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ND law professor appointed in Colombia peace talks

| Friday, August 28, 2015

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos has named Notre Dame Law School professor Douglass Cassel as a legal adviser and negotiator in the ongoing peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

According to a University press release, Cassel will serve in a six-person bilateral group tasked with developing a process for ensuring justice for both victims and perpetrators of war crimes that have occurred throughout the last 50 years of the conflict in Colombia. The group has been meeting over the summer and will continue to meet in Havana, Cuba.

A former director of Notre Dame’s Center for Civil and Human Rights, Cassel said he has been interested in Colombia for some time.

“I followed the situation of human rights and civil war for many years,” Cassel said in an interview. “I’ve been there various times to consult with the Church, the government and with human rights organizations”

The effects of the conflict have devastated Colombia, Cassel said, citing widespread human rights violations and costly economic disruptions that have internally displaced approximately six million people.

“This is longest running civil war in the world,” Cassel said.

While there have been three distinct attempts to negotiate peace between the Colombian government and FARC over the last quarter century, Cassel said the current effort holds unique promise for several reasons.

He said not only is President Santos firmly committed to achieving peace, but FARC knows that if they cannot come to an agreement with him it will be a difficult task to find a better opportunity in the future.

“The FARC know that if they don’t make peace with this president, it’s probable going to be a long time before they’ll have any other president as open to trying to negotiate a peace,” Cassel said. “Then the war may just go on endlessly.”

Additionally, Cassel said the asymmetric nature of the conflict means it is exceptionally difficult to eliminate entirely the FARC. Thus, he said a negotiated peace is a much more appealing option.

“It’s impossible to completely defeat the guerrillas because they’re very mobile, they only hang out in the jungle and it only takes two guerrillas to blow up an oil pipeline — which they did in June, cutting off the water supply or poisoning the water supply for an entire city of 200,000 people,” Cassel said. “Even a well-equipped and well-trained army like the Colombian army, which is probably the strongest army in the hemisphere outside of the United States, can’t completely eliminate these guys.”

However, Cassel said in recent years the Colombian government has neutralized FARC as a conventional military threat capable of engaging Colombian armed forces directly.

According to Cassel, the biggest obstacle to securing a peace deal is enforcing justice for atrocities. He said an agreement must include provisions to encourage truth-telling, punish wrong-doing and restore harmony.

Besides the ethical considerations of justice, Cassel said for any deal to stand a chance of success it must satisfy numerous pragmatic requirements including complying with international law and gaining the collective support of the government, FARC and the Colombian people.

Ultimately, Cassel said, justice remains the central issue.

“If we can’t find a solution to the justice issue, there will be no peace agreement,” Cassel said. “We cannot simply forget everything that happened. There needs to be some form of justice.”

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