After four years of negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP) and the Colombian government in Havana, the peace deal entered into force on December 1, 2016. The conflict parties were forced to renegotiate after the people of Colombia rejected the first version of the agreement in a referendum. After multiple failed peace negotiations in the past, this is a historic moment for Colombia and the expectations are high.
The ambitious agreement includes various measures to implement the points negotiated in Havana. The rights of the victims, the illegal cultivation of drugs, the agricultural development policy, the political participation of the FARC, and resolving the armed conflict, which includes a permanent ceasefire, are the important topics. Some of the initial challenges to be faced in the context of Colombia will be examined below.
Measures to compensate the victims of the conflict had already been taken before the negotiations were concluded. Since 2012, over six million victims have received reparation measures and around 194,900 hectares of land have been restituted in accordance with the Victims and Land Restitution Law. However, the government also implements an investment policy that has put these marginalized sections of the population at a disadvantage due to large agro-industrial projects and intensive raw-material extraction. This further reinforces the inequality between the rich and poor in Colombia, which is already one of the highest in the world.
Furthermore, the peace process is polarizing the Colombian public opinion. Unlike in the 1990s, armed conflict with the FARC has not been part of everyday reality for people living in the cities over the past years – but it has been for some rural communities. There is no longer significant public support for the FARC’s motives after thousands of committed abductions and the financing of their activities by drug trafficking. However, support from the wider community is needed to successfully integrate the former fighters into political and civil life. Far-reaching efforts to provide information by authorities, schools, civil and international actors about the advantages of the peace process will therefore continue to be necessary and – in light of the results of the vote – perhaps even more so.
Even with a smooth integration of the FARC into civil life, caution is advised in regards to the expectations of an improved security situation. In addition to the remaining smaller guerrilla movement, the National Liberation Army (ELN) with which peace negotiations are scheduled to start on February 6, numerous armed groups are active across the whole country, resulting mainly from the demobilization of paramilitary organizations. These are working in the lucrative coca production and are largely responsible for the high crime rate. Estimations suggest that the FARC only had around 7,000 fighters remaining. Last but not least, it had already declared a one-sided ceasefire months before concluding the negotiations in Havana.
The first weeks and months of the demobilization process, which is already underway, will show how many of the FARC combatants will demobilize for good and start a civil life and how many will join another armed group. The paramilitary demobilization process in the 2000s revealed that the appeal of the latter is significant if fairly unattractive integration measures are offered. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) gave a warning about the danger for the peace process in December 2016 as the zones intended for demilitarizing the FARC did not yet have the necessary infrastructure such as clean drinking water, sanitation, and health care. These circumstances increase the fear that the fighters will not disarm.
Earlier processes have also shown that the demobilized fighters will be in danger of being threatened or killed. The Patriotic Union was founded as the political arm of the guerrillas after the government and the FARC had concluded a ceasefire agreement in 1984. After initial successes in municipal elections, the following years saw around 3,000 party members murdered predominantly by paramilitary fighters, partly in coordination with state actors. This memory is still very present for today’s FARC members. In fact, the Office of the OHCHR and NGOs have criticized the fact that the violence toward human rights defenders and social leaders, including from civil society organizations related to the FARC, dramatically increased in the second half of 2016. This can be traced back to the fact that the other armed groups are gaining new areas of influence because of the FARC’s withdrawal. Although the Colombian state has an elaborate system of protective measures for persons who have to fear for their lives due to their past or present political activities, its effectiveness is very limited. The state’s historical absence in rural areas, complicated bureaucratic operations between the authorities, and corruption make it almost impossible to implement preventative protective measures in an effective and timely manner.
Against this backdrop, it is difficult to predict whether or not the ambitious plans to demilitarize and reintegrate the FARC will be successful. Nevertheless, the FARC is said to have been attuning its combatants to this process for quite a while now. The authorities, which can fall back on experiences from earlier processes, already began their preparations many months before the signing of the agreement. The peace agreement in Colombia is just one step in a long and difficult process. The next few years will show whether this implementation can actually contribute to the transformation of the causes of conflict.