The Long and Rugged Path to an Imperfect Peace in Colombia

The saying goes: “Colombia is an eventful country where nothing ever changes”. However, the peace agreement signed on November 24th, 2016 between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC–EP), was a game changer. A new country has emerged. To say the least, Colombia is facing a unique opportunity to build a more equitable and prosperous society.

We should bear in mind that this was a confrontation that lasted half-century, becoming the oldest armed conflict in the Americas. This Cold-War relic left 220,000 dead, 80% of them civilians, and 7 million more displaced from their homes – Colombia is second only to Syria in this appalling count. It was imperative to end this anachronistic confrontation.

Over one year since the signing of the peace accord, there have been a number of ups and downs in post-conflict Colombia. Today, FARC is no longer an illegal armed organization; over 7,000 former combatants moved to reincorporation camps, they handed over 7,200 weapons, and 8,994 more were extracted from arms caches by the UN Verification Mission. A political party emerged and now former combatants are running both to parliamentary and presidential elections, the former scheduled for Sunday, March 11. 

Nonetheless, the landing of FARC (now Common Alternative Revolutionary Force) in politics has been a rough one. As expected, large sectors of the Colombian society find it hard to forgive FARC’s past activities, with widespread frustration that FARC members have not yet stood trial before the Special Peace Courts (JEP). Moreover, the main goal of disarming the guerrilla was to incorporate them into peaceful politics; however, if the former combatants do not stand trial before their participation in the electoral process, as is currently happening, it risks delegitimizing their political activities. It would seem that political participation has taken precedence over the need for justice. Meanwhile, former combatants receive training and psychosocial support, get enrolled into health-care, and open bank accounts where they get subsidies. FARC has also asked the government to settle on land with formal legal titles, in order to move forward with productive projects, create incentives to remain in civilian life, and activate market dynamics in rural areas where their camps are located.

The general picture of the country shows that violence is decreasing significantly: killings declined from 15,957 in 2012 to 12,262 in 2017; displacement dropped down from 232,000 to 30,000 during the same period; kidnappings declined from 3,306 cases in 2002 to 205 in 2016, and landmine victims fell from 1,200 in 2006 to 15 in 2017 (Fundación Paz y Reconciliación). Large portions of Colombian territory that remained isolated due to the conflict are now are shrugging off their troubled past and aiming at developing productive projects, many of them related to tourism.

The Colombian national government has identified 281 municipalities (out of 1,122) where post-conflict policies should be a priority. Among those 281 municipalities there are 123 with intensified violence, as a result of two main elements: A) The withdrawal of FARC from these territories left a power vacuum, that the state has yet to fulfill. Community conflicts related to alcohol consumption, property boundaries, and unpaid debts are on the rise; and; B)  The emergence of dissident groups from FARC and the expansion of criminal organizations into areas formerly controlled by them.

One of the most prominent problems of post-conflict Colombia is the murder of 205 community leaders and human rights defenders since the signing of the peace accord. The national government has not responded effectively to this growing problem, often arguing that these killings are unrelated to the peace process and not a clear phenomenon. According to a recently released report from Indepaz, there is one common element in most of the territories where social activists are in danger: disputes over profits of narcotics, illegal mining, and smuggling. There is an urgent need for the international community and human rights organizations to advocate for the protection and support of these community leaders.

Another source of concern is the pace of legal implementation of the Peace Accord. According to Fundación Paz y Reconciliación, 67 legal initiatives need to be enacted by Congress in order to guarantee a strong institutional framework for peace. Out of 24 proposals presented by the government so far, only 11 have been approved. Without this framework, which seeks to guarantee the resources and set clear rules for building peace, it is very difficult to bring about change in the country. With parliamentary elections set for this Sunday, many members of Congress have instead spent the recent months playing political games with the peace process. Meanwhile, the JEP and other crucial reforms remain on hold even at the expense of the most vulnerable communities in rural areas.

According to Mario Ruiz, an expert on Democratic Governance and Peacebuilding at UNDP, one lesson from the Colombian peace process is the need to prevent the overlap of the implementation stage and the electoral process. Peace in Colombia has lost momentum due to polarization and the political weakness of current President Santos, who will leave office on August 7. The stability of peacebuilding depends on the political will of the next president and support in the new Congress.

Finally, the national agenda and its transformation is paramount. For decades, elections were focused on conflict. Now, with FARC out of the picture as an illegal armed actor, the narrative is changing and the political arena seems to expand in favour of a new and more progressive agenda, as the basis for a more inclusive and modern country. In December 2017, polling firm Invamer asked Colombians about the main issue to be tackled by the next president. The focus was on issues like corruption, the health-care system, unemployment, education, poverty fight, or security. The peace process implementation seems to be an issue of the past, at least for urban voters.

The accord signed with FARC dismantled one of the main sources of violence in Colombia and represents the first step in the long and rugged path to a peaceful society. Even if the outcome is imperfect, rural communities are undeniably experiencing for the first time in half-century a relative tranquillity and a tangible path to improving their livelihoods. The challenge has just begun: bringing together a shattered society, building up inclusive institutions, and learning how to settle conflicts through peaceful means. The new Congress and next president need to regain momentum for the broader accords. However, it is just as important that rural community leaders and human rights activists be protected: peace in Colombia is both by them – their local initiatives play a key role in translating the ideal of peace into tangibly better lives – and for them, for the communities hit hardest by a half-century of violence, and now with hopes for a brighter future.

Thanks to Gabriel Tobias, the founder of Justice Travel, for sharing this article with us. It was originally posted on https://justice.travel/long-rugged-path-imperfect-peace-colombia/

Follow both at @ghgtobias and @Justice_Travel
Photo credits: Centro Tlachinollan

The long and rugged path to an imperfect peace in Colombia

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