 24 months of financial support, consisting of an allowance of $179 a month, which failed to provide a sufficient disincentive to join criminal gangs. According to the Columbian government’s High Advisory for Reintegration (ACR) an estimated 20% of the 55,000 ex-combatants present in Columbia committed crimes between 2003 and 2012. One ex-combatant claimed, “here [at the ACR], they give you 400,000 pesos [$200 USD]” yet with armed bands you can earn “almost three million pesos per month [$1,500 USD] … imagine the difference of three million pesos!” (Kaplan and Nussio, 2016, p. 18). Subsequently many former AUC combatants turned to crime rather than seek legal employment, resulting in criminal gangs known as Bandas Criminales (BACRIM), who participate in drug trafficking and extortion in areas formerly under AUC influence. Therefore collective demobilisation transformed the threat of the AUC into a new security challenge. The findings of Kaplan and Nussio (2016, p. 18) show former combatants are 158% more likely to return to illegal activities if they are in the vicinity of criminal bands. Because of this, one of the most salient concerns in Colombia today is that criminal structures may emerge from a future demobilization of FARC fighters. The phenomenon of recidivism among former combatants is, however, more than just a failing of reintegration. It also highlights the importance of the Colombian state capacity, and the need to fill the security gap left by demobilised groups. In cities such as Medellin gangs have filled the security gap that the demobilized left, rather than the Colombian state being able to install a legitimate monopoly of violence. Hence as Casas-­Casas and Guzmán-­Gómez (2010) assert “only the provision of strong protection centered security by the state plus DDR bring about sustained reductions in violence.”

A final parameter that determines the success of reintegration is the political reintegration of ex combatants (Guáqueta, 2007). A complete political reintegration will be understood as a process through which ex-combatants lead a proper autonomous, non-violent life, using problem-solving strategies that are in tune with a democratic and institutional perspective. What this entails is the acquisition of a new, permanent status; combatants become active citizens, who take a role in the running of the Colombian state and identify themselves with its democratic ideals. Thus, fundamentally, reintegration must focus on the psychological transition of former combatants and their ability to leave behind old mental models of behaviour (Casas-Casas and Guzmán-­Gómez, 2010). When combatants enter civilian life, they are transitioning between institutional universes; from one in which the law is dictated by the armed organization, to another where the state enforces rules, regulations and a specific value system. In particular, to transition into civilian life involves a dramatic shift in mental models; it involves embracing democracy, peace and non-violence as modes of behaviour, and rejecting “short cut” behaviour that uses violence and coercion to achieve specific aims. Casas-Casas and Guzmán-­Gómez (2010) suggest that previous reintegration efforts in Colombia have failed to create law-abiding citizens that operate in a political culture characterized by norms of democratic rule, and who resort to formal institutions to solve conflicts. The findings of their work suggest that one of the weaknesses of reintegration in Colombia is the possibility demobilized citizens have of creating parallel institutional universes which are permeated by the use of violence. In other words, old mind-models inherited from their days in illegal armed groups have not been fully abandoned by the demobilised. Empirical evidence for such claims is provided by Casas, Andrés and Gómez’s case study in the Santa Rosa community, where former combatants are being re-integrated into society. In Santa Rosa, none of the respondents expressed that they belonged to a political party and a third of respondents say they don’t know what it means to be a citizen. Even more problematic is the fact that the community of Santa Rosa has achieved a climate of security through violent forms of solutions to problems.  A demobilized citizen in the study declared; “If the problem is a gang and they don’t accept talking, well … we, the community takes action, but violent this time. It has always happened like this here; many times before” (Casas-Casas and Guzmán-­Gómez, 2010). What this suggests is that if re-integration is not carried out in a comprehensive manner, ensuring that former combatants become active peaceful citizens, then peace may be achieved on a macro-scale (nationwide), but violent means will persist and continue to gain legitimacy at a more local – but pervasive – social level.

Therefore, reintegration is fundamental to ensure a long lasting peaceful reconciliation of Colombian society. Reconciliation can be achieved through a re-humanization of the enemy; changing the stereotyped image of the enemy in order to acknowledge the other group or person’s attributes as human beings. Reconciliation is achieved when “parties, who once engaged in a protracted, violent and destructive conflict aim for sustainable peace by recognising and accepting other parties diplomatically and psychologically” (Kelman, 1999, p. 198). Realising how important this process is for peace in Colombia, Santos (2016) placed a great emphasis on the basic compassion and solidarity that we share as human beings, stating; “We are one people and one race; of every colour, of every belief, of every preference. The name of this one people is the world. The name of this one race is humanity”. Yet the complete re-integration into a peaceful civilian life will only be possible through active citizen participation. In the first pages of the final peace agreement signed on November 24th, “la participación activa de la ciudadanía” (active citizen participation) is described as absolutely necessary for the sustainability of national peace. The peace agreement stresses that citizen participation is the grounding pillar that underpins all treaties in the peace plan; peace simply cannot occur without civil society engaging in the promotion of a culture founded on tolerance and respect.

Looking at peace through the lens of reconciliation demonstrates the necessity of balancing the needs of ex-combatants and the needs of the Columbian population. However, a problematic aspect in the resolution of the Colombian conflict appears to be the unresolved tension between reintegration and reconciliation, and seeking full justice for the victims of the bloody armed conflict. In all DDR programmes there is an inevitable trade-off between justice and security. By this we mean justice for crimes is ‘exchanged’ for the security of the population by eradicating the immediate threat of illegally armed troops (Rouw, 2011). This is corroborated by Snyder and Vinjamuri (2003) who argue sustainable peace may require more political expediency and less justice since it takes into account the actual power configuration among a given set of actors (Guáqueta, 2007). One such trade-off is evidenced by FARC’s participation in Colombia’s democratic system of governance. Under the peace agreement FARC have been guaranteed a minimum of five seats in the House and five in the Senate for two legislative periods (Miroff, 2016). The logic for this is succinctly voiced by Columbia’s current President Juan Manuel Santos, “the reason for all peace processes in the world is precisely so that guerrillas leave their arms and can participate in politics legally” (Cardenas, 2016). This is also reflected in the academic literature; Guáqueta (2007) asserts “power sharing, in particular within a democratic framework, is a way to reduce the potential for renewed violence because it may harness illegal armed groups’ motivations and capacity to resort to violence.” Certainly there is evidence to support this argument from Columbia’s recent past. After their demobilisation, the guerrilla group M-19 were guaranteed two seats in Congress for the 1990–94 term. As the political party AD M-19 they went on to win 19 of 70 seats in the National Constituent Assembly, constituting the second largest representation and the first real option other than the two traditional parties since independence (Guáqueta, 2007). As a United Nations Development Programme official report (2013) advocates, Latin American governments should, in general “reduce impunity by strengthening security and justice institutions while respecting human rights”. Yet this advice conflicts with the efforts to reintegrate and reconcile with former combatants. It raises the difficult moral question of determining to what extent justice should be sacrificed in order to aspire for enduring peace. In his Nobel Prize Speech, Santos (2016) places the emphasis on forgiveness and reconciliation above any plea for accountability or justice. He tells the story of Leyner Palacios, who lost 32 relatives including his parents and three younger brothers in a mortar attack launched by FARC in Bojayá. The FARC has asked for forgiveness for this atrocity, and Leyner, who is now a community leader, has forgiven them. This type of peace is consistent with the United Nations Development Programme report (2013), which highlights the failures of “iron fist policies” that focus on punitive measures, increasing the severity of penalties, and the use of force against ‘criminals’. Rather, the study suggests that in Latin America, violence and crime are mitigated most effectively through the strengthening of state capacities, and by encouraging active, responsible citizen participation. Yet this pursuit of human development may leave hideous crimes unpunished, for the sake of national reconciliation. Therefore, the nature of the peace Colombia seeks at the moment is one that may come at the cost of sacrificing comprehensive justice for the victims of this long armed conflict.

Section 2Beyond re-integration: what other variables will lead to peace?

The possibility of enduring peace in Colombia does not rest solely on the re-integration of former combatants; it also relies on the long-term success of promised social transformation policies and socio-economic development. If peace is conceived according to Galtung’s notion of social justice, or in other words, as a situation in which structural violence (discrimination, poverty, inequality) is minimised, then ensuring peace in Colombia will depend on whether the Colombian government can uphold the promises of social justice it has promised. The final version of the peace agreement consists of six main clauses, which together address all the required transformations necessary to lay the grounds for a long lasting peace. Of fundamental importance is Clause #1, entitled “Reforma Rural Integral” (Final Agreement FARC-Government 2016). In this Clause, the government promises to engage in a structural transformation of the Colombian countryside, in order to close the wide socio-economic division between urban and rural contexts. It also promises to deliver good living conditions for Colombia’s long-overlooked rural population, to eradicate rural poverty and promote equality of citizen rights.

A parallel can be drawn to the early 1990’s period in Colombia, in which five left-wing guerrilla groups, including M-19 were successfully integrated. M-19, like FARC, began as a Marxist struggle over land rights and advocated for profound social and agrarian reforms. Government efforts to demobilize and reintegrate former M-19 combatants were therefore aided by the government’s commitment to a deep constitutional reform through a national assembly (Guáqueta, 2007, p. 417). The maintenance of promises on both ends of the deal ensured M-19 did not dismiss its promise to take demobilisation and disarmament seriously. It can therefore be argued that the recent peace agreement with FARC will be able to sustain peace in Colombia if – in the long run – both parties, government and former combatants, commit to the promises they have outlined in the final peace plan.


To obtain what President Santos aspires to – a long lasting, stable peace – Colombia will have to succeed in a complex and multidimensional approach to reintegrate ex-combatants. But peace, like reintegration, is by no means a monolithic concept. Each country’s “peace” rests on a unique combination of social, economic and political policies, chosen by a particular government. The final shape of Colombia’s peace will be revealed in the post-conflict dynamics of everyday life across the nation, from the streets of Bogota to the remote and impoverished hills of Antioquia, Sucre and Córdoba. Ending violence through a program of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration is only the beginning of a long path towards ensuring that peace becomes the standard condition in Colombia, and not a brief interlude in an otherwise endless cycle of violence.

This essay has concluded that for reintegration to be ‘successful’, it must combine the multifaceted integration of former combatants in the social, economic and political arenas. If such a process is carried out in a comprehensive manner, then the reintegration of former combatants will play a crucial role in reducing the likelihood of future outbreaks of violence by promoting national reconciliation. Reintegration will – as previous programs in Colombia have shown – face critical difficulties, particularly when it comes to ensuring a suitable balance between justice for victims of the armed conflict and a harmonious re-humanisation of rebel agents. Moreover, the success of reintegration in ensuring peace will depend to a large extent on the degree of local citizen support and commitment to reintegration programmes; reintegration cannot remain an elite driven affair.

Nevertheless, while this essay has demonstrated the importance of reintegration as the central pillar of DDR programmes, in order to assess how peace can be achieved in Colombia it is also necessary to look at the reasons behind the origins of the conflict. The conflict stemmed, in large part, from the failings of the Colombian government, whereby large segments of society did not see their government as representative or legitimate. Subsequently for long-lasting peace to come to Colombia the government “will have to accomplish things it has never achieved in its history” (Cardenas, 2016). It will have to ensure the state has control over its entire territory, which will help fill the void left by the former combatants, and ensure that future conflict resolution is carried out through democratic mechanisms.

Given the findings of this paper there is ample scope for further policy research aimed at investigating the appropriateness of future government policies and commitments to socio-economic development in Colombia. Moreover, additional research is needed to ascertain the impact that a trade-off between justice and security will have on the overall establishment of peace. While this paper focused exclusively on the Colombian conflict, it is possible to expand the research ideas developed here to address the question that Santos (2016) asked during his Nobel Prize speech; “If war can come to an end in one hemisphere, why not one day in both hemispheres?”. The extent to which the success or failure of the Colombian peace process will affect other warring nations across the globe remains to be determined. For the time being, it offers a spiral of hope in an increasingly turbulent world.


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Disaggregating the “peace vs. justice” debate: breaking the silos and moving towards greater coherence

Posted on January 8, 2019

By Jacqueline J.Y. Cho

Jacqueline Cho is currently interning with the African Union Partnership Team at the United Nations, and was an intern at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time of writing. She is also working as a research assistant for Dr Gyda Sindre and helps coordinate the Politics After War Research Network. She recently graduated with a BA (Hons) degree in Politics and International Relations from Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge in 2018. Her areas of interest include conflict prevention and resolution, African politics and refugee studies. 

The question of how to deal with a difficult past is one that confronts every society emerging from a dark history. Since the mid-1980s, many such societies have chosen to address the legacies of pervasive human rights abuses, often with extensive international support. The pursuit of justice, with dominant forms being through trials and truth commissions, are said to be in tension with peace; much of the literature has framed this as a question of “peace versus justice” (see Baker, 2001). What is important to note, however, is that in practice, this dilemma is not as stark of a choice as presented and, more fundamentally, the notions of peace and justice that are in play in these settings are questionable. The current hegemonic understandings of both peace and justice are inadequate as guiding principles of policies concerning ex-combatants. In particular, the emphasis on ‘extraordinary’ forms of violence shapes perceptions of justice in a way that marginalises gender and structural injustice, which may undermine even the most minimal objective of these policies: the cessation, or at least the reduction, of direct violence. International actors should refrain from the tendency to design one-size-fits-all policies targeting ex-combatants with a preconceived end-goal of either peace or justice. Rather, the policies should be context-driven, which may take very different forms from case to case and involve addressing the structural injustice that preceded and contributed to the conflict.

Emergence of the dilemma 

The question of whether investigating and prosecuting war crimes may trigger a return to violence traces its origin back to early 1990s as the United Nations began setting up the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) while the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict was ongoing (Baker and Obradovic-Wochnik, 2016, p.283). Scholarly debate surrounding the issue subsequently framed this tension as a question of “peace versus justice”. What had been an ad hoc problem with the ICTY then became a permanent feature of the international judicial system after 2002, when the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court entered into force. The potential clashes between creating accountability for international crimes through justice measures and laying the foundations for peace concerned not only the leaders who might be disincentivised from making peace if they were indicted for war crimes, but also resonated throughout civil society. One early example of this was the instrumentalisation of ICTY’s findings into politics of ethnized collective narratives, hardening inter-ethnic boundaries and generating tensions.   

However, what quickly becomes clear in studying the policies targeting ex-combatants is that the option is seldom either peace or justice, and that the division is not always so clear in practice. Despite the dichotomy of peace and justice often portrayed in the literature, it is difficult to clearly delineate this distinction, especially given that activities under the title of “justice” spill over to what have been traditionally “peacebuilding” activities, not least the restoration of the rule of law (Sriram, 2007, p.585). Similarly, peacebuilding practice often involves initiatives usually labelled as justice, such as support for criminal tribunals or truth commissions. For instance, the fact that many “traditional” peacebuilding agencies, including the UN and the World Bank, supported the justice processes in Colombia highlights that the two notions are not necessarily in opposition, and that it is possible to transcend the deemed polarity (Baker and Obradovic-Wochnik, 2016, p.289).

Achieving both peace and justice? 

The complementarity of peace- and justice-seeking mechanisms under certain circumstances further calls into question the binary framing. It has become unavoidable to overlook the question of justice and accountability altogether following a violent conflict, and the question today is no longer whether something should be done after atrocity but rather how it should be done (Nagy, 2008, p.276). At the same time, DDR programs have become key components of peacebuilding efforts. These two initiatives – one focused on justice and accountability for victims and the other on peace – therefore coexist in many post-conflict settings today. It is often argued that there is an inherent tension between prosecution mechanisms and DDR programs since the latter requires cooperation from ex-combatants whereas the former may trigger resistance. In fragile security environments, however, prosecution can in fact contribute to the success of DDR by physically and politically sidelining particular leaders who are bent on conflict (Witte, 2010, p.2). By demonstrating to the bulk of ex-combatants that wartime commanders have no viable future, prosecution mechanisms can shift the loyalty of ex-combatants away from wartime commanders and break the command structures, making it more difficult for ex-combatants to organise violence. Prosecuting leaders can also help the reintegration process by drawing a distinction between those who have the greatest responsibility for international crimes and the rank-and-file ex-combatants (Witte, 2010, p.3).

Legalistic approach to justice 

The “peace versus justice” dilemma not only fails to reflect the reality, but the dominant understanding of justice in this debate is particularistic and narrow, which in turn, skews the meaning of justice. Just as the notion of peace, justice is an inherently contested concept, with an intellectual history and a developmental trajectory. The interpretation of justice therefore varies between socio-cultural contexts and its meanings will always be contested (Baker and Obradovic-Wochnik, 2016, p.291). Nagy (2009, p.275) convincingly argues that justice is a discourse and practice imbued with power, and notes with alarm the tendency of the international community to impose an ‘one-size-fits-all, technocratic and decontextualized’ concept of justice. This can be seen by what Nagy (2009, p.275) identifies as ‘predominant institutions of justice’ – trials and truth commissions –  being rolled out in post-conflict contexts around the world. Figuring out how to implement justice first requires a determination of the problem, and given the resource, time and political constraints, the trials and truth commissions adopt a fairly narrow conception of violence and its remedy, justice. The primary focus of these donor-funded justice institutions are the direct perpetrators and direct victims of violations of international criminal law. This reflects the heavy influence of the international legalist paradigm, which, inter alia, focuses on generating elite and mass compliance with international humanitarian norms (Nagy, 2009, p.276). In such a light, it is difficult to deny that justice in this context reflects the concerns and constructions of justice found amongst its key – Western – donors, which may be alien in certain cultures that emphasise community identity.

Neglecting ‘ordinary’ gender violence? 

The privileging of legalistic approach can also counterintuitively produce zones of impunity, which is clearly demonstrated by the treatment of gender-based violence. The international legalistic paradigm places emphasis on what are considered as “extraordinary” violations of civil and political rights, and this construction disregards and treats as ‘ordinary’ the private violence that women experience in both militarised and post-war societies (Nagy 2009: 280). Similarly, while sexual violence committed during conflict has now gained a central role in international criminal law, trials and truth commissions, accountability mechanisms remain predominantly focused on “extraordinary” times and violence. This marginalisation of gender injustice from the current framework of ‘justice’ is acutely disturbing, given the ‘post-war backlash’ many women experience (Pankhurst, 2007, p.293). Violence against women, particularly domestic violence, often persists, or even increases beyond pre-war and sometimes even wartime levels, precisely at the period when everyone expects life to be improving. It is alarming that such ‘post-war backlash’ is perpetuated not only by ex-combatants but also state-actors, such as the police (Pankhurst, 2007, p.263). Until very recently, considerations of such gender-based violence have been glaringly absent from transitional justice programmes, often resulting in an absurd and alarming situation where gender injustice is further entrenched when so-called “justice” measures abound.

Dismantling structural injustice  

The framing of the “peace versus justice” debate further deflects much-needed attention from structural injustice that neither of these notions, in its currently hegemonic understanding, addresses. Mamdani (1997, p.22) identifies this problematic emphasis on the individual as ‘today’s agency theory’ and explains that the focus on perpetrators fuels the demand for justice in the form of criminal justice at the expense of social justice. The pursuit of the latter is essential given that ‘yesterday’s perpetrators and victims – today’s survivors – have to confront the problem of how to live together’ in these post-conflict contexts, and that the narrow, somewhat artificial and culturally-inappropriate pursuit of criminal justice leaves intact the pervasive everyday violence that predated and may have contributed to the conflict itself (Mamdani 1997, p.21). This problematic exclusion of structural injustice from the dominant “justice” mechanisms today is vividly apparent in the South African experience. While the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recognised apartheid as a crime against humanity, the Commission’s mandate narrowly defined perpetrators and victims in terms of ‘egregious bodily harm’ (Nagy, 2009, p.284). As a result, apartheid featured only as the context to the crime rather than the crime itself, overlooking the everyday violence of poverty and racism. It is for such reasons that the TRC, despite its laudatory status, largely failed to dismantle the pervasive structure injustice – racialised socioeconomic inequalities and ongoing political violations of human rights, political violence – and left a ‘de facto geographic apartheid’ in the ‘new’ South Africa (Nagy, 2009, p.280). Such serious limitations of the Commission that was carried out under the hegemonic understanding of “justice” urgently calls for a fundamental review of the notion itself. In this light, it is essential that policies targeting ex-combatants move away from focusing on particular individuals or groups but are better integrated into other initiatives that address structural injustice.


Having discussed the underpinning assumptions and the limitations of the “peace versus justice” dilemma, it is clear that this framing of the debate obscures more than it reveals. This dichotomy overlooks the fact that the choice is not as differentiable in practice and deflects attention from the ways in which so-called peace- and justice-oriented activities could reinforce the success of one another and achieve its shared long-term aim. More fundamentally, the narrow and heavily Western-influenced concept of justice that is currently dominant under the framework of ‘peace versus justice’ leaves intact structural injustice that may have contributed to the violent conflict. The creation of areas of impunity, especially with regards to gender-based violence and the real risk that unaddressed structural injustice may trigger a spiral of renewed violence, adds to the urgent call to shift the policy framework guiding ex-combatants. Standardised approaches that seek to impose either a particular normative vision of peace or justice must be avoided, and responses must be shaped by the particular economic, social and political fabrics of specific settings. These context-driven policies will vary widely and may include approaches that do not fit neatly into the “peace versus justice” framework but ones that nonetheless contribute towards the minimum overarching objectives of these policies: cessation, reduction and prevention of direct violence.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.


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