La Comisión de la Verdad – The Voice of Those Who Cannot Speak


Linda Helfrich (GiZ) interviewed Carlos Martín Beristain

Carlos Martín Beristain is a Spanish doctor and psychologist from the Basque country, who has coordinated the Guatemala Nunca Más Report for the REMHI (Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica) project in Guatemala. In Colombia, he is one of eleven commissioners working for the Comisión de la Verdad (Truth Commission). The state commission was set up under the final peace agreement signed between the Colombian government and the FARC to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace. One of the commission's tasks is to clarify the patterns and causes of the internal armed conflict.

Linda Helfrich: How can the Commission investigate what happened when those affected must be afraid that they will end up in prison for crimes they may have committed?

Carlos Martín Beristain: Our task is not to investigate individual responsibility, but the collective responsibility of the army, the police, the FARC, the ELN and others. In addition, we demand the recognition of this collective responsibility. It is the first time in a peace process that there are three functional institutions: for the disappeared, for peace and for truth. This has never happened before. The work of the Colombian judiciary is rather based on individual responsibility. Perpetrators, for example, are punished with a sentence of 20 years, which can be considered as some form of reparation. In our case, we can give confidentiality guarantees when we are told about cases. We have an extrajudicial mandate and no reporting obligation. If someone comes and tells us about a murder or massacre, we do not have to report it to the authorities. That is precisely what is fundamental regarding the work of the Commission. We do not give the information to the JEP (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz - Special Jurisdiction for Peace), but the JEP can give us information.

Linda Helfrich: The commission reflects the diversity of approaches as well as the territorial and ethnic diversity of Colombia. What does this diversity mean for your work in practice?

Carlos Martín Beristain: There are different ideas about what a Truth Commission is. Historically, there is a tension between visions of truth rooted rather in peace and reconciliation and visions based on the paradigm of human rights and truth finding. For some, peace is more important, for others, human rights are more important. However, there must be a synthesis of both directions. The work does not only depend on the fulfilment of the peace process, which deals with the foundations for coexistence, the reintegration or the future of ex-combatants. The basis of peaceful coexistence depends just as much on political consensus as on the influence of politicians on the work of the Commission. The polarization in Colombia is a problem. The principle of non-repetition involves more than the transformation that must take place to prevent violence, armed conflict and dictatorships in the future. The work must start here and now because the numerous murders of activists in Colombia show how urgent the issue of non-repetition is.

Linda Helfrich: The Commission wants to work on de-ideologization. What exactly does this mean?

Carlos Martín Beristain: One of the Jesuits, with whom I worked  in El Salvador, the social psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró[1], said that social polarization, like the vision of reality, ends in two stereotypical extremes. There are no nuances; there is no grey, only black and white. Either you are for us or you are against us. And if you do not put yourself in one of the two extremes, someone else will do it for you. It is about controlling the representation of reality, about a social polarization that is deliberately constructed. As soon as this has been established in a conflict, the question: "Whose side are you on?" replaces the question: "What do you think?" or: "What is your opinion on that?”. One no longer discusses the content, but only the fact on which page one is standing. And this is exactly what happened during the referendum and the campaign against the peace treaty. It was no longer about discussing positions or opinions. It was simply about using anger against the government and gaining control over the social fabric with this anger: "Are you for Santos or for Uribe?” And this is why we work with the truth of the different sectors, with the means and the evidence at our disposal. The truth that we present must be a sensitive truth, but at the same time comprehensive. Nevertheless, our work does not claim to prove everyone right.

Linda Helfrich: Is there a danger that the Truth Commission itself will also become a victim of this polarization, that it will be linked to one of the extremes, to one side of the conflict parties?

Carlos Martín Beristain: This has happened in all the commissions I have dealt with. Campaigns against Truth Commissions have always started towards the end, when it became clear that the results would soon be presented, when it was clear that the government or the army would be given political responsibility. In Guatemala, for example, two months before the publication of the Guatemala Nunca Más-report, a campaign was launched against the REMHI Truth Commission. On April 24, 1989, the report was published and two days later, Juan José Gerardi Conedera was murdered by the Fuerzas Armadas de Guatemala (the military) for actively engaging in the peace process. And why? In order to weaken the accusations in the report. And this is exactly what happens at the end of the processes. It is about questioning legitimacy, because everything a Truth Commission has is legitimacy. It has no weapons, often little money, but it has legitimacy. And everyone who is not interested in its work, will try to take this legitimacy away. I was part of an interdisciplinary and independent group of experts in Mexico for the Inter-American Commission, which dealt with the case of the 43 missing students. We have seen several inconsistencies in the public version of the case. In the second term, a campaign was started against us because there were parts of the state that had absolutely no interest in finding the truth and tried everything to take away our legitimacy. They accused us of absurd things and did everything they could to turn the truth into nothing more than another opinion. However, truth cannot be just another opinion.

Linda Helfrich: Are there lessons from the processes of other countries that can be drawn for Colombia?

Carlos Martín Beristain: Truth must fulfill two things: It must be comprehensive, so that the different sides also feel that their versions are taken into account and treated with respect. Secondly, it must be solid, consistent and resilient in terms of evidence and analysis. But the truth must also explain the past and the future. The past, so that you know how to do it better in the future. Much has been done in Colombia, but complete truths have not been spoken. The dimension of the activation process is the key: If people recognize the process as important for themselves, adopt it and consider it meaningful, then the mission will work and above all it will be continued. Only then the process develops into a meaningful experience for those involved.


Further information

The complete interview in German can be found here:

More information on the Commission can be found here:

Translation from Spanish into Englisch: Nora Berger-Kern.
Editorial revision: Linda Helfrich.


[1] The Jesuit Ignacio Martín-Baró was murdered - among seven others - by the Salvadoran army in San Salvador on November 16, 1989. See also the contributions in ila 412 and ila 414.

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Dr. Linda Helfrich works for the Sector Programme Peace and Security, Disaster Risk Management of the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, GIZ.

Issue: Politics

Dealing with the past is often subject to passionate political struggles - on the national, as well as on the international level. They can lead to rather supportive or suppressive, truly effective or ineffective frameworks, institutionalised by state-policies and laws. However, below the surface, political struggles are about the access to scare resources, institutions or, more generally, the distribution of power. What political initiatives exist that try to foster inclusive and coherent processes of dealing with the past? Why do they exist and what is their room for manoeuvre?