Publication date: 
Nov 2011

Last week [4 November] the Colombian army killed Alfonso Cano, the head of the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, Farc. Many argue this is another significant step towards the end of almost five decades of armed conflict that has produced some 150,000 deaths, 4 million displaced and thousands of kidnappings and forced disappearances. In reality nobody knows for sure how this conflict will end.

After the last failed attempts at negotiations in 2002, the government launched an all-out war on Farc guerrillas. But victory remains elusive and President Santos has therefore not discarded going back to peace talks.

Lessons from Sri Lanka and Chechnya show that pushing for a full military victory comes at a high cost in terms of democracy and human rights.

The sad irony is that Cano was probably best placed among Farc ranks to lead insurgents back to civilian life. Thousands of armed men without political leadership are likely a bigger threat to the country than an insurgent force with a political discourse, no matter how discredited. Fuelled by money from drugs, criminal gangs are spreading, despite a massive surge in the military forces.

Inclusive and democratic processes are needed

To achieve peace, Colombia needs to fundamentally rethink its approach. The first step is to re-frame the peace process itself: the time for solving the structural problems at a negotiating table has passed. This echoes developments in places like the Basque Country: people would not accept decisions on the future of the country to be taken by a limited number of government and rebel representatives. There is an expectation for a more inclusive and democratic process of political change.

Second, there is a need to broaden the analysis of the conflict. Insurgencies are only the most visible symptom of a multi-layered conflict.

A complex mix of criminal actors linked to political, security and corporate interests all benefit from the current status quo and will oppose any change.

Many people in Colombia have never experienced rule of law and accountable local governments. Increasing presence of extractive companies is creating new conflicts by mining in environmentally sensitive areas and on indigenous ancestral land. International corporations still need to go a long way to prove their presence is beneficial for society at large.

A third step is to work for a shared understanding of the roots of conflict and a common vision for a better future. Rebel forces certainly have limited social support. But inequality remains high and many people are still claiming for basic rights to life and dignity.

Common ground on the desire for change

The country would benefit from a broad and inclusive consultation to draft a national peace and development policy like the Philippines did back in 1993. Disagreements on the problems and the solutions persist, but the majority of people share one common understanding: the need for change.

This offers enough common ground to re-frame the current divide between the elites and the excluded, and instead promote alliances between those who believe in democratic values and the traditional power-holders.

Recently there have been signs of hope. In June this year, the government passed a law which for the first time acknowledges the state´s responsibility in protecting the victims´rights: the Victims Law is a landmark development in a conflict-affected country. Restitution of land to millions of forcibly displaced peasants is now a national priority. At the same time, the victory of former rebel Gustavo Petro in Bogota’s municipal elections last month is a signal of political inclusion with the potential to trigger badly needed national reconciliation.

Building peace takes time and persistence

Other indicators are more alarming. Threats to and killings of human rights defenders, social leaders and political opposition are still rampant. Patronage politics and criminal control of democratic institutions remain strong. Armed conflict and militarisation has polarised society and normalised violence. And social movements are still being stigmatised as guerrilla proxies.

Many will continue to claim that places like Colombia, the Middle East and Kashmir are doomed to violence. But then nobody anticipated that decades old dictatorships in northern Africa could and would fall.

There are no ready recipes for building peace. There is therefore a need to keep trying innovative and inclusive approaches, in Colombia and elsewhere. The outside world has a crucial role to play in supporting and sometimes legitimising such initiatives.

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