The 2016 transition into peace in Colombia

2016 will probably be considered a lesson for the history of peace negotiations. We edited in an eBook a selection of the most relevant articles about the post-conflict that we published last year. Read here a conclusion. Español

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Francesc Badia i Dalmases
19 July 2017
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Graffiti in Nasa, Colombia. Demotix/Joana Toro. All rights reserved.

2016 will be remembered as the year Colombia finally managed to put an end to a seemingly endless and bleeding conflict that lasted for more than 50 years. Looking back at the numerous actors, from the delegation of negotiators of both sides – from the Cuban and Norwegian guarantors, to the international observers and advisors, to civil society forums and organisations – the process demonstrated an amazing capacity for navigation through enormous complexities and the delivery of a final agreement, setting up an entrenched conflict that seemed, for so many years and decades, irresolvable. 

Now with the perspective of hindsight, the Havana peace negotiations came to a successful end, despite the countless obstacles and detractors that were laid down by those determined to derail the process. There were a number of motivations behind the tenacious opposition to the negotiations, some of which might be seen as legitimate by a significant proportion of the population who found it difficult to accept that the government was sat at the negotiating table with a group that had brought so much blood and suffering to the country. But most were, and remain, questionable political and founded in party interests. 

The negotiations at “El laguito” resort, in the west of Havana, were used domestically as a weapon for the internal political combat, showing how the long-lasting conflict had become a structural element in Colombia’s collective imaginary and political life. It not only exposed the numerous interests (economic, political, ideological) embodied in a decades-long war - and the added burden of previous frustrating and traumatic negotiations - but also how determined a significant part of Colombian society has been to overcome the nightmare that gripped the life of at least three generations of Colombians.  

The human consequences of the war are huge. The figures are overwhelming: the Victim’s Register enlists 8,190,451 victims of the conflict throughout the country; there are about 6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs); 360,000 refugees, 11,500 children allegedly recruited by the FARC, and 1.3 million registered for reparations.  

Four and a half years at the negotiation table 

Following a pervious secret phase, which started on 23 February 2012, the negotiations started on 24 August 2012, but it was not until 2015 that the groups involved were able to deliver sufficient positive advances for a final settlement that was seen as, not only feasible, but also imminent and irreversible. It was clear that where the agreement discussed the treatment of victims of the conflict, legal experts and human rights campaigners were divided. At the negotiating table, a provisional agreement took a year and a half to achieve, compared to the six months duration of the previous two agenda items. It was a question that nearly derailed the entire process, but through true commitment to the objective of peace, ended up producing pivotal progress in negotiations.

“To talk of Colombia in the international sphere tempers the spirits and pacifies relations”.

Serious doubts were raised as to how to administer justice, and there were tensions between constitutional continuity and legal exceptionalism after having reached agreement on the nature and level of political participation and protection that would be granted to ex-guerrillas. Elsewhere, debates on the type of amnesty to rule, particularly as regards the proportionality between the gravity of the crime and the severity of the punishment were ongoing. Despite many difficulties, it seemed realistic to expect a solid and definitive peace agreement by March 2016 (as announced by President Santos) at the end of December of that year, implying that the referendum ratifying the agreement would take place by late May, or early June. At that time the ELN was once again encouraged to join the agreement, albeit with little success, but all parts were conscious that, should the government and the FARC manage to sign the accord, a settlement with the ELN would only be a matter of time. 

The interconnected and interdependent nature of today’s world also brought an undeniable breadth to the outcome of the Havana negotiations, both domestically and geopolitically. Sharing borders with Venezuela, Peru, Panama, Ecuador and Brazil, Colombia has a strategic location, and is a natural bridge between the Andean region, Central America, the Caribbean and the Amazonia. A favourable peace agreement would bring a crucial factor of stability to a region shaken by many tensions, notably east of the Venezuelan border.

“To talk of Colombia in the international sphere tempers the spirits and pacifies relations” says Javier Ciurlizza when examining the implications and impact of the peace talks for the national community.  True, the negotiations were enriched by many elements, some of an international and geopolitical dimension, others more internal, but the lessons from other peace negotiations, particularly the ones that took place in El Salvador, South Africa and Northern Ireland (from where it took the fundamental and guiding principle that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’), were a key source of inspiration, as the Colombian peace agreement will now be for other on-going or future negotiations across the globe. 

It may be that the innovative character of the Colombian process might be best represented by the inclusion of the victims and the gender perspective. Nearly 24,000 victims were given the chance to present their proposals and ideas to negotiators. But building what was defined from the beginning as a “stable and lasting peace” meant integrating many other complex issues into the discussion. How and when to separate the armed forces of the police; how to deal with the “war on drugs” factor, combining the eradication of crops and glyphosate with incentives to farmers and rural development; how to take control of militias, paramilitaries, BACRIM, landlords and ex-guerrilla leaders struggling to occupy the voids of power in the periphery of the state; how to organise the DDR; how to integrate the hundreds of civil society organisations that have been working for peace into the process of the implementation of the agreements; how to repair victims, particularly women who underwent sexual assaults and violations, or children who suffered the indignities of war and endured killings, violations, arrests and recruitments; how to ensure the strengthening of institutions that are essential ‘territorial peace’ - this to name but only a few. 

Overall, seen with some perspective, the Havana peace agreement is almost a miracle.

Building a stable and lasting peace also meant settling semantic battles, such as reaching an understanding about using the term “laying down arms” instead of  “disarming”, an arrangement that reflects the complexities and nuances of a “hand-crafted” negotiation between two asymmetric partners, the government and the FARC, that was keen to imply that there was no surrender or submission. Instead it was an agreement between two parties of the conflict. The fact that the negotiations took this demand for dignity into account, not only in this case, but throughout the language of the agreement, was fundamental to progress.

Overall, seen with some perspective, the Havana peace agreement is almost a miracle. The plebiscite that followed, however, was a terrible and unforeseen throwback and somehow broke the spell of a successful end to the conflict. The referendum campaign was used unscrupulously to resolve an internal political battle between President Juan Manuel Santos and former president Álvaro Uribe, acting more for his own personal ambitions and the conservative rural sector that he represents. 

Signature, validation, implementation

From a deeply polarized debate, it consolidated fractures in Colombian society and cushioned the enthusiasm and hope that many felt when they learned of the signing of the agreement after more than 50 years of suffering and despair. The result was so narrow (NO 50.22%, YES 49.78%, with 37.43% participation) that the parties were forced to act - not without a new decisive intervention of the guarantors, and after unprecedented popular mobilisations - with sufficient flexibility to quickly reach a new agreement. The result incorporated many of the arguments of the NO campaign, thanks to a final negotiating effort to preserve four and a half years of intense work, producing the Final Agreement for the Termination of the Conflict. The peace agreement was improved in some respects and finally ratified by Congress on November 24. Retrospectively, it does not seem that public endorsement via referendum was the best mechanism, since it undoubtedly resulted in symbolic damage to the agreement. It failed to explore alternative, participatory mechanisms of endorsement that could have given legitimacy to the agreement better that the exercise of direct democracy, which ultimately simplified, polarised and left peace vulnerable to the manipulations of politics.

But above all, there will always be a lesson in history about the good will of the great majority of the Colombian people to build a stable and lasting peace.

We now know the complexities, delays and frustrations of the implementation process, some of which were already anticipated in the agenda items of the negotiations. Everybody is aware that the end of the conflict does not mean an automatic end to violence. Many areas of the country, where the historical absence of the state has seen its functions taken over by non-state actors, are enduring further violence and abuse, and the challenge of security here is paramount. Far too many civil society leaders are currently being murdered, and there is a lot of uncertainty about the future, especially on the part of the demobilized members of the FARC, who need guarantees of their security as they are reincorporated into civilian life.

However, a continuous effort to depolarize society must now be carried out with the same intensity, sensitivity and good faith shown during the negotiations. Whatever the outcome of the 2018 presidential elections, peace in Colombia today is virtually irreversible. Looking back on the fascinating events that took place in 2016, there are many lessons learned. But above all, there will always be a lesson in history about the good will of the great majority of the Colombian people to build a stable and lasting peace.

Hopefully, whoever wins the upcoming presidential elections of 2018 will be able to incorporate, at all levels, the concept of a “territorial peace” that will transform Colombia into a more just society, and build a more robust and prosperous country for all Colombians who want to see the specter of their fratricidal war finally gone.

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