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Colombia Peace Agreement: participation and protest

The 2016 Peace Agreement between the Colombian government and FARC includes explicit aims to improve democratic participation and protect the right to protest. But how are these goals being threatened?

Protest in Bogotá on the first anniversary of the Peace Agreement. Image: Daniel Garzon Herazo/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/PA Images.

This article is part of Right to Protest, a partnership project with human rights organisations CELS and INCLO, with support from the ACLU, examining the power of protest and its fundamental role in democratic society

Over the past few weeks, various organisations in Colombia have been protesting about the breach of an agreement that was signed by the government and social organisations at the end of the national rural strikes of 2013. This agreement represents a milestone in the recent history of social mobilisation in Colombia, both because of its magnitude and impact, and because it comprised the collective demands of peasants, indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombian communities.

But the protests carry an additional demand: fulfillment of the Peace Agreement between the Colombian government and the former guerilla movement FARC-EP that was signed on 30 November 2016, following an eventful public validation process. The goal of this agreement is to consolidate ‘territorial peace’, meaning that peace benefits should reach the territories and communities that have most suffered the consequences of the war.

The Agreement responds to different aspects of the armed conflict and is divided up into sections. Under ‘integral rural reform’ and ‘political participation’, solutions have been proposed for problems that originally caused the conflict. The ‘participation’ section also includes a guarantee for organisations and social movements to protest as a way to exercise the right to assemble and petition the government, as publicly stated in the constitution (Article 37).

The agreement under ‘illicit drugs’ seeks to reform the policy against drug trafficking, including the recognition that it was a dynamic element in the conflict; the topic about ‘victims’ is aimed at restoring the rights of those who suffered the consequences of the war, while the section that deals with ‘the end of the conflict’ establishes mechanisms to facilitate the end of confrontations and the reintegration of ex-combatants into civilian life.

The novelty of the Peace Agreement is that it includes the goal of direct participatory democracy, which has been weakened by the violence of the conflict – for instance, by the existence of armed groups related to drug trafficking – and by the existence of political elites. As participation and protest are so fundamental to democracy, it’s worth exploring these elements of the Agreement in detail.

What does the Agreement determine in relation to participation and protest?

There are three fundamental ideas about participation in the Peace Agreement. The first is that the purpose of promoting greater participation goes beyond the implementation of the Agreement and electoral participation; the challenge is how to deepen local, regional and national democracy in Colombia.

Second, participation must consider ethnic, gender and territorial differences, so that the peace process is not detached from the voices of its main beneficiaries: the populations that have mobilised to demand their territorial rights and those who have directly suffered the effects of armed conflict. The third fundamental idea is to promote the expansion of pluralism and guarantees of opposition both in the electoral contest and through the participation of social organisations.

There is a risk that one of the most important elements of territorial peace will lack legal support

Regarding protest, the Agreement focuses on defining the minimum guarantees that civil society organisations and movements should have. For example, the freedom to provide alternative information during protest, the presence of dialogue between the government and organisations and the reform of laws that hinder or criminalise the right to protest. However, like the rest of the Peace Agreement, the measures and mechanisms negotiated in the ‘political participation’ section will only have legal effects when they become laws – and, in November 2017, only three regulations relating to participation have been implemented.

Thus, despite the fact that multiple civil society organisations participated in the drafting of guidelines for a statute of guarantees for the participation of organisations and social movements and for mobilisation and social protest, the national government has not sent the respective statutory bill that regulates said issues to Congress. Thus, there is a risk that one of the most important elements of territorial peace will lack legal support.

Threats to participation, protest and the implementation of the Agreement

Implementation of the Agreement has been fraught with problems surrounding the involvement of civil society. For example, the gender divide among those involved: only 33 per cent of the posts that have been created to implement the Peace Accord have been filled by women, while only 26 per cent of those involved in signing collective bargaining agreements have been women.

Things are not very different when it comes to ethnic representation and involvement. Though the Agreement interprets participation as the guarantee of indigenous peoples’ right to prior consultation, only six of the Agreement’s implementation norms were reached through consultation with indigenous peoples, while Afro-descendant communities were not consulted at all.

There has been a systematic targeting and killing of leaders of social organisations that participate in protests and that support the implementation of the Agreement

The safety of the people involved in implementing the Peace Agreement has also deteriorated in the last two years; the current protests taking place are also demanding protection and guarantees of security for rural populations. It is estimated – though there is no consensus on the figures – that there were 126 murders and three forced disappearances in 2016. More conservative sources report 56 murders so far in 2017. These attacks have been directed especially against “leaders and defenders of human rights, and members of social and political organisations, in particular leaders of community action groups, peasant and indigenous organisations, unions and land claimants".

There has been a systematic targeting and killing of leaders of social organisations that participate in protests and that support the implementation of the Agreement in some departments of the country, such as Nariño, Cauca, Putumayo, César, Antioquia and Chocó. This increase in persecution runs parallel with an increase in social mobilisation over the last three years.

Participation of civil society in the Colombian peace process is vital for strengthening local governments, and for starting new cycles of development by recognising rural identities and guaranteeing citizenship. This process would help to end, or at least alleviate, the institutional exclusion that a large part of the Colombian population has experienced. 

However, some of the main obstacles that threaten the new democratic opportunities stated in the Agreement are the heterogeneity of the regions and territories that it focuses on, the existence of illegal economies, and the presence of armed groups and political elites that still refuse to give up power.

The cocalero communities of Putumayo

An example of how implementation of the Agreement requires different strategies depending on the context of each territory can be seen in the negotiation of the ‘Collective Agreements for the Substitution of Illegal Crops’ between the government and the ‘cocalero’ (‘coca-growing’) communities of Putumayo.

Though the Agreement proposes a link between the Integral Rural Reform and the National Comprehensive Substitution Programme, there are few collective agreements that mention how these programmes will be articulated in the cocalero territories. But the Putumayo Regional Agreement is different, since specific measures were included to advance the establishment of these programmes, while the collective agreements subscribed in other communities are limited to the delivery of the $12,000 that the replacement programme denotes.

The difference lies precisely in the degree of organisation that already exists in Putumayo. Negotiating a substitution plan with organisations that have worked in local development for almost five years, such as the PLADIA (Amazon Andean Integral Development Plan), is different from negotiating with fragmented communities. In Putumayo, the existence of PLADIA prior to the peace process has added another level of sophistication to the implementation of the substitution programme.

In fact, the recent demonstrations of the Putumayo coca movement show the challenge that institutions face to legitimise the policies that will be developed in that department. It will not be enough for the state to implement the substitution, the eradication or its security policy if it does not take into account the demands that its populations have made for more than 30 years. Even in this repressive scenario, the citizens of the territories must have the guarantees that enable them to be part of the decisions and to demand the fulfillment of the obligations by the state through the substitution programme.

How should the Colombian state move forward with the Peace Agreement?

It is fundamental that the national government makes progress in the legislative implementation of the Peace Agreement, particularly in the norms that advance political participation and the right of protest, as these will help to strengthen trust between the state and rural and indigenous communities.

The state needs to understand that there is no way to consolidate its objectives in these territories without adequately assessing the regional contexts, without offering security guarantees for those who participate in the implementation of the agreement or exercise the right to protest and without taking into account what people have to say about its development. Even if it decides to adopt measures without consultation, it will be fundamental in a participatory and deliberative democracy that the communities have the tools to defend their right to protest and to demand the fulfillment of the government’s commitments. Participation, mobilisation and protest are really different sides of the same coin – that of territorial peace.

About the author

Hobeth Martínez and Luis Felipe Cruz are both researchers at Dejusticia, a Colombia-based research and advocacy organization dedicated to the strengthening of the rule of law and the promotion of social justice and human rights.


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