Prospects for Peace in Colombia: An Analysis of Current Negotiations

From the April 2013 PNL #823

by Dana Brown

In attempts to find a peaceful solution to its 50-year-old conflict, the Colombian government entered into formal peace talks with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrilla last October. Colombia’s brutal conflict, the longest running in Latin America, has left over 250,000 casualties, five million internally displaced people and 60,000 disappeared. It has resulted in the dispossession of over 20 million hectares of land, repeated attacks on human rights defenders and union leaders, persistent sexual violence, and overwhelming rates of impunity for these crimes. But there is renewed hope in Colombia as these historic talks take place.

This is not the first time the FARC has been at the negotiating table, however. Past attempts to come to an agreement with the FARC have ranged from ineffective to disastrous, but many important lessons have been learned along the way. In the 1980’s, under the Presidency of Belisario Betancur, the FARC attempted to create a political party known as the Patriotic Union (UP) as a means of legal participation in the political realm. However, this experiment ended in a mass paramilitary-led slaughter of party members and allies with over 3,000 UP members assassinated in less than a decade.

Following the annihilation of the UP, the Gaviria government attempted talks with the FARC between 1990 and 1994, focusing predominately on the FARC’s disarmament and reincorporation into civil society. However, the FARC desired a more extensive discussion that incorporated social reforms and talks ended without success. Four years later, and in light of past disappointments, the Pastrana administration tried a different approach to peace talks. From 1998 to 2002 the FARC was given a demilitarized zone roughly the size of Switzerland and the agenda was broadened to incorporate topics such as a commission on combating paramilitary groups, discussions of coca crop eradication, and prisoner exchange. However, the FARC was accused of using the demilitarized zone to strengthen its forces while trafficking arms and narcotics. The peace talks ended in failure when the FARC kidnapped prominent political figures. After this array of setbacks, President Uribe embarked on a stringent military campaign from 2002 to 2008. The Uribe administration was hailed for its success against the FARC, but widely recognized for increasing human rights abuses, including the scandalous extrajudicial killing of over 3,000 civilians. With the help of United States aid and military training, the FARC’s numbers were allegedly reduced from 20,000 to between 8,000 and 10,000 combatants, yet the conflict continued to rage.

What is different about the current peace process?

Today, the Santos administration is engaging in the first formal negotiations with the FARC in over a decade. The current talks are unique because they are structured around a well-defined and limited five point agenda, negotiations are advancing without a bilateral ceasefire or demilitarized zone, there is no mediator and the FARC is militarily far weaker than during previous negotiations. The agreed-upon agenda for talks includes integral agrarian reform, ending the armed conflict, guarantees for political participation, drug trafficking, and the rights of victims. Despite FARC’s many attempts to broaden the discussion, the government has remained firm that they will not stray from this agenda so that the process remains speedy and viable. The FARC and many  civil society voices continue to call for a bilateral ceasefire, but the government maintains it is in the nation’s interest  to continue combating the terrorist threat actively. The FARC imposed a unilateral ceasefire from December 2012 through January 2013.


Civil Society, Victims and the Peace Process

The current talks are also unique in their mechanisms for civil society input. Three major programs have been responsible for collecting civil society input on the agenda items: regional roundtable discussions, a website for civilians’ proposals, and a series of public forums organized to receive formal proposals by interested parties. The first of these was held in December 2012, and focused exclusively on the first agenda item, integrated agrarian reform. Though criticized by many in civil society for only providing space for input once the limited agenda was already set in stone, these forums have allowed for organized civil society engagement with the negotiating table, which will hopefully result in accords that meet more of the needs of civil society.

Furthermore, civil society has taken it into their own hands to make sure their voices are heard. Parallel to the negotiations in Havana, a large and diverse group of human rights and peace organizations under the umbrella of the “Common Social Path to Peace,” is setting up a series of “Peace Congresses.” These congresses aim to analyze the underlying causes of the conflict and macro-level long term solutions. This analysis will then be used to create work plans for all participating organizations to advance the needs of civil society, and especially victims, whether or not negotiations with the FARC are successful. The “Peace Congresses” will provide input for the negotiation process, but beyond that they will form a platform for long-term, sustained peace work by organizations throughout the country. 


Obstacles to Peace

Though there is great hope surrounding this peace process, there are still many obstacles to achieving a lasting peace in Colombia. The Colombian government has insisted that this peace process move rapidly and achieve consistent progress—in large part because of Santos’ hopes for reelection. But this may prove to be too ambitious and the pressure to move swiftly could undermine the negotiations. Also, the lack of a bilateral ceasefire will take its toll on the civilian population in the form of increased violence and human rights abuses, and this may undermine popular support for the talks. Another risk is the possibility for spoilers to derail the peace process, especially the powerful coalition of hardline conservatives headed by ex-President Uribe and involving significant elements of the military hierarchy.

Lastly, there are risks even if the process is successful and results in an agreement for the demobilization and reintegration of the FARC. First, there are concerns that not all of the fronts of the FARC would follow their commanders and demobilize. Rogue factions in the southwest of the country might team up with other remaining guerilla organizations like the ELN and EPL, or they might ally themselves with neoparamilitary “criminal bands” in order to control drug trafficking routes in the region. Second, even if all fronts of the FARC were to demobilize, the continued violence of the remaining illegal armed groups could threaten Colombia’s fragile peace. Third, this peace process raises serious questions about justice. In the last year the Colombian government has already passed two Constitutional reforms that make it easier for human rights violations and infractions of International Humanitarian Law to go unchecked. For Colombia to achieve a sustainable peace with guarantees of truth and justice for victims, the historic problem of impunity must be addressed. Finally, many of the root causes of violence in Colombia—particularly access to land and natural resources—are not fully being addressed in the negotiations. Though current legislation aims to restitute some of Colombia’s five million displaced to their lands, much work will remain to be done in order to rectify the historic imbalance in property ownership and access to natural resources that has fueled Colombia’s conflict for so long.

There is ample reason for hope in Colombia right now, and important discussions are taking place that could shape a new future for the embattled country. But we must remain vigilant and committed to supporting civil society until a long-term solution is created that respects the rights of all Colombia’s citizens.

Dana is the Executive Director of the US Office on Colombia, a DC-based advocacy organization promoting human rights and a lasting peace in Colombia. She is proud to be one of the founding members of the CNY-Cajibío Sister City Partnership.