Colombia is the only country in the Western hemisphere suffering a major internal armed conflict. The Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN) and, especially, the much stronger Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), have engaged in armed struggle with the Colombian Government since 1965.
Right-wing paramilitaries and a number of extremely violent criminal gangs complete a web of illegal armed groups, which occasionally have operated in collusion with state security forces. Drug trafficking has become a major financial fuel for violence among all armed actors.
Colombia ranks as a mid-income country, but also as one of the countries with highest inequality in the world.
From a military to dialogue approach
Over the past decades the Government’s policy has been shifting back and forth between negotiations and a hard-line approach with left-wing guerrillas. After eight years of all out war under President Uribe (2002-2010), President Santos (2010 - present) has invested in a negotiated settlement of the armed conflict. The Government and FARC have been negotiating a six-point agenda in Havana since 2012. The parties agreed on the topics of rural development (May 2013); political participation (November 2013); a solution to the drug problem (May 2014); victim’s rights (September 2015); and conflict termination (June 2016).
In parallel, the Government and the ELN have been conducting secret talks which led to an announcement of a negotiating agenda in March 2016.
Paramilitaries completed a demobilisation process of some 30,000 members without any political concessions in 2006, but many former combatants have joined new criminal gangs (Bacrim or bandas criminales). Most prominent paramilitary leaders were extradited to the US facing drug dealing charges.
Innovations in the Colombian peace process
Colombia is currently experimenting with the most significant peace process in the world, both in terms of the conflict duration as well as the extent of violence suffered by the population. The Government acknowledges more than eight million victims, in a country of some 46 million people.
The Government and FARC have learned lessons from past failures in negotiations in Colombia and around the world. In doing so they have developed five innovative approaches that can be a reference for peace processes elsewhere:
- Democratising the peace process. The Framework Agreement of 2012 differentiates between the purpose of peace negotiations between the Government and FARC in Havana (to end the armed conflict), and building peace, which is a task to be carried out in Colombia by society at large. This differentiation acknowledges the need for more inclusive and legitimate processes – multiple paths to peace – which involve more actors, more agenda items, more spaces for deliberation, and more time.
- Preventing impunity by placing the rights of the victims at the centre of the talks. Human rights defenders have played a fundamental role in documenting human rights violations and this body of information will allow a special tribunal for peace. Special justice courts will deal with investigations, prosecutions and sentencing. If offenders cooperate with the justice system they will benefit from reduced sentences.
- Negotiations address rural development and drugs trafficking. Despite being one of the core root causes of multiple armed conflicts in the world, the issues of land reform and rural development have never before been given the attention they have received in Colombia. The Government and FARC have also agreed to tackle the illegal drug economy, which over the past years has become the main fuel for the war. A comprehensive response will however need a global commitment, which is why Colombia is today leading the advocacy at the UN for reforming the predominant approach that criminalises producers and consumers.
- A Gender Subcommission is overseeing all the documents and agreements to ensure gender-sensitive language and provisions. Colombia does not yet have a National Action Plan to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1325, but women’s organisations have been successful in advocating for increased women’s participation, at the negotiations as well as in parallel peace initiatives. Colombia is probably also the first country ever to address LGBTI rights in peace negotiations.
- Preparing for implementation before completing the negotiations. Colombian society and peace negotiators are well aware that the peace agreement will not deliver peace immediately but rather, it is a milestone in a far longer and more complex peace process. The Government created a Ministry of Post-conflict two years before the peace agreement; Congress has been enacting laws to secure a swift implementation; and the judiciary has been asked to advise on the constitutionality of executive and legislative action. In turn FARC also seized military instruction and has been planning transition into a political movement almost a year before the peace agreement.
The post-agreement phase will need to address four key challenges:
- Increasing ownership and support for the peace agreement and the implementation of its provisions. Mainstream public opinion is very hostile against FARC, and the support for the Government is also low. So it might not be a surprise that despite unprecedented positive developments at the negotiating table in Havana, public opinion remains largely sceptical about the sincerity of the parties and the prospects for peace.
- From words to deeds. Political will is fundamental but insufficient for a successful peace process. Both the State and FARC will struggle to live up to their commitments given the tremendous burden that they will carry in the implementation stage.
- Linking up with the ELN peace process. The peace talks with the ELN have not started at a time when the ones with FARC are about to be completed. While there is still time for some sort of convergence between both processes, this window of opportunity is closing as time passes.
- The cultural transformation. After decades of violence there is a need to address deep-rooted mistrust, fear and hatred. The rehumanisation of the ‘other’ does not only involve combatants, but society at large. It will be difficult for Colombia to progress until diversity of perspectives in society is acknowledged as a value instead of a problem.
The post-agreement process will be at least as challenging as the peace negotiations themselves, The difficulties cannot be overstated. But at a time of increased conflict and humanitarian crisis in other parts of the world, Colombia is becoming a reference for identifying political solutions to apparently intractable conflicts.