Colombia has one of the longest running conflicts in the world thanks in part to the multiple armed groups involved, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People´s Army (FARC-EP), the National Liberation Army (ELN), ex-members of the demobilized paramilitary army who continue to act through other criminal organizations, and official security forces with their own daunting record of human rights violations. Of these, only two, the FARC and the government, are directly involved in the present peace dialogue. In another hopeful sign, the ELN guerrillas started peace negotiations with the government last March. But the continuing presence of other armed actors means the exacerbation of violence in the country.

FARC-EP delegates at the Havana peace negotiations. 'Without dismantling the paramilitaries there can be no guarantees for building peace"
FARC-EP delegates at the Havana peace negotiations. ‘Without dismantling the paramilitaries there can be no guarantees for building peace”

There were previous efforts at negotiation between the government and the FARC in the eighties and late nineties. The current peace negotiations have lasted for four years after a period of closed door dialogues. They have resulted in agreements on rural development, political participation for the opposition, reforms to drug policy, and a truth commission. The negotiators agreed to international involvement in the form of a political mission of the United Nations. Made up of observers from member countries of the CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) this would play a part in the verification and monitoring of the agreement, in particular the bilateral and final ceasefire, the end of the hostilities, and the laying down of arms.[ii] Additionally, they have helped in the de-escalation of the conflict, joint de-mining projects between the FARC and the government, and in persuading the FARC to turn over any minors in their ranks. According to the Conflict Analysis Resource Center (CERAC) the FARC’s actions against civilians has decreased dramatically.[iii]

Transitional Justice

The parties agreed to create an Integrated Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-Recurrence System, composed of an independent and non-judicial Commission on the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition; a Special Unit for Locating Persons Disappeared in the Armed Conflict; and a Special Jurisdiction for Peace. They also agreed on measures for integral reparations and non-recurrence of violations, and emphasised the human rights obligations of the State.

National Day for Memory & Solidarity with Victims, April 9 2015.
National Day for Memory & Solidarity with Victims, April 9 2015.

The Special Jurisdiction for Peace will involve not only the FARC but also State agents and third parties that had benefited from or promoted armed groups.[iv] Special sentences for FARC members and amnesties are dependent upon the FARC laying down its weapons and its reintegration into civil society. The Special Jurisdiction will focus on the gravest and the most representative cases. The agreement also includes a truth commission, reparations to victims and the creation of ‘concentration zones’, which will be temporary areas, where ex-members of the guerrillas would congregate and eventually disarm and demobilize.[v]

Transitional justice is not new in Colombia. Demands for truth and reparation have been put forward by victims’ organizations for decades. However, the rhetoric of transitional justice entered mainstream political discourse with the Justice and Peace Law (Law 975, 2005) which provided a framework for the reintegration of the paramilitaries. In 2011, Law 1448 concerning the reparation for victims was enacted, and implemented through the Victims Unit and other administrative bodies. Additionally, the Historical Memory Group has documented a number of instances of human rights abuses, and issued special reports on vulnerable populations, LGBT groups, women and ethnic groups. These reports have contributed to the official recognition of the harm caused by the conflict to civil society. However, in terms of accountability and identification of perpetrators, there is still a long way to go.

Ghosts of the Past

Despite the advances in the peace negotiations, a number of reservations remain which affect the process of building trust between the parties and gaining the confidence of the Colombian population. As mentioned before, this is not the first attempt to conclude a peace agreement with the guerrilla: perhaps the most unfortunate outcome of a previous attempt was the genocide of the Patriotic Union party, a left-wing political party founded by the FARC during negotiations with the government in the 1980s. It was wiped out by the execution of 3000 of its members, including two presidential candidates. The fear of a renewed wave of assassinations of demobilized guerrilla members should not be lightly dismissed. For instance, the left-wing political party Marcha Patriótica claims that three of its leaders have been murdered this year. Similarly, human rights defenders, traditionally stigmatized as leftists, have been the target of human rights violations. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 63 human rights defenders were murdered in 2015.[vi]

Similarly, the current peace negotiations have to deal with the ghost of a failed political transition and renewed violence. The discourse of transitional justice implemented in the 2005 demobilization of the paramilitaries was criticized for being a process of ‘transitional justice without transition’. A few years later we can confirm that the fears of the critics were justified and we witness the continuing presence and activities of the ‘post-demobilized’ armed groups.
Similarly, the current peace negotiations have to deal with the ghost of a failed political transition and renewed violence. The discourse of transitional justice implemented in the 2005 demobilization of the paramilitaries was criticized for being a process of ‘transitional justice without transition’. A few years later we can confirm that the fears of the critics were justified and we witness the continuing presence and activities of the ‘post-demobilized’ armed groups.

Similarly, the current peace negotiations have to deal with the ghost of a failed political transition and renewed violence. The discourse of transitional justice implemented in the 2005 demobilization of the paramilitaries was criticized for being a process of ‘transitional justice without transition’. A few years later we can confirm that the fears of the critics were justified and we witness the continuing presence and activities of the ‘post-demobilized’ armed groups.

It is scarcely surprising to find some groups of ‘peace-spoilers’ acting to disrupt the peace process during its initial stages. In addition to the post-demobilized paramilitaries, we can predict that the demobilization of guerrillas may lead to power vacuums and disputes over the control of territories and spaces traditionally related to illegal activities such as mining, human trafficking, prostitution and drug trafficking, among others. These factors put in jeopardy the implementation of effective steps towards the non-recurrence of violence in the new post-conflict situation.

Images of disappeared victims: one of the key issues for peace and reconciliation
Images of disappeared victims: one of the key issues for peace and reconciliation

Concentration zones: another point of contention has been the agreed ‘concentration zones’. The creation of re-location zones for ex-guerrilla members threatens to repeat some of the mistakes of past negotiations, such as the ‘Caguán’ and the ‘distention zones’ implemented in the nineties. Agreed during the FARC and Pastrana government negotiations, they became places where the FARC rebuilt its strength after the failure of the peace agreements. Another point of contention is the FARC’s participation in politics.

A rapid review of the peace process and its challenges reveals a very complex set of agreements embedded in an ambitious project which aims to build trust between the two actors and establish transparency in order to gain the trust of citizens. The decision to implement some transitional justice mechanisms responds to the popular demand for some form of accountability and the international pressure for fighting impunity. What is clear so far is that the active and ongoing participation of civil society is essential for the success of the peace, notwithstanding that a plebiscite or other one-off mechanism will be necessary in order to legitimize the process. The Congress approved holding a referendum on the peace accords that will require approval by 13% of the electorate.[vii]

Reception of the Peace Negotiations

Broadly speaking there are two distinct currents of opinion regarding the peace process in Colombia. On the one hand there are those who support peace as the outcome of victory or the military defeat of the FARC. This view is held by 38% of the population according to the latest polls. On the other hand there are those who are willing to accept a certain degree of compromise in order to overcome conflict, and these make up 54% of the population.[viii] It is important to emphasize that while the present government has promoted the path of the negotiation, it does not mean the weakening of support for a military solution.

Allies of both factions respond to different motivations. Some support for a military solution is the result of a polarized political culture exacerbated under the previous government of President Uribe, when even scholars were labeled terrorists. Opponents of the peace agreement deny the possibility of reaching a compromise with the FARC, pressing for the use of ordinary justice in their punishment and skeptical about the implementation of transitional justice mechanisms. They are also concerned about potential damage to the morale of the troops.

‘Peace spoilers’, war lords, and other actors who continue to benefit from the conflict are also opposed to the peace dialogues. These include landowners and businessmen who are not interested in the restitution of land to victims or who take advantage of the isolation of certain regions to develop illegal activities such as mining, coca growing and arms smuggling, among other activities. Some political actors are just worried about how the new political landscape will affect their political capital. Naturally, there are also groups of victims who are not prepared to participate in the transition, or are apathetic about the implementation of the peace agreements.

Among supporters of the peace agreement, there are also different motivations. There are the elites which could benefit from broader market opportunities as a result of a more peaceful society. There are the FARC members who seem interested in participating in politics under a non-violent banner. There are politicians who could gain more political capital as a result of being on the successful side of history. There are the numerous peace-building organizations that have been working to establish peace even during the harshest years of the conflict. Last, but not least, there are the victims who support the peace process.

Women of Ruta Pacífica
Women of Ruta Pacífica

Peacebuilding in Colombia

In Colombia there have been close to thirty thousand peacebuilding initiatives, most of them local grassroots initiatives that have been undertaken at high risk for their leaders, who have been subjected to illegal surveillance, intimidation and personal attacks. There have also been regional and national initiatives, and peacebuilding networks. Although their impact on public policy has not traditionally been strong, they have helped to transform political culture in Colombia, in ways which have made peace dialogue possible including that between the ELN and the government.

Once the peace agreements are signed, hopefully, they will bring about a reduction in the political polarization in Colombia. A positive outcome for peacebuilding actors and human rights defenders could be to remove the stigma of being labelled as guerrilla supporters. In the meantime, and while prospects for peace remain fragile, the highest risk for peace supporters is the threat to their own security. , As other peace processes across the world such as that of Northern Ireland have shown, reconciliation is not an immediate outcome; reconciliation is a difficult path that requires the same or more effort and accompaniment as the peace process in itself.

Another important role that peace activists are playing at present is using their networks to reach the most marginal regions and teach them about the peace process. For instance the Departmental Network of Chocoan Women and the Women’s Road to Peace (Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres) have conducted workshops with women to discuss the terms of the peace agreements in order to dispel the widespread misinformation about them. The mobilization of grassroots and regional peacebuilders has also strengthened a discourse of peace integrated with social justice during the transition period. They promote initiatives of transformative reparation that could lead to improvements in the social and economic conditions of marginal communities.

“There is no alternative”

One of the most valuable contributions made by victims to the peace process is their commitment for peace and their work in making their voice heard at each stage. This particularly includes the most vulnerable groups in society such as women, ethnic groups, LGBTI population and others. Although they are interested in truth, accountability and justice, for some victims, especially those who live in the most risky areas, their main concern is the guarantee of non-repetition of violence. They see that ‘there is no alternative’ to supporting the peace process in order to reduce the continuous threat of violence under which they live.

The Clan Úsuga sends a message to the government: they demand to be included in the Havana talks.
The Clan Úsuga sends a message to the government: they demand to be included in the Havana talks.

They view with fear and suspicion the continuous and new presence of criminal bands or post-demobilized armed groups, such as in the area of Chocó. For example, at the end of March there was an ‘armed strike’ organized by the Usuga clan or Gaitanist Colombian Self-defence League, which coincided with demonstrations against the government and the peace negotiations. Such situations send the wrong message about the possibility of engaging safely in the promotion of peace.

Meeting of reconciliation between the FARC and the Bojayá victims.
Meeting of reconciliation between the FARC and the Bojayá victims.

Lastly, the peace negotiations have served as a platform for the recognition of victims. In the case of Bojayá, a municipality that survived a massacre occurred in 2002 during a confrontation between the paramilitary and the guerrilla, victims’ leaders have participated in roundtables in the Havana talks. In December 2015 the FARC presented an apology to the community. In the aftermath of this public apology, several old wounds have been reopened and competing claims have emerged. However, this is the first time that forgiveness and reconciliation have become a serious topic of discussion among the locals. There is a change in the culture and political discourse of local victims’ organizations that responds to the conscious question of how to live together with perpetrators in a post-conflict situation which can now be clearly imagined.

The highest price for compromise is always paid by the victims during the post-conflict period. Therefore it is worth remembering that not only the peace agreements but the subsequent processes of forgiveness and reconciliation cannot be rushed. It is time to imagine the creation of processes of reconciliation combined with dignity.


This paper is based on a presentation at ‘Colombia v FARC: Negotiating a Durable Peace’, organized by Urios, Utrecht University, 4 April 2016, where the author, Sandra Rios Oyola, is a researcher at The Netherlands Institute of Human Rights.


[ii] Comunicado Conjunto # 65 La Habana, 19 January 2016. https://www.mesadeconversaciones.com.co/comunicados/comunicado-conjunto-65-la-habana-19-de-enero-de-2016

[iii]CERAC, 2016. 22 March 2016, Monitor de Desescalamiento del Conflicto Armado Interno en Colombia, Reporte mensual Número 8. http://blog.cerac.org.co/monitor-de-desescalamiento-del-conflicto-armado-interno-en-colombia-8

[iv] The SJ has been criticized for a series of loopholes that could end in the impunity of members of the armed forces involved in extrajudicial killings. Human Rights Watch, 28 March 2016. Colombia: FARC Pact Risks Impunity for ‘False-Positives’ https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/03/28/colombia-farc-pact-risks-impunity-false-positives

[v] Fundación Ideas para la Paz. March 2016. Mitos y realidades de las zonas de ubicación para las FARC http://cdn.ideaspaz.org/media/website/document/56e8d18852ded.pdf

[vi] Annual Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Situation of Human Rights in Colombia. A/HRC/31/3/Add.2

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] El Tiempo. 1 March 2016. El 80 % no cree que la paz se firme el 23 de marzo. http://www.eltiempo.com/politica/proceso-de-paz/encuesta-de-gallup-sobre-imagen-y-proceso-de-paz-marzo-de-2016/16525164

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