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Public Support for Transitional Justice: Survey Experiment in Colombia

Fri, September 1, 4:00 to 5:30pm, Hotel Nikko, Mendocino II


The trade-offs between the demands of peace (stability) and justice (accountability) are at the heart of debates on transitional justice (Huntington 1991; O’Donnell & Schmitter 1986; Snyder & Vinjamuri 2003; Acuña & Smulovitz 1997; Sikkink 2011; Olsen, Payne & Reiter 2010). Research has mostly focused on the causes, implementation, and consequences of transitional justice, but rarely on public opinion’s perception of these processes. Some studies have found that individuals are more likely to choose stability over accountability if they fear that violent actors can repress claims for justice; if seeking punishment for perpetrators could result in renewed violence; or if a peace accord improves the political or social standing of their specific group (Pham et al. 2007; Samii 2013).
The peace process in Colombia provides a unique context to further explore attitudes towards transitional justice. After many failed negotiations, the final agreement signed between the Colombian government and the FARC in 2016 presented a unique opportunity to end a cycle of violence stretching back to 1964, yet, Colombians voted against it in the October 2016 plebiscite. Although peace is a highly salient valence issue in Colombia, and survey data suggests most people supported the negotiations in principle, Colombians were unwilling to grant FARC insurgents alternative legal treatment and access to the political system in exchange for disarmament.
This outcome stands in sharp contrast to the previous negotiated settlement with paramilitary groups (2003-2006) (Daly 2016). Despite the fact that both the FARC and paramilitary groups have committed atrocious human rights violations, were similarly involved in illegal markets and were/are viewed equally unfavorably by public opinion (Gallup 2007), Colombians have considerable more negative views of the negotiations with the FARC than they had of the negotiations with the paramilitaries (Gallup 2007, Gallup 2016). In our research, we seek to understand these diverging views on transitional justice and political participation. More specifically, this paper aims to determine if support for alternative legal treatment and political participation depends on the beneficiary and if information on past human rights violations by armed actors affects the public’s perception of culpability of this beneficiary.
Carlin, McCoy and Subotin (2016) find that trust in president Santos and the FARC were positively correlated with support for Colombia’s peace process, while including political participation or less severe punishment than the ones received by the paramilitaries was negatively correlated. These variables, however, cannot fully account for Colombians’ divergent attitudes towards the peace agreements reached with the FARC and the paramilitaries. Trust in president Santos is likely the outcome of the peace process, and, as mentioned above, Colombians have equally unfavorably views of both groups.
Building on previous work, our research focuses on the recipient of transitional justice and political participation measures rather than the outcome. We argue that views about the legitimacy of armed actors are deeply held—impervious to information that contradicts them (Taber & Lodge 2006)—and they influence the likelihood of supporting or rejecting transitional justice and political participation mechanisms. If an armed group is perceived as the main culprit behind violence and believed its actions are driven by greed, a person will think of it as undeserving and reject the concessions. On the contrary, if an armed group’s origin and violent actions are seen as driven by grievances, then a person will think of the group as more deserving of the concessions.
In order to assess this argument, we use two survey experiments in Colombia. The first experiment tests if support for transitional justice and former combatants’ political participation varies depending on whether the beneficiary belongs to the FARC or a paramilitary group. We hypothesize that public support for transitional justice mechanisms, increases when the beneficiary belongs to a paramilitary group, rather than the FARC. The second experiment tests if people’s perception of a given combatant’s responsibility for the armed conflict changes when they receive new information on human rights violations. We expect people’s responsibility adjudication between the FARC and the paramilitaries to remain the same, even after they receive information that contradicts their beliefs.
How societies deal with atrocities committed during authoritarian regimes or civil wars has an important impact on the stability and quality of democracy thereafter. This research will not only help us and policy makers evaluate and improve peace agreements and build sustainable peace in transitional societies. But will also inform research on public opinion and crime more broadly, including, the effect of race, ethnicity, and gender in crime punishment.