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Si (y) no / Photo by Crossmedialab UJTL / Via Flickr

Pathways to peace

A challenging road ahead for Colombia

Mariano Aguirre | December 23, 2016

On 10 December, President Juan Manuel Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo after successfully negotiating a Peace Agreement between the Colombian government and FARC rebels. However, implementation of the agreement poses many challenges. In the short term, urgent steps need to be taken to implement the agreement, particularly in relation to the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of FARC. In the mid to long term, a coalition of political actors (consisting mainly of powerful rural landowners and some evangelical churches) has created a social-conservative moment that aims to derail what was agreed in Havana. The success of the peace process now depends on the ability of the government to address structural issues like inequality, which have surfaced as crucial dividing lines in this conflict.

In mid-December the Colombian Constitutional Court approved a revised peace deal with FARC rebels, after earlier rejection of the agreement in a referendum. This paved the way for Congress to ‘fast track’ the priority legislation needed for the disarmament and demobilization of FARC. President Santos is, thus, able to start implementing the Peace Agreement immediately and has been given extraordinary powers to do so by issuing executive decrees that have the force of law.

To ensure the success of the agreement, 10 basic laws need to be passed urgently. These include: a law providing amnesty to FARC to guarantee the safety of guerrillas during the demobilization process, a law activating the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (created by the Peace Agreement), a law creating a Search Unit for missing persons, a law establish a Truth Commission, and special laws regarding the cultivation of illicit crops (by FARC or other armed groups, as well as by peasants for their own use/livelihoods). Equally important will be the proposed law by which the Peace Agreement should be implemented by future administrations, regardless of who is governing. This is crucial because many politicians in the ‘No’ (to the agreement) camp are looking to the presidential elections in 2018 to block the accord.

A contentious Peace Agreement

After four years of difficult negotiations (and a year-and-half of pre-negotiations facilitated by Norway and Cuba), a sophisticated 300-page Peace Agreement was reached on 26 September 2016.  During the 90 days that followed – and at dramatic speed – first the government and FARC held a celebration at Cartagena de Indias, then the agreement was rejected by the Colombian people by a thin margin in a plebiscite, after which dialogues were held between the government and the ‘No’ camp, until, finally, new negotiations were conducted in Havana. A new version of the agreement with a series of amendments was signed on 24 November and approved by the Colombian parliament. The opposition to the agreement, headed by former president Alvaro Uribe, maintains that the new agreement still does not encompass its main demands about FARC leaders, namely: that they should go to jail and that they should be declared unable to participate in politics.

In this dynamic environment, a sense of concern and urgency exists among the government, FARC, the UN mission and diplomatic circles.  As the High Commissioner for Peace, Humberto de la Calle, said, “[A] guerrilla group cannot wait forever”. The 5,765 FARC guerrillas are coming out of the deep jungles of the country, leaving behind their control over distant areas and the people who live there, and abandoning their sources of income (kidnapping, extortion and links to drug trafficking). They have agreed to be concentrated in 27 hamlets (zonas veredales), controlled and protected by a tripartite force, consisting of disarmed members of the UN mission, the armed forces and ex-FARC members). The guerrillas will still carry their arms, but have agreed to give them up to the UN during a six-month disarmament process.

Ending a situation of institutional apartheid

Although the approval of the fast tracking of legislation has been a relief, the sense of urgency and concern stems from the realization that this is a very fragile situation. Since FARC declared a permanent ceasefire in July 2015, almost no violent incidents have happened. Moreover, the other leftist guerrilla group, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), has agreed to enter into negotiations. In the meantime, other dangerous expressions of violence have surfaced, such as a rise in the killing of social activists and kidnappings, revealing the need to move quickly, but carefully. For instance, FARC demobilization creates the immediate problem of competition between criminal organizations and paramilitary groups to occupy some of the places where FARC had political and economic control, particularly those rich in natural resources.

Paradoxically, the areas FARC is leaving are those where the state does not have an effective presence. One of the key strategic targets of the Peace Agreement, therefore, is to generate a so-called ‘territorial peace’ – which means, that the government must urgently develop the basic infrastructure in order to end what the prestigious legal NGO DeJusticia has called ‘institutional apartheid’. In Colombia, nearly 40% of the population do not have full access to state legal services, nor the basic infrastructure to exercise their rights (such as to education, health and housing). The two sides agreed in Havana on the link between peace and development, particularly in isolated, but often resource rich, areas.

However, achieving territorial peace is not an easy task, especially in only a few months. The Colombian economic and social system suffers from deeply-embedded vulnerabilities, particularly deep inequality, a high level of corruption, a disparity between a sophisticated legal system and its limited implementation, an illicit drug economy linked to corruption and violence, an unfair and non-distributive tax system, and a lack of regulation of land (40–50% of land owners have no title deed). The country needs urgent reforms in all of these areas, as well as the modernization of the armed forces, a reduction in its size and a reorientation of its strategy (from counterinsurgency to international missions).

Reforming a traditional society

Yet strong opposition to such reforms exists among traditionally powerful sectors of Colombian society. For instance, big landowners oppose the Peace Agreement. With a long tradition of the exploitation of peasants, Colombia’s strong landlord sector benefits greatly from land rents. Alejandro Reyes Posada (Javeriana University, Bogotá) writes in La reforma rural para la paz:

… (t)he Colombian armed confrontation has essentially been a war for territory. It has historically been the source of privileged rents for the rich and a resource for survival for the poor. It is necessary to understand the roots and agrarian dimensions of violence. The best lands were colonized by the peasants but afterwards the landlords took them systematically. 

While these processes happened, the State was unwilling and incapable of recognizing, formalizing, protecting and providing title deeds to the peasants who worked for the landlords. Later, the drug traffickers and cartels bought the better land for their illicit activities. Paramilitary groups undertook what amounted to ‘territorial cleansing’, by displacing peasant communities to buy land at very low prices. This is why the Peace Agreement contemplates a series of measures based on the inclusion of peasants, rural planning, food security, the return of land to its original owners, credit for rural development, the buying or expropriation of land where it is not being used, and the creation of a cadastre to formalize ownership and provide title deeds. These measures are strongly opposed by landlords.

The surge of a social-conservative movement

The ‘No’ camp is mainly configured by Uribe’s party, the Democratic Center, and the Conservative Party. But the evangelical churches have also played a key role. They have been vocal against the innovative section of the Peace Agreement dealing with the recognition of the special role of women in the peace process and respecting the equal rights of members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. To the evangelicals, the agreement attacks the traditional concept of the Catholic family and the role of women. According to some sources, at least 2 million evangelicals voted against the Peace Agreement in the 2 October plebiscite. The Catholic Church has maintained a more neutral stance, with some sectors (such as Caritas) very active in favour of the agreement. But the peace process has given rise to a social-conservative movement. In this sense, it has exposed the structural problems affecting Colombia.

For the opposition, delays in implementing the peace accords are useful, because any incident involving FARC guerrillas in the meantime could play in its favour, as it would show that FARC cannot be trusted. This kind of obstacle race is consistent with the political context of the Peace Agreement, which has created a tectonic movement that points directly to the core of Colombia’s political, economic and social problems. From this perspective, the confrontation about the Peace Agreement is just the tip of the iceberg of the clash between reformist and conservatives. The agreement takes a modernistic approach to issues such as the social use of land, the gradual combating of illicit drugs (as opposed to fumigation and other techniques, which tend to punish the peasants), guarantees about political participation (security for citizens), alternative justice penalties (transitional justice), compensation and guarantees of non-repetition for victims, and gender (inclusion).

A deeper confrontation on social transformation is, thus, beginning. As Kristian Herbolzheimer, from Conciliation Resources, explains: “(T)he conceptual differentiation between conflict termination (by the warring factions) and conflict transformation (by society at large) suggests that there are multiple paths to peace, of which the negotiations are only one”.

The road to peace

The peace process in itself has already generated a variety of legal, social and political dynamics, expressed through a series of laws about victims and the devolution of land to displaced people, in a diverse and active civil society, as well as the birth of new media outlets (such as the electronic publication  La Silla Vacía). These factors are obliging the highly-discredited Colombian politicians to move out of their comfort zone and take public positions in favour or against the peace process. But further social transformation can take many different paths. Modernization could, for instance, mean making reforms to create the pillars of a state based on social justice, or moving quickly towards a neoliberal economic model, in which case many of the necessary structural reforms could be left aside. Reform of the mining sector, for instance, is linked to a confrontation between the social use of natural resources and the interests of the (inter)national private sector.

Compared to previous processes in Colombia and other countries, the current peace process has a concrete and well-defined agenda. It clearly differentiates between stopping the war and negotiating political, social and economic change. The two sides have directly negotiated an agenda dealing with rural development, political participation, illicit crops, victims, conflict termination, and the implementation of the Peace Agreement. One of the main failures of other peace processes has been in relation to the reintegration of combatants into society. The current approach of FARC leaders is to create cooperatives producing agricultural and other goods. In this way, they expect to continue working together as a political entity (creating a political party), with common economic projects. Part of the private sector seems to be ready to cooperate, but it will be challenging to find the space for new initiatives under the competitive rules of the market economy.

Peace Agreements are trade-offs. By definition they are not perfect creations. Both sides should give up something. Unpredictable factors (such as spoilers) could derail the agreement or make its implementation far different from what was agreed. The tension between having a perfect agreement and a vague one is inherent to this kind of process. In Colombia, the clashes between those for the agreement (the negotiating actors, civil society, experts, the Colombian media and the international community) and those against it are expected to continue with more difficult challenges to come. A new phase of the political struggle is starting; this time it is about discussing the structural problems lying behind the issues dealt with in the Peace Agreement. How the implementation of the Peace Agreement plays out will be seen in the years to come.

Photo credit main picture: Si (y) no / Photo by Crossmedialab UJTL / Via Flickr