A Window of opportunity to bring colonial legacies into view: The case of Colombia

In this blog post, Claire Wright (Queen’s University Belfast), Bill Rolston (Ulster University) and Fionnuala Ní Aoláin (University of Minnesota Law and OHCHR) discuss how despite the Colombian peace accord’s generalised silence on colonialism, the transitional justice institutions which it gave rise to have sought to address the historical structures of exclusion stemming from Colombia’s colonial history.  The author’s contribution to this blog is based on activities and research supported by the GCRF Gender, Justice and Security Hub.

There are three perspectives in the academic literature regarding the capacity of Transitional Justice (TJ) to deal with colonial legacies, which are not mutually exclusive: 1) TJ has an obligation to undo colonial legacies; 2) TJ must decolonise itself first; and 3) the project of undoing colonial legacies is too radical for TJ and therefore requires a different approach. In a project we are currently carrying out on the case of Colombia, we propose a fourth perspective: that, although TJ may generally fall short of incorporating a historical approach, it can at least offer a window of opportunity to bring into view the relevance of colonial legacies in the search for peace and conflict transformation.

The Havana Peace Accord was signed in 2016, after several years of negotiations between the Colombian government and representatives of FARC-EP. The Accord has been considered emblematic on a global level for offering a peaceful way out of decades of conflict and for the comprehensive way in which it deals with certain issues, including the distribution of land and a cross-cutting gender perspective, as well as the innovative TJ proposal of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP). The impact of the agreement has been so great that former President Juan Manuel Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016.

Despite this, in a recent article, we argue that there was a generalised silence on colonialism both throughout the negotiations and in the text of the accord, where only a very brief mention is made. Despite this omission, we also argue that colonial legacies actually constituted stumbling blocks in various stages of the process: 1) during the negotiations, given that representatives of indigenous and afrodescendant peoples were only included in the final months of the process; 2) during the referendum, when the conservative elite sought – and obtained – the rejection of the Accord on the part of a considerable section of society, by criticising the so-called “gender ideology”; and 3) in the final implementation of the agreement, given the opposition of contemporary landowners to the redistribution of land.

Despite this oversight in the peace process and – ironically – the difficulties created by colonial legacies, in the TJ institutions which it gave rise to, there have been important efforts to overcome the historical structures of exclusion, based on the racial hierarchy established by Spanish colonialism. For instance, the Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Repetition (SIVJRNR) established an intercultural protocol and was also subject to a process of prior consultation with ethnic peoples. Furthermore, various indigenous and afrodescendant magistrates were selected to sit on the JEP and, an indigenous commissioner and an Afro-descendant commissioner were chosen by the Truth Commission. The inclusion of an intercultural perspective on the part of two key TJ institutions is a clear step forward towards a decolonial model of TJ in Colombia.

Now, where colonialism has been most clearly and publicly articulated as a source of structural violence and injustice is in the final report of the Truth Commission. In the televised presentation of the report, Francisco de Roux  – President of the Commission – referred several times to the importance of undoing the legacies of colonialism and slavery. In the same way, in the chapters that have been published thus far, colonialism has gained visibility and importance as a factor that explains the conflict. For instance, in the chapter containing the main findings, there are a series of quite profound reflections on the colonial roots of contemporary structural inequalities – including the impact of the hacienda system on the (lack of) distribution of land, the dispossession of the “wastelands”, a low-intensity democracy, and a profoundly racist society. Then, in the chapter entitled “Call for a Great Peace”, an exhortation is made to “To the whole nation to overcome structural racism, colonialism and the unjust and immensely clumsy exclusion inflicted on indigenous, Afro-Colombian, Raizal and Romani peoples, disproportionately hit by the war…” The issue of colonialism is now reflected in the agenda for peace in Colombia.

It is also important to note that the current political situation is also a favourable one for bringing a decolonial agenda into view. As is the case in other parts of the world, Black Lives Matter also resonated in Colombia, particularly in contexts characterised by violence and structural racism such as the port city of Buenaventura. Furthermore, in 2022, Francia Márquez, an Afro-descendant social and environmental leader, emerged as a candidate for Vice President and was successful in her bid. The symbolic impact of a black woman in one of the most important positions in the country should not be underestimated, in a society which continues to structure itself according to a colonial racial hierarchy. Moreover, she uses decolonial expressions, which are resonating among people who are on the margins of society, which she refers to as the “nobodies”, referring to a poem by Eduardo Galeano.

In many countries in Latin America and, indeed, in different parts of the world, the colonial past has been erased, to a great extent, from public discourse as a result of efforts on the part of “independent” States to create national identities separate from the past. In order to deal with the multiple legacies of colonialism which continue up until the present day in such contexts, the first step is identifying the historical roots of contemporary structures of inequality, exclusion, and violence. It’s all about naming it and putting it on the agenda. As the case of Colombia shows, TJ can offer a window of opportunity which opens very gradually, to offer a better view of the relevance of colonialism in the present day before exploring ways in which such persistent and pervasive legacies may be dealt with.


Claire Wright is currently a Research Fellow at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast, having worked for several years as a Lecturer in Mexico. Her research focuses on the politics of human rights in Latin America, particularly the role of emergency institutions and ethnic difference. 

Bill Rolston is an emeritus professor with and former director of the Transitional JusticeInstitute at Ulster University. He has researched and written widely on legacies of conflict and on post-conflict transformation, mainly but not solely in relation to Northern Ireland. 

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin is concurrently Regents Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and Professor of Law at the Queen’s University, Belfast. She has published extensively on issues of gender, conflict regulation, transitional justice, and counter-terrorism. Fionnuala is currently the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism.  

 The contribution to this blog is based on activities and research supported by the GCRF Gender, Justice and Security Hub.

Transitional Justice & Historical Redress

This article is part of the special series Transitional Justice & Historical Series, a project born of a joint collaboration between the Leuven Institute of Criminology and Avocats Sans Frontières.