Victims of the Colombian Armed Conflict: The Birth of a Political Actor

43 Pages Posted: 29 Aug 2013

See all articles by Angelika Rettberg

Angelika Rettberg

Universidad de los Andes, Colombia

Date Written: August 28, 2013


A significant addition to the Colombian political landscape over the past ten years is the participation of victims in the debate over the country’s model of transitional justice. This stands in stark contrast with previous periods in Colombian history, when victims -- despite their already growing numbers -- were largely invisible both in the more than twenty successful and unsuccessful peace negotiations that have taken place in the country as well as in the overall political debate. This paper seeks to explain this shift in public attention to the plight of millions of Colombians. It also asks how the average Colombian population evaluates and in what way these opinions reflect tensions between the overall goal of repairing victims and other goals of the Colombian peace-building and development agenda.

In brief, the paper argues that international and domestic factors combined to make visible the plight and number of victims in the country and to develop a vast and ambitious transitional justice institutional framework, which will set the tone of transformations for years to come. Like other policies, this has not occurred in a political vacuum: Victims as well as other actors concerned with the shape and scope of transitional justice in Colombia have become mobilized in the pursuit of their interests, endowed with political preferences and a more or less effective repertoire of political strategies. As a result, the discussion about the role of victims and the state and society’s responses to their needs is likely to become a central issue of public debate in the near future.

However, the debate has occurred predominantly among a small group of experts, ignoring or underestimating some of the prevailing opinions and attitudes about transitional justice held by the general Colombian population. This may prove problematic as several features of the trade-offs and bargains involved in transitional justice mechanisms will impact large parts of the population via elections, taxes, and processes of community integration of victims and perpetrators, all of which are challenges to the ultimate viability and success of transitional justice mechanisms.

For these reasons, this chapter argues that it is important to complement the normative statements of policymakers, activists and organizations with data on the overall victims’ population and on the opinions and attitudes of the average Colombian. In order to so, it resorts to data from the Registro Único de Víctimas (RUV) -- the first attempt to unify information on all types of victimization in the country conducted by the Colombian state -- and from a 2012 survey conducted by a consortium of public and private entities. The RUV data serve to underscore the extent of the suffering. The survey results illustrate some of the structural impediments faced by Colombian victims (such as poverty and little education). In addition, the survey shows that almost a decade of transitional justice pedagogy has paid off in the country: In general, the Colombian population is more aware and understands the magnitude of people impacted by the armed conflict as well as the plight of victims. As a result, a majority of Colombians endorse the wrongfulness of the victims’ experience and the need for reparations.

At the same time, the long duration and the complex nature of the Colombian armed conflict -- especially the simultaneous presence of multiple illegal armed actors who have fought over territories over many years, and the similar socio-economic and often geographic origin of victims and combatants (referred to here as social proximity) -- have had an impact on people’s opinions and attitudes. Important fractions of the Colombian population, including victims, are fearful of opportunism in accessing state-provided privileges associated with the status of victims and are reticent to accept privileges for victimized populations to the detriment of larger development goals benefiting all Colombians, illustrating the classic peace-building versus development dilemma that has historically haunted the peace-building community.

The chapter also explores the organizational dimension of the victims’ population: According to available data, 7 percent of the more than six million victims are organized in more than 3,000 organizations. This level of dispersion is a result both of heterogeneous experiences of victimization and, so far, of a severe incapability of producing collective action. The small percentage of organized victims raises questions about representation in the political debate.

The findings presented here aim to contribute to the developing academic and empirical literature on transitional justice which is still incipient in Colombia, and provide elements for testing some of the prevailing opinions and attitudes about victims in Colombia. It also aims to provide useful insights for practitioners in the global field of transitional justice as many of the findings about the Colombian case are relevant to other transitional contexts around the world.

Keywords: Colombia, transitional justice, reparations, victims, armed conflict

Suggested Citation

Rettberg, Angelika, Victims of the Colombian Armed Conflict: The Birth of a Political Actor (August 28, 2013). Available at SSRN: or

Angelika Rettberg (Contact Author)

Universidad de los Andes, Colombia ( email )

Carrera Primera # 18A-12
Bogota, DC D.C. 110311

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