Post-conflict in Colombia (1). A farewell to arms

2015 ends with crucial progress in the negotiation process. Once the victims' viewpoint has been agreed, the laying down of arms is now one of the most difficult remaining points. Português. Español. 

Eduardo Álvarez Vanegas
16 December 2015

FARC´s weapons apprehended by the Colombian authorities. Flickr. Some rights reserved.

This year ends with vitally important progress in the negotiation process between the Colombian government and the FARC. On the one hand, the official announcement of an agreement on the victims is now a fact. On the other, Sergio Ibáñez, a member of the FARC negotiating team in Havana, said recently that "as we are closing the point on the victims, we have built the platform for analyzing the question of the end of the conflict".

These are not minor developments, for in addition to the partial agreements on comprehensive agricultural development policy, political participation, and the solving of the drug problem, we are adding now what has been so far the hardest negotiating point - the point on the victims, which includes the transitional justice framework - and we are giving a definite push to that of the end of the conflict.

The third point (end of the conflict) of the "General Agreement on the end of the conflict and on building a stable and lasting peace", defined in 2012 by the Colombian government and the FARC, establishes the "laying down of arms." This issue began to be formally addressed that year through a joint technical subcommittee, composed of senior serving military and police officers and members of the guerrilla group. The creation of this subcommittee attracted some criticism. Those who oppose the process argued that it is illegal to have serving military and police personnel sitting at the negotiating table because this equates them with the terrorists - and it has also, incidentally, a demoralizing effect on the troops. The government has stated that it is only normal that these issues be addressed by those who have actually been waging war in the field and thus have the technical and operational knowledge required at this stage of the negotiation.

Another point that has caused much heated discussion is the terminology to be used. While some argue that "laying down arms" is the same as "disarming", this semantic debate entails, in fact, many underlying meanings and carries many emotions related to the history of the FARC. The guerrilla has insisted that the arms will indeed be put down as long as there are sufficient guarantees that it will be able to defend its ideals without having to use them – for arms, it argues, are not "fetishes" but rather tools of resistance which, peace coming, would become useless and therefore should be abandoned.

To "lay down arms" indicates a voluntary act by the FARC and, at the same time, an agreement which is the result of a process of political negotiation. Quite the opposite, that is, to “disarming”, which connotes submission and even surrenders - the truth being that the FARC have not been defeated militarily by the Colombian government, and they have indeed presented themselves in Havana as a negotiating partner, not a counterpart on which an absolute winner is going to impose its will.

In any case, an important step in this debate on the laying down of arms was taken on September, 23, with the announcement of a partial agreement on the issue of transitional justice. In addition to unifying the parties’ terminology with the agreed formula of "the laying down of arms", it was also agreed to start the process within the two months following the signing of the final agreement – that is, by May 2016. Likewise, the agreement stresses the importance of the laying down of arms as a necessary condition for the guerrilla members to access legal benefits.

 Some points to take into account

 This is not, by any means, the first time that a debate goes on in Colombia, nor is this the first process of laying down arms[1] that has been undertaken. While previous processes have used the term "disarming", Colombia is now left, after a long apprenticeship, with plenty of experience, to which should be added some international ones too, which have much to offer[2]. Some reflections are thus well worth bringing up here.

One has to do with the design of a protocol for the laying down of arms which, as a result of the negotiations between the government and the FARC, should establish its chronogram and schedules, procedures, budgets, activities, monitoring, verification, and the definition of an institutional legal framework for the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) process and the handling of the weapons.

In this regard, the experience of previous processes in Colombia, the clues derived from international experiences, the guidelines enclosed in the DDR integrated standards, the Stockholm Initiative and the Cartagena Contribution, together with the creativity and imagination that these transitional and exceptional measures allow, are some of the pieces to take into account to ensure that the technical, operational, legal and security aspects are duly secured.

The drawing up of a roadmap from the start will generate trust, transparency and effectiveness, and avoid confusion and communication shortcomings. For example, the peace processes in Congo, Northern Ireland, Nepal and Sierra Leone ran into serious technical and operational trouble due to lack of funds and straightforward provisions to carry out the disarmament - prompting unrest, delays and disruptions.

Another point to be considered is the verification, monitoring and support of the disarmament process. Ideally, such a process should be carried out by a neutral third party, so as to ensure impartiality and help mitigate the feeling of humiliation and mistrust between the parties. Canadian expert Cornelis Steeken has indicated that the verification team can be either international or national, or an NGO, but what really matters in the end is its independence from the opposing sides and that its work should include the daily monitoring of the containers, if this is the adopted mechanism, to check whether the weapons and ammunition are whole.

In order to ensure its effectiveness, the mandate and scope of this intervention -including the duties, obligations, restrictions, coverage and budget - must be established from the very beginning. For example, the support of the disarmament process of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia – AUC) between 2003 and 2006, even though established by an agreement between the Misión de Apoyo al Proceso de Paz de la Organización de los Estados Americanos (the Organization of American States’ Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia - MAPP/OEA) and the Colombian government, was not reviewed or agreed to – it was a discretionary decision that was fine-tuned on the go, leaving serious doubts as to the roles of the different parties and the verification work.

The protocol must be flexible enough to prevent not only mistrust between the parties in case of non-compliance, but also suspicions regarding the process on the part of civil society. This is exactly what happened in El Salvador, where the delivery terms for the weapons was restrictively defined; this generated such high levels of distrust that the agreements were on the verge of reaching a breaking point. It should also be recalled that the last issue the delegations at the 1995 Dayton Accords for peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina discussed was the pace of arms reduction by the conflicting parties.

Disarmament must initially focus on the arms in possession of the guerrillas. In Mozambique, for example, the disarmament of rebel groups - with UN involvement - was complemented in the following years by a process of collecting weapons from civilians by the church. There was, that is, a broad arms control or voluntary[3] disarmament process of the civilian population. It should be added that all weapons must be handed over, including those damaged or handmade. In Sierra Leone, many of the defective weapons were returned to former combatants, thus raising the risk of being reused.

Another important aspect has to do with the borders that Colombia shares with its neighbors. To prevent the transfer of weapons into neighboring countries, given the presence of the FARC in the border areas, it is crucial to set up bilateral mechanisms for discussion on the subject with the governments of Venezuela, Peru, Panama, Ecuador and Brazil . This should help mitigate the risk of weapons reaching the black market. In Mozambique and South Africa, a joint disarmament initiative was designed to prevent arm-surplus traffic at the border. Two opposite cases are those of El Salvador and Mali, where lack of dialogue with neighboring governments facilitated the illicit arms trade in the border area and the setting-up of underground arm caches in these countries.

The laying down of arms, moreover, happens in different contexts. When defining the assembly areas, one should take into account the armed groups that are still active in the country - apart from the FARC -, such as the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army - ELN), the Ejército Popular de Liberación (People’s Liberation Army - EPL), criminal gangs and other illegal organizations operating in urban and rural areas. These groups can carry out actions against the process, endangering the safety of the demobilized troops, of those who carry out and verify, and the surrendered weapons too.

Information about the weapons should be readily available. At the planning stage of the disarmament process, it is important that the requirements for collecting information on weapons should be clearly defined in order to allow their effective tracking for final disposal. Information should also be collected on serial numbers, the arms makers, and any distinctive physical marks on the weapons, as well as other available data that must be fed into an information registration system.

Finally, the country and the world must know what happens in the course of this process. It is thus necessary to design and implement an accountability mechanism covering the laying down and the destruction of arms. This should include a methodology for the processing, delivery and publication of periodical reports certifying and validating the processes at the local, national and international level. This is crucial, especially if the surrender of weapons ceremonies are conducted, as in Northern Ireland, in a reserved and confidential way – a model which the FARC has insisted in following.

Indeed, the confidentiality of the process aroused mistrust and tension between the parties and prevented observers from knowing how it was carried out in detail. This was the case because the international body that advised the disarmament process, headed by US Senator George Mitchell, recommended that the arms seizure should not look like a victory, or a defeat, of the parties involved, and that the process be undertaken in a private manner. This entailed, for instance, that the final destination of the weapons be not known and the process, which was intended to last two years, extended as a result to seven years.

The scene of the laying down of arms by the FARC will therefore be a sensitive one and should be managed by national and international experts. Civil society in different regions of Colombia has an important role to play: a role of oversight, observation, monitoring and demand of information on what is happening on a daily basis. This will certainly be a great challenge: the pure and simple execution of some of the clauses of the General Agreement, which is surely not perfect but which can be successfully carried out on the basis of some of the provisions mentioned above. The bodies in charge of the verification and monitoring will also be responsible for the effectiveness and efficiency of the laying down of arms, avoiding delays and thus the suspicion of a society that is still divided regarding the process, and of a political opposition determined to exert strong control and surveillance.

Ultimately, it will also be the responsibility of both the government and the FARC to ensure that this is a transparent process, open to society, for the arms that will be laid down and destroyed will be the image of the new, no-arms politics that thousands of men and women in Colombia are wishing for.



The ideas contained in this article are taken from "The disarmament of the FARC: keys and proposals for a viable, successful and transparent process", produced by the Ideas for Peace Foundation (Colombia) and the Igarapé Institute (Brazil). Available here:

1 Between 8,000 and 20,000 members of the liberal guerrillas were demobilized in 1953; 900 M-19 members were demobilized in 1989; approximately 3,600 members of the Revolutionary Workers Party, the People's Liberation Army, Quintín Lame and the Socialist Renovation Current Army were demobilized between 1990 and 1994; and up to 32,000 members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia were demobilized between 2003 and 2006. To this should be added the hundreds of thousands of demobilized fighters who have individually given themselves in to the Colombian authorities over the last 30 years.

2 The FIP and Igarapé have researched 18 DDR processes. 45% of them have taken place in Africa, where they gathered the largest number of weapons (about 294,000) between 1989 and 2008. In almost all processes, third parties have participated the monitoring and disarmament verification work: the UN (12), the European Union (2), the OAS (2), NATO (2) and friendly countries (3). Most of these processes included material incentives for handing in weapons (80%) and almost half (45%) chose to destroy them.

3 During the Public Safety Dialogues organized by the Fundación Ideas para la Paz (Foundation Ideas for Peace - IFP) and the Igarapé Institute in April 2015, General (r) Oscar Naranjo said that the post-conflict is the right time to deploy additional arm-control measures for the civilian population, aimed at reducing the availability of weapons in the country.

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