Publication date: 
Feb 2016

Building trust in the Colombian ceasefire agreement

Kristian Herbolzheimer
Director of the Transitions to Peace Programme (Philippines and Colombia)
© Flickr / Svenwerk
The government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are in the final stages of their peace negotiations. In the last two months there have not been any armed confrontations. 

And on 25 January, the UN Security Council Resolution committed to verify the forthcoming ceasefire and the arms decommissioning process. Despite negotiating without a formal bilateral ceasefire agreement, it may well be that the war has already ended.

Both sides require guarantees of compliance

There are a number of technical and logistical details needed to complete the ceasefire agreement over the coming weeks. There are two particularly complex issues that stand out: the assembly areas for combatants, and the disarmament. Both issues are traversed by an understandable distrust of the intentions of the other party. Or rather, by the mutual need of reassurance that the agreement will be fulfilled. This is a classic tension in the final stages of any peace negotiation process:

The government needs assurance that the insurgency will not engage in unlawful activities. It also wants to prevent the risk of threats, blackmail or coercion by FARC against civilian population.

The main concern for the insurgencies is their personal security.  This is a delicate matter, as the task to protect them will be trusted to their former enemy.

Once the insurgency gets rid of weapons it loses all power of pressure. Therefore, every insurgency seeks to delay the demobilisation until they can certify State compliance.

The doubts and concerns of both sides are equally valid. And their priorities are not as incompatible as they seem. It is in the best interest of the FARC that the process accelerates too. It will be difficult to persuade people of their honest transition to politics if they are wielding a rifle.

At the same time, the government knows that the transition is complex and that, in order to guarantee non-repetition, is important to create favourable conditions, which can take time.

The international presence through the UN Mission may help to reduce the objections of the FARC to accelerate its concentration of forces and disarmament; and perhaps the government might have fewer reservations about the characteristics of the location areas and the immediate destination of the weapons.

Furthermore, the UN mission carries an enormous symbolic power. It guarantees security for the civilians in conflict zones and it increases support to the peace process from the public opinion.

Increasing public confidence in the peace process

In parallel with the mechanisms to manage the fears of the government and the FARC, another task is pending: to increase public confidence of the commitment of both contenders.

The government's main challenge will be to move from words (or signed agreements) to deeds. They have to increase internal cohesion and strengthen institutional capacities in the regions so the agreement can be fully implemented.

Respect for human rights remains a major area to measure the commitment and capacity of the state. Although there was significant progress in reducing violence, more than 50 community leaders were killed in 2015 and there are persisting levels of threats and harassment.

The FARC have another difficult task. Their political future depends on their ability to gain the trust, or at least the acceptance, of a largely hostile public opinion. They will have to live up to the expectations of their contribution to truth, justice, reparation and reconciliation; and they must show that many of the fears and prejudices against them are baseless.

One way to do this is to play a key role in the new policy regarding illicit crops and to help end the scourge of drug trafficking. They can also choose to make other symbolic gestures. For example, start laying down arms before the plebiscite that will take place to endorse the peace agreement.

At the same time, both parties have a duty to respond to the needs and concerns of the populations most affected by the conflict. Communities must now guide the actions of transition to peace in the regions and women must play a leading role. Impoverished rural populations, and especially indigenous and Afro communities, should have a voice and role in:

  • Determination and regulation of assembly areas,
  • Design the process of reintegration,
  • Verification of the implementation of the agreements and
  • Creation of development and peace programs

Whilst there are still big challenges ahead, the negotiation process had spectacular developments in recent months, getting it to this the final stage. The government and the FARC feel confident that they will be able to sign the agreement to end the conflict. The end of the war is close. Actually, war may already have finished.