A Genealogy of Victimhood in Colombia’s Armed Conflict

Kristin Foringer, University of Michigan

Published on: February 22, 2022

Photo by El Tiempo:

A group of women dressed in white walk alongside each other while holding signs of their loved ones names and the crimes committed against them.

Establishing coherent boundaries around victimhood is an integral part of both the material and symbolic aims of a restorative transitional justice program. Anthropologist Kimberly Theidon theorizes transitional justice mechanisms as a form of “ritual purification” which “make a break with the past and mark the beginning of a new moral community.” In a more critical sense, these post-conflict efforts aim to “sacramentalize violence into a useful creation myth” that sometimes serve nationalist agendas, in the words of historians Greg Grandin and Thomas Klubock. This storytelling process often encompasses tasks like identifying victims and perpetrators in legal, political, and cultural venues. This is important for state legitimacy given that victimhood, on its most basic level, is fundamentally symptomatic of “broken order."

In Colombia, naming victims has been an important task in the face of violence throughout the country’s recent history, dating back to 1948. In the aftermath of the Bogotazo in 1948, a commission was tasked with identifying the property owners and merchants who were “victimized” by the outbreak of violence in Bogotá’s streets following the assassination of populist political leader Eliécer Gaitán. The word used in this case—and more generally throughout the 1940s and 1950s, as overlapping forms of partisan violence spread across the country—was the Spanish damnificado” (literally “damaged one”), rather than “víctima” or victim. Historian Nicolas Idarraga points out that the identification of “damnificados” was more akin to assessing the damage of a “natural disaster” rather than acknowledging the political context of harm that the contemporary notion of “victim” involves. In a more contemporary series of events, a victim concept emerged in Colombia in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the discussion of forced displacement and the construction of a desplazado” or “displaced person” definition in the context of legislation and court rulings. The naming of desplazados is significant given that at least 8.2 million Colombians are now formally recognized as having experienced displacement in the context of the civil war.

Most recently, the Victims’ Law of 2011 sought to construct the most comprehensive definition of “victim” as compared to any previous attempt by the Colombian state in the context of its civil war. It went further than the identification of “damnificados” and “desplazados” and anchored its scope in the language of universal human rights. Starting from a baseline victim definition introduced by the UN General Assembly in 2006 addressing “Basic Principles and Guidelines” for reparations for victims of human rights and humanitarian law violations, legislators of Colombia’s Victims’ Law constructed a concept of victimhood that would include several types of hechos victimizantes” (victimizing events) under one umbrella. Among these victimizing events are kidnapping, forced disappearance, homicide, and torture.

However, the process of adapting the UN language to the Colombian context left room for political interpretations among legislators that ultimately restricted the eligibility of conflict victims who could access reparations (Foringer, forthcoming). Among these politicized adaptations was the restriction of time, in that only victims who experienced harm after 1985 would be eligible to claim legal victim status. This is problematic due to the longevity of the conflict reaching back at least two more decades beyond this 1985 date.

The framework of the Victims’ Law has led to (slow going) administrative success in identifying at least 9.2 million victims of Colombia’s armed conflict through the appointed “Victims’ Unit” agency. However, with the FARC ceasefire (the 2016 agreement between the largest insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and the Colombian government) experiencing increasing fragility as well as heightening activity among groups like the National Liberation Army (ELN) who haven’t demobilized, the country’s decades-long violence has not resolved. This will require future innovations in the naming and repairing of victims in the country as the dynamics of violence continue to change. Among these innovations, hopefully, will be the expansion of temporal limits for victim eligibility in receiving reparations on a rolling basis until conflict-related violence ceases.

Kristin Foringer is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Michigan and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. Her research focuses on transitional justice policy in Colombia, especially related to ideas about victimhood, collective memory, and symbolic reparations.