The End of War in Colombia: An Opportunity for Inclusive and Sustainable Peace

On June 23, 2016, Colombia saw one of the most significant days in its history, as its government agreed to a definitive and bilateral ceasing of hostilities with the guerrilla forces of FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), effectively ending end a 56-year conflict between the two sides. The deal signals what Colombian public opinion calls “the silencing of the rifles” and “the last day of war with the FARC.” The agreement put to rest the last official war of the Western hemisphere and one of the longest in recent history.[1] It also brought the government and FARC steps away from a final peace accord – though a number of challenges remain in successfully implementing the newly minted agreement.

Half a century of war in Colombia has resulted in nearly 7 million internally displaced persons, 220,000 deaths, and the disappearance of 45,000 individuals. The organized violence in the country has created lasting damage to Colombia’s social fabric, as seen through the high degrees of stigmatization of peasant and ethnic communities, the desensitization of violence in everyday life, and the generalized loss of social trust. For example, though 3% of the Colombian population self-identifies as indigenous and 10% as afro-descendant, these minorities constitute 30-35% of internally displaced persons, highlighting the ethnic dimension of the conflict. Moreover, despite a significant reduction of violence over the past 15 years, Colombia remains the twelfth deadliest country in terms of intentional homicide rates, with domestic abuse, street quarrels, and soccer matches being common scenes of death.

Facing this violent landscape, President Santos made an unexpected decision in 2012 to diverge from his hawkish reputation and stake his political legacy on achieving peace with the guerrillas. Previous to Santos, former President Uribe had thwarted FARC’s threats against State sovereignty through eight years of military onslaught. This, however, relied on a heavy handed approach to human rights in Colombia and still failed to defeat the insurgents as Uribe had promised. Thus, Santos’ departure from such a military-focused approached meant pursuing a political solution with the enemy, while advocating for a reformist agenda on keys issues, including land restitution, victims’ rights, transitional justice, and drug policy. Correspondingly, from a militarily diminished position, the FARC found it more appealing to transition to civilian life and political participation than to persist in an unwinnable war.

To execute the peace process, President Santos convened a reputable negotiating team, led by Humberto de La Calle and Sergio Jaramillo Caro. By including widely respected General Jorge Enrique Mora, the president won critical buy-in from the military and mitigated the risk of internal sabotage. The negotiating process was based on techniques and continuous advice from prominent strategist William Ury, which generated a win-win mentality and options to overcome impasses. By limiting the agenda to a sequence of six topics, both parties put behind the maximalist reach of their 1999-2002 negotiations in Caguán, which included over 140 debate topics.

The willingness of Norway and Cuba to host the negotiations between Colombian authorities and the FARC, in addition to the presence of international observers, peace building grants from Western nations, and public statements of goodwill issued by governments across the world strongly suggests that the international community greatly contributed to the final accord.

After requests from both the FARC and Colombian authorities in January – following three years of negotiations between the two sides – the UN Security Council also established a team of unarmed international observers “to monitor and verify the definitive bilateral ceasefire and cessation of hostilities, and the laying down of arms.” The UN-led verification process should help alleviate fears of recidivism or the persecution of ex-combatants, as occurred with the decimation of the leftist political party Unión Patriótica, or with M-19 leader, Carlos Pizarro, who was killed 45 days after signing peace accords in 1990.

Notwithstanding the peace accord, Colombia’s challenges abound. President Santos’ weak approval ratings and his predecessor’s vehement opposition to the peace process could hamper the ratification of the final accord. The implementation of the accords will require steadfast political will and capital of the next president and of local authorities across the country. This commitment is particularly crucial for the initial topics of the accord: “Towards a new Colombian field: comprehensive rural reform” and which purport to significantly transform some of the most pervasive causes of the Colombian armed conflict. Still, the capacity of the State to deliver on its commitments for peace remains uncertain.

The Victims and Land Restitution Law of 2011 crystallizes this challenge, as 6.9 million victims from all parties to the conflict must receive comprehensive reparations by 2021. The program’s current rate of about 110,000 victims per year, however, will not suffice in meeting the law’s targets. According to a Harvard study, the law represents the most ambitious victims’ reparation platform in the world, but fulfilling its commitments will be extremely difficult.

To make a quantitative leap forward in implementation, a series of measures is required. Such measures include not only improving the capacity of implementing institutions, but also adopting sensitization strategies to encourage active collaboration between local institutions and victims. In addition, regionally attractive and adapted pedagogic tools should be employed. What remains worrisome, however, is the possibility of reported victims increasing in areas, which have historically had a FARC presence – a pattern that would surely overwhelm institutional capacity. Ultimately, the failure of the State to properly heal the wounds of war may inadvertently ignite new forms of violence and other social ails.

Peace with FARC does not mean an end to organized violence in Colombia. A smaller guerrilla group, ELN (the National Liberation Army), is just starting talks with the government, and numerous criminal bands and paramilitary outfits continue to wreak havoc across the country. Likewise, drug trafficking and illegal mining continue to thrive, especially in areas where the state has failed to exert control. For decades, the Colombian armed conflict has been shaped by a fusion of political violence, organized crime, and mass human rights violations – all of which represent a system of new wars that may continue to haunt the country for years to come.

For the post-accord phase to end organized violence and further a peaceful resolution to the conflicts, local communities must take ownership of peace and engage in its construction. This is an invitation to the unknown, as John Paul Lederach posed in The Moral Imagination: “violence is known, and peace is a mystery.” What is clear, however, is that in a country where most have only known war, the peace accord offers Colombians a new opportunity, one, as President Santos emphasized, that gives future generations the chance to heal the wounds of over five-decades of violent history and build a socially inclusive peace .

The author offers special thanks to Juan Fernando Lucio, Director of PASO COLOMBIA, for his insightful comments during the initial drafting of the article.

[1] Although there are other types of organized violence, war is commonly defined as leading to over 1,000 battle deaths in a given year, based on independent monitoring by the University of Uppsala, Sweden. By some accounts, the Mexican Drug War has had over 150,000 cumulative deaths with 2,538 in 2015, though its recognition as a war is contested based on the status of drug cartels.