Colombia: what's needed to get beyond violence

Forty-five years of violence have left a country with deep wounds, terrible mistrust and a certain cultural acceptance for breaking the rules of coexistence. The new peace negotiations, which will include "terrorists" go in the right direction but won't be enough

Kristian Herbolzheimer
30 August 2012

Ten years have passed since the collapse of the last process of negotiations between the Government of Colombia and the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC). Shortly after, Álvaro Uribe won the presidential elections promising a hard-line approach against leftist ‘terrorists’. He was elected – and four years later re-elected – with unprecedented support.

But despite an impressive surge in troops and budget, and significant developments in the battlefield, the insurgency remains. Certainly FARC has less military as well as political strength than before. And the lines between their political opposition and outright criminal activity are increasingly blurred. However in any case they remain the most salient and intractable security threat in the country.

During these ten years thousands of people – civilians as well as soldiers and rebels – have died. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced. Millions of dollars have been squandered. The development of a country has been jeopardised. Yet it seems Colombia is now back to square one. Was the sacrifice really worth the price?

The question can be addressed to the Government, to the insurgents, as well as to the international community. Uribe was indeed not only popular at home but also praised for his bold approach by a number of key international players, notably the EU and the US. Now these same players are backing President Santos in his declaration of a new attempt to find a negotiated solution. These shifting international cheerleaders are nothing but an indicator of uncertainty: the Global War on Terror has produced limited results, be it in Colombia, Afghanistan, or Uganda.

The Colombian Government’s decision to open negotiations with groups labelled as ‘terrorist’ organisations in the EU and the US is actually yet another sign that the times are changing and we are all back to the dilemma of dealing with a world that is far more complex than those who are ‘with us’ and those ‘against us’. It is time to assess the usefulness, the purpose and the methods of actually keeping these lists of proscribed persons and organisations.

The war in Colombia has been a complete failure: a military failure because neither Government nor rebels have defeated their adversaries, but especially a human and moral failure. Despite hand wringing and historical experience, the country and the outside world have not shown the creativity and political will to settle the multiple social and political conflicts without violence.

A political negotiation is a step in the right direction. But it won’t be enough. There are a number of social and political actors who trust neither the Government nor the insurgents, and will not feel represented at a negotiating table. This includes indigenous peoples, black communities, women’s groups, trade unions, human rights defenders, nonviolent political opposition, and many more. But also power-holders who will put all their energy to spoil any process that they perceive as threatening to their interests.

Forty-five years of violence have left a country with deep wounds, terrible mistrust and a certain cultural acceptance for breaking the rules of coexistence.

Colombia needs a National Dialogue to jointly assess the multiple layers of conflict, the causes that have led to their persistence and multiplication, and the pathways that can help them escape from these vicious cycles.

The Government and the rebels have a key role to play, but then so does everybody else in the country. Ten years should be enough to have learned the lessons from past errors and assess the options for new paths to peace.

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