The challenges of lasting peace in Colombia

It is hard not to be overly enthusiastic and overstate the significance of the final peace agreement between the FARC guerrilla group and the Government of Colombia. On Monday the bilateral ceasefire came into effect, ending one of the world’s longest internal armed conflicts, and after four years of peace talks in Havana the final agreement is due to be signed at the end of this month.

There is much to celebrate – but many challenges lie ahead.

On a positive note as part of the agreement the Government has committed to implement structural reforms that could radically transform Colombian society for the better, particularly for the most vulnerable groups.

On paper, the peace deal promises to help rural marginalised communities by improving access to land, stimulating agrarian production and ensuring the delivery of social services like health and education. This is no small thing when the only state presence many rural communities have ever experienced is that of the military.

The peace accords also include specific steps to build a more inclusive political system: they set out to break the domination by a political and economic elite that for too long has pursued its own narrow interests.

This agreement to change some of the unjust structures that sparked and fuelled the conflict for more than 50 years is complemented by specific measures to ensure the victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparation. It is worth emphasising that there will no amnesty granted for serious human rights violations, regardless of whether these have been committed by the FARC, state forces or others.

Another welcome move is the set of decisions relating to the production, trafficking and consumption of drugs. These moves are relatively progressive on paper: for example, farmers of coca leaves will be supported to substitute their production on a voluntary basis.

In short, the Government and the FARC should be congratulated for the enormous efforts they made to reach this peace agreement.

Now, the first challenge will be to ensure that the agreement remains approved by the public vote scheduled for October 2nd, a move recommended by the Government.  Although we are optimistic about the outcome, given the hatred that exists towards the FARC it is possible that many people will vote against the agreement and the “Yes” vote will be lost.  Even though the FARC have announced that they will not re-arm, if the public reject it, the agreement would lose much political legitimacy and legal force, and this could jeopardize the peace process.

Hatred towards the FARC runs deep in Colombian society. However, many people fail to recognise that a negotiated end is the only viable and sensible solution to end five decades of armed conflict without a military victory, which has caused immense suffering for 8 million victims.

There is a tangible sense of enthusiasm in Colombia these days, especially among civil society groups and academics here. However, they are all too aware of the agreement’s shortcomings and the many challenges that lie on the road to its meaningful, lasting implementation. Not least because the FARC is only one of several armed and violent parties that must be dealt with.

There are strong political forces from the extreme right, led by ex-President and Senator Alvaro Uribe, who oppose the peace process. This considerable resistance to the peace agreement is one of the reasons its implementation might not succeed. Indeed, Colombia has already gone through several failed peace processes.

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Alberto Franco, director of one of Christian Aid’s partners, the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission, sees the effective dismantlement of paramilitaries and their support networks as one of the main challenges of building peace. “The success of doing so will determine whether or not Colombia will repeat its history of recycling violence,” he says.

In the late 80s and early 90s a left-wing political party, Unión Patriótica, with roots in the FARC was exterminated by a coalition between paramilitaries and state agents. Naturally, FARC members are nervous about giving up arms and pursuing their political goals via democratic means. The fear is that elements of Colombian society are still influenced by the Cold War logic in which the left wing is considered an internal enemy and a legitimate military target.

We must not forget that other armed groups will remain active in Colombia: notably, the ELN (the second and smaller guerrilla group in the country), as well paramilitaries and criminal gangs. They are all likely to take advantage of the power vacuum left by the FARC. That said, we’re hopeful that without the FARC, other aggressors such as paramilitaries would become more visible and easier to tackle, as would their links to the state and the business world.

In spite of these factors, there is a sense that you need to believe that the peace agreement will bring about real change, in order for it to become true. Christian Aid’s partners and victims of the conflict, who we support, know that they have to engage strongly in the implementation of the peace agreement if we are to build a more inclusive, just and less violent society.

If the peace process fails it will take many years before Colombian society is ready for another attempt – and in the meantime, there will be hundreds of thousands or millions of new victims.

This is why our global neighbours have a key role to play. One reason the process has been successful so far is the way the international community has helped to build the necessary trust between the parties and give it more political legitimacy, domestically. There is not a single serious international actor who is against the process.

The international community must continue supporting the peace process – not just now, but also in 5-10 years’ time when Colombia begins to fade from the world’s radar. The conflict has lasted for more than 50 years and so it will take many years to build peace. And international engagement is critical for its success.

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Thomas Mortensen is Christian Aid’s Country Manager in Colombia. For further information, see www.christian-aid.org.uk
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