Colombia's Final Steps to the End of War - Latin America Report N°58 | 7 September 2016
Painstaking negotiations have brought Colombia to the verge of peace with its main insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Over half a century of armed conflict, leaving over 220,000 dead, displacing six million and imprinting poorer regions and the central state with deep divisions and lingering grudges, appears close to an end. On 23 June, the parties announced a detailed plan to gather FARC fighters in 28 zones to lay down arms. The insurgency’s 15,000 combatants and militia members are then soon to resume civilian life, while it seeks to convert its radical ideology into a force able to compete in a democratic system. A final peace deal, unveiled on 24 August, resolved the last disputes and brought together earlier agreements to initiate an ambitious scheme of transitional justice; rescue rural Colombia from stark inequalities; further open up the country’s democracy; and begin, with FARC help, a program to replace coca cultivation with licit crops and off-farm economic opportunities.
However, peace faces real perils. The deal finalised in Havana has the blessing of the government and guerrilla leadership but not yet full support from the broader public or the entirety of FARC. The next six to nine months pose major tests that, unless dealt with effectively, threaten to derail the agreement, narrow its impact on guerrilla combatants or fail to prevent the chronic reproduction of violence in the outback.
Trading heavily on the unpopularity of President Juan Manuel Santos’s government, opposition has surged under the influence of ex-President Álvaro Uribe, the principal antagonist of the peace process. If the 2 October plebiscite to approve the peace accords fails, Colombia will most likely suffer political convulsions and a return to war.
Even if the plebiscite succeeds, the relief in government quarters may be brief. The ceasefire and FARC’s laying down arms hinge on how the transition takes shape at the grassroots. In light of the extermination campaign to prevent FARC’s political participation after a ceasefire agreement 32 years ago, the real and perceived security of ex-combatants is fundamental to the success of the early post-conflict period. Local vendettas against guerrillas, unhappiness of some FARC fronts with parts of the agreement and moves by other illegal armed groups to seize former FARC-controlled territory, coca fields and illicit businesses pose acute risks to a delicate transition.
Clear approaches to these and other dangers should help the state and guerrilla leaders steer through the turbulence. A strong communications strategy to educate people about the contents of the peace agreements would help the “yes” vote in the plebiscite. Campaign efforts will have to delink the agreement from the government’s perceived performance and focus on rebutting the opposition’s exaggerated charges that FARC war criminals will not serve jail-time. FARC should help by showing goodwill and remorse.
Strict security protocols for protecting FARC combatants, already agreed, should be fine-tuned as the group proceeds to lay down its arms. It is up to the military and other state actors, however, to ensure that the power vacuums left by the insurgency are occupied quickly and conflict-affected communities feel some affinity to a state they have long regarded as distant and brutal. Throughout these multiple challenges, the initial UN Mission will aim to monitor and verify the ceasefire and handover of weapons. Given society’s extreme polarisation, both cause and legacy of the FARC uprising, it must be the neutral arbiter, entrusted with the group’s weapons, watching over the cantonments and investigating and reporting ceasefire violations. Its mandate is narrow, time-limited and difficult.
To fulfil that mandate, the mission will have to handle carefully the expectations of communities and maintain dialogue with them to acquire crucial details on any possible violations. It will have to navigate the dynamics of other illegal armed groups still active in the countryside and accurately assess all violations. When disputes between FARC and the government occur, it could find itself on fragile ground. Informally consulting with Norwegian and Cuban delegates to the peace talks could be useful, while the international community will occasionally need to voice support for the mission’s ongoing role.
Colombia has been in tougher times in over 50 years of conflict. Its response to these hurdles will decide if the war ends or continues into the next generation.