Peace in Colombia?

Colombia (NewInt) – In a shock result, Colombians rejected a peace accord to end five decades of conflict. Does that mean a return to violence? Or can progressive forces build upon the innovations of the peace process? Tatiana Garavito takes stock.

The chief negotiator had been clear. If voters did not ratify the peace accord between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government, then the country would be left staring into an ‘abyss’. There was no Plan B.

And on the night of 2 October it looked as if that abyss had opened up as the ‘no’ vote won by the narrowest of margins – 50.2 to 49.8 per cent.

Against the expectations of pollsters, the ‘no’ campaign, led by ex-president Álvaro Uribe, managed to convince enough Colombians that the rebels were getting off too lightly, and voting for the accord would be a travesty of justice.

Ironically, the strongest ‘yes’ vote was in areas with most victims of violence; ‘no’ dominated in Uribe’s rural heartlands.

For all those who worked for peace and voted for the accord, the result was devastating.

But they did not give up.

After the referendum, FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño (‘Timochenko’) said that peace was ‘a constitutional right’ and that the rebels would remain faithful to the accord.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed that both parties would maintain the ceasefire and continue to work together. The ceasefire was extended until the end of October.

There were rallies across the country calling for the peace process to continue. For the first time in six years, President Santos met with his arch rival, Uribe. In Havana, where the historic accord had been brokered, there were preparations for more talks. The international community offered help and support.

Across Colombia, progressive groups, women, indigenous and farmer communities, who for years had worked hard to popularize the idea of a peace agreement, organized to take a role in the process again.

They reminded us that democracy is not only exercised at the polls; that we need to take it to the streets to culturally transform the country and to continue on the road to peace.

Terrifying prospect

Return to violence is a terrifying prospect. Colombians know only too well what it means. For 52 years, the longest armed conflict in the western hemisphere has scarred the lives of more than eight million people – 15 per cent of the country’s population.1 Though comparable in numbers to Afghanistan, Colombia’s conflict has attracted far less international attention.

Official figures show 280,619 people killed and more than seven million internally displaced.1 In addition, there were over 29,000 kidnappings, 45,000 forced disappearances, 11,000 victims of landmines, 10,000 victims of torture, and 13,000 victims of sexual violence.1 2

Women were disproportionately affected. According to Claudia Mejia Duque from the organization Sisma Mujer, ‘Women and girls [are] weapons of war and the biggest affected group across society.’

Then, in the summer of 2016, after three failed attempts and almost four years of negotiations, FARC and the Colombian government achieved a historic peace agreement (see box), the innovative nature of these negotiations capturing the attention of international peace brokers.3

How it all started

Colombia’s crisis has its roots in colonialism, whose legacy persists to this day. It can be seen in a political monopoly enjoyed by landowners and the upper classes; enduring poverty and corruption; and, of course, state violence.

Such conditions gave rise to the country’s three main armed groups: FARC; the National Liberation Army (ELN), a smaller guerrilla organization; and rightwing paramilitary groups known as Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). The last were officially demobilized in 2005, but some members continue in smaller criminal gangs called bacrim or Post-Demobilized Paramilitary Groups (PDPGs).

FARC was born in the early 1960s when armed peasant movements, fighting against land grabs, joined forces first with the Liberal Party and then the Communist Party of Colombia. This union led to the creation of FARC as a guerrilla army ready to confront the government in 1964.

‘I carry the clamour of all women in this country crying for lost children, partners, and families’

Fast-forward to 1984 – when peace negotiations with the government resulted in a landmark ceasefire agreement leading to demobilization and the birth of a new leftist political party: the Patriotic Union.

But hopes for peace were shattered when over 3,000 Patriotic Union members were murdered by paramilitary organizations linked to the rightwing AUC, supported by state security forces. In 1990, the ceasefire ended. It would be nine years before a new round of talks. Understandably, there was little trust between the negotiating parties. Also, the aims of these talks, to ‘transform Colombia’ with an agenda comprising over 100 points, were too ambitious.

In 2002, once again, talks collapsed. These successive failures paved the way for the rise of Uribe, a far-right politician who was elected president on the promise that he would eradicate FARC. Under Uribe’s leadership, with the recruitment of 500,000 police and army personnel, war intensified. Support from the US came in the form of Plan Colombia, part of the US ‘war on drugs’. At its height, FARC had 20,000 fighters.4

Uribe – whose father was killed in a botched FARC kidnapping – was unable to keep his promise. Instead of achieving an end to the conflict, his actions led to a record number of human rights violations, including the internal displacement of more than 300,000 people. The failure of Uribe’s strategy would bolster support for new peace talks.

What was different this time?

When Juan Manuel Santos of the National Union Party – a coalition of rightwing political parties – was elected president in 2010, public support for peace talks was growing, mainly thanks to the efforts of his Green Party political opponent, Antanas Mockus.

Across Latin America, leftist parties had been winning power through the ballot box, while FARC had been suffering heavy losses. The rebels understood that the state was reluctant to push for a military victory because it could only ever be partial. There was also a possibility that FARC would be left without the political capacity to engage in peace negotiations.

All of this created an environment for new talks which began in 2012, hosted by Cuba.

In previous talks FARC and the government had worked through a long list of agenda points without the participation of the wider society and without listening to the conflict’s victims.

This time the negotiators took steps to include those who have suffered most. In 2014, both parties announced the Declaration of Principles in which a commitment was made to safeguard victims’ rights to truth, justice, reparations and safety. Sixty people were invited to share their stories.

Rosario, a war survivor and member of the delegation, said: ‘I carry the clamour of all women in this country crying for lost children, partners, and families – we demand our homes and lands back in order to rebuild our lives, bring up our children and offer them a better future.’

The emphasis on truth-telling prompted a broader debate around justice and impunity. The focus on the stories and experiences of everyday Colombians led to the creation of a special tribunal for peace and a court of justice to deal with the human rights violations. A mechanism was also developed to help account for the 45,000 people who had disappeared.5

Another key aspect was the focus on land reform. Colombia is one of the few countries in Latin America never to have experienced comprehensive agrarian reform – one of the root causes of insurgency. Land reform became the first significant policy issue that both parties could agree upon, with a focus on rural development and the co-existence of peasant communities and large businesses.6

Perhaps the most innovative element has been in the area of gender. After enormous pressure from women’s organizations, both parties agreed in 2014 to the creation of a gender sub-commission.

The sub-commission was soon tasked with highlighting the gender dimension of the conflict, to ensure that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and/or intersex rights were acknowledged and protected. Meanwhile, an extensive network of women’s groups across Colombia drew attention not only to the impact of patriarchy on prior negotiations but also its fundamental role in the conflict and its causes. This network is developing initiatives for reconciliation. 7

Colombian women have been active beyond the country’s borders too, with the creation of The Truth and Memory Commission of Women in the Diaspora in 2015. A parallel initiative is the National Commission of Indigenous Women, which has worked to ensure that the agreement recognizes the autonomy of indigenous culture and territories, and supports programmes for social inclusion and human rights.


6 key points for peace

As agreed by FARC and the Colombian government prior to the referendum of 2 October.

1 End of violence

A bilateral ceasefire was signed – FARC guerrillas would hand in all weapons to the United Nations. The estimated 7,000 FARC fighters would return to civilian life along with 17,000 non-combatants. This is all now on hold following the referendum, though the ceasefire was extended until 31 October.

2 Justice for victims

There have been a quarter of a million victims in Colombia’s five-decade-long conflict, and over seven million have been internally displaced. A peace tribunal would be set up to ensure their right to justice and truth, and to ensure that the war is never repeated. This was referred to as ‘transitional justice’; Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said this did not mean impunity.

3 Land reform

A fund would be set up for land to be distributed to the many living in rural areas who have been displaced by the conflict. Both sides agreed to provide land, loans and basic services to impoverished rural popula­tions. Millions of dollars in financing would be needed to implement it.

4 Reintegration of FARC

Members of FARC would be reintegrated into society and their organization would become a political movement, which would participate in the 2018 elections.

5 Drugs

Both the government and FARC would co-operate in efforts to eradicate drug trafficking, which has played a role in fuelling the conflict. The government pledged to help farmers earn a living without growing illicit drug crops.

6 Referendum

The accord would be ratified by the Colombian people in a public referendum. This, by the slimmest of margins, they refused to do.

The road ahead

‘Dark days await us, but they must be faced if we want peace one day. Reconciliation and forgiveness are difficult, but essential,’ says Jineth Bedoya, journalist, human rights defender and survivor of sexual violence by paramilitary groups.

If used correctly, the current political turmoil could advance peace

To move forward we must understand where we have come from. It has been so important that all those involved in the peace process work on uncovering the root causes of the conflict. Instead of simply blaming those who have taken up armed struggle, we will need to try to understand them. Peace is ultimately built on being able to recognize those on all sides of a conflict as human beings. This does not mean we should ignore or forget the crimes of the past; injustice must continue to be addressed. But to make progress, the wounds in which mistrust, fear, resentment and hatred fester must slowly be healed.

When FARC leader Timochenko apologized to all the victims of the conflict, he was greeted by cheers and applause. ‘I would like to ask for forgiveness for all the pain that we have caused during this war,’ he said. This process of healing, of understanding, can only succeed if Colombians come together to work, talk, learn and, most importantly, create collectively. In the long term, we have the power to win real change, to replace war and fear with compassion, empathy and tolerance.

All peace processes are challenging, but they take on another dimension when the enemies of peace have hidden political agendas and use toxic propaganda. The day after the referendum, Uribe displayed a 13-year-old picture of a man wearing a necklace of explosives (see photo below left). At the time the man was mistakenly believed to have been kidnapped by FARC. The picture reminded the country of a brutal incident and was designed to undermine confidence in peace. Uribe’s interest seems to be far from building a lasting peace, but rather to secure his own political position by stoking hatred and fear.

Talks involving Uribe and other representatives from the ‘No’ campaign and the government began a few days after the referendum. But progressive sectors such as the Process for Black Communities (PCN) and the People’s Congress, led by indigenous communities, expressed concern that talks between Uribe and Santos (who are seen as elites) would not be able to represent their needs when negotiating a new peace agreement.

They called for national demonstrations to urge the government to keep to the agreements made. Some of these groups even suggest that they implement the peace agreement within their own autonomous governance structures.

A fairer Colombia

Delay is risky. Prior to the plebiscite, the ELN, a guerrilla group of roughly 1,500 combatants, had agreed to negotiate with the government, using the agreement with FARC as a model. Peace talks had just been announced at the time of writing.

But the country is in a state of limbo. International organizations, such as the UN, tasked with overseeing demobilization, are waiting. The peace process risks losing this international support and the effective mechanism for ensuring the safety of civilians and FARC members.

This is a challenging time. But, if used correctly, the current political turmoil could advance peace. Santos will do anything to defend what he sees as his peace proposal; Uribe cannot let down the six million people who believed his claim that by voting ‘no’ to the peace accord they would get a ‘better’ renegotiated peace agreement.

FARC leaders recognize that delay can affect their own ability to command the loyalty of their troops. And the citizens of Colombia, be they ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or non-voters, want an end to this state of fear and uncertainty.

As important as the process for peace is, it is just a step on a longer road to a fairer Colombia. The referendum did not ask Colombians to share their views on the failings of the current economic system or the serious environmental problems we face – its focus was restricted to bringing an end to half a century of armed struggle.2016-27-10-02-12-37

But perhaps, through this process of conflict transformation, opportunities will arise to lay the foundations for a deeper form of system change.

What we have seen in the referendum is not a unique setback. In 1999, Guatemala had a plebiscite to approve constitutional amendments made during its peace negotiations to end 30 years of conflict. As in Colombia, the majority voted ‘no’, but the peace process went ahead all the same.

Over the past four years, across the country, and in varied communities, Colombians have been creating peace and democracy. One referendum cannot be allowed to destroy all that. The peace process in Colombia has already started, with or without the vote.


This report prepared by Tatiana Garavito for New Internationalist.