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Colombia: peace, but maybe not the peace we hoped for

Impunity for business, the lack of justice for victims of sexual violence and the return to crop eradication all threaten to undermine the current peace process


Without addressing crucial elements of the original agreement, the revised peace deal risks not living up to expectations in Colombia. It has been a year since the Colombian government and FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebel leader ‘Timochenko’ signed the agreement to end more than 50 years of conflict in Colombia. It was a historic moment. Since then, we have seen the FARC finally transition into a civilian political party and lay down their arms. Although this is a significant and welcome step to peace, it feels like the spirit of the original agreement has been weakened. This is clear when looking at the legal framework of the agreement and its exclusions. For instance, for third parties to the conflict, such as politicians, public officials and individuals involved in business, it will not be mandatory to appear before the Special Peace Courts. This is a major concern for international development charity Christian Aid and our partners in Colombia, since it has been widely documented that politicians, public officials and individuals in business are co-responsible for forced displacements and other crimes during the conflict.

Impunity for business

This is evident in the case of Curvaradó, where paramilitaries forcibly displaced Afro-Colombian communities from their territories to make way for African palm. palm (see the detailed TNI report into the role of banana company Banacol in this area) In July 2013, two businessmen were sentenced to over ten years for their involvement in these crimes. It was a landmark ruling by the Colombian courts and proved what our partners had been saying for years: namely that commercial interests were working with paramilitaries to forcibly displace people from the land.
A July 2011 incursion by paramilitaries, with army connivance, into Curvaradó is denounced by Father Alberto Franco, a leading member of Christian Aid partner organisation the Inter-Church Commission for Justice and Peace Commission (CIJP). At the time, his work empowering communities affected by conflict has made him the target of death threats. Since then, the civilian courts have sentenced numerous politicians and public servants for their collaboration with paramilitary groups, including for the other atrocities committed in Curvaradó. However, since the agreement does not make it mandatory for these actors to appear before the Special Peace Courts, it risks consolidating the systematic impunity that exists in Colombia for serious human rights violations, and hampering the justice sought by some of Colombia’s most vulnerable communities.
The murder of Mario Castaño, in November 2017, brings to four the number of members of Christian Aid partner Conpaz network killed in the first year of implementation of the Peace Accords. All four were actively engaged in building peace and investigating the truth about the forced displacements and the actions of paramilitaries and businesses. Mario was assassinated after returning to his land and declaring it a Zone of Biodiversity, to provide a mechanism for protecting the land and the lives of his people.
Most worryingly, developing a legal framework that does not respect the original peace agreement with the FARC may deter other armed groups, such as the ELN (The National Liberation Army), from reaching an agreement with the government.

Justice for victims of sexual violence

The same may happen for the peace agreement´s response to crimes of sexual violence. It is hard to estimate the numbers affected, but one survey suggests that between 2000 and 2009, nearly half a million women suffered some form of sexual violence in areas affected by the conflict. The peace agreement is very progressive in recognising women’s right to justice and to have voice and influence in building peace.  However, there is a concern that the increased political strength of conservative religious forces in Colombia might undermine the promises made to survivors of sexual violence, who have suffered tremendously in the conflict.
A Sisma Mujer workshop to empowerm women to participate in politics and community action, prioritising those who are victims of violence, to help them obtain access to their rights, their dignity, equality, reparation and guarantees that there will be no repetition of abuses.
Claudia Mejia, the Director of Christian Aid’s partner, Sisma Mujer, insists: “The Special Peace Courts have an enormous responsibility to ensure justice for the victims of sexual violence and to break the general norm of impunity for these crimes. It is necessary to send a strong message to society that sexual violence is not acceptable in today’s society.”

Substitution of drug crops

Another important issue relates to the agreement’s attempts to tackle the drug trade. Under the original agreement, the government made a commitment to voluntary crop substitution, with forced eradication of illegal crops as a last resort. The basic principle of voluntary crop substitution is that farmers are given financial and technical support in return for voluntarily destroying their crops. Anecdotal evidence suggests an overwhelming number of famers have complied with the process.
Video: Telesur 22 October 2017. Colombia’s Attorney General Nestor Humberto Martinez urged authorities to fight properly drug trafficking in the country, including via the controversial forced eradication of illicit crops. His comments come two weeks after seven campesinos were killed at a demonstration against the eradication of their coca crops in Tumaco on October 5. However, pressure from the Trump administration, and the 2016 referendum results, has reversed this decision. As a result, the state has returned to forced eradication of crops, on a massive scale. Most likely, within a few weeks it will have reached the goal of eradicating 50, 000 hectares of coca crops this year. The sad irony is, many of the farmers whose crops are being forcefully eradicated by the armed forces had already signed up to the voluntary agreements. They will only serve to be disappointed and frustrated, because without an income they will no longer be able to provide for their families. There’s no denying that the November 2016 peace deal was a step in the right direction. Progressive political forces, including courageous human rights defenders and community leaders, have worked hard to make the dream of peace a reality for millions of Colombians. However, it is clear that in order for a sustainable and lasting peace to be achieved, the peace process must address the root causes of the internal armed conflict and bring justice for everyone. Otherwise, it risks alienating other armed actors who are yet to make an agreement with the government. Images, videos and captions added by LAB.
Thomas Mortensen is Christian Aid’s Colombia Country Manager. He has been with Christian Aid since 2011 and previously worked with the United Nations in India and Nicaragua. He has a Master´s Degree in Development and Economics and post degrees on human rights and international humanitarian law.

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