Peace Talks in Colombia and the Challenges Ahead

Sep 27, 2012 | News, Peace and Nonviolence, War and Conflict

Peace Talks in Colombia and the Challenges Ahead
By Charlotte MellyFOR Colombia Team Member

Elements of the Colombian peace process that begins October 8 in Oslo indisputably distinguish these negotiations from prior attempts to put an end to Colombia’s five decade-long conflict. The insistence on learning from past mistakes is cause for optimism, and both parties seem to be taking the process seriously. The fact that negotiations are taking place abroad with international support, that the first phase has already been completed, that the agenda is limited, focused and has the clear objective of ending the war, that the FARC are militarily weakened and that they will be granted space to be involved in politics, are all factors which lead many to believe that this time could and should be different.

There is controversy surrounding the fact that no cease-fire has been declared. Indeed, FARC attacks on both the military and oil pipelines and other infrastructure have increased in recent weeks. The ability for both sides to show their strength through violence as they put pressure on and push forward their agendas at the negotiating table is a serious concern. Each party wishes to strengthen its negotiating position in this way and is thus tempted to increase military efforts. Yet continued violence and recourse to these strategies could lead to a loss of credibility and provoke a break in the negotiations, and so “both sides must act with restraint on the battlefield to generate immediate humanitarian improvements,” says the International Crisis Group. While Santos declared that “military operations will be carried out in the same way, with the same or more intensity,” some civil society groups are pressing for a ceasefire to be implemented as the negotiations take place.

Perhaps the “make or break” point of the agenda will be land reform. The FARC arose from peasant communities in areas with persistent histories of inequality, exclusion and repression of land movements. But it is difficult to see how the guerrillas’ idea of agrarian reform can fit together with the State’s national development plan centered on foreign investment in the form of multinational companies’ megaprojects exploiting Colombia’s natural resources. As such, maximalist demands by either side may end in stalemate. The FARC face a dilemma: if they go to the negotiating table insisting on comprehensive national agrarian reform, agreement may be harder to achieve. If they go requesting something less comprehensive and more localized in the zones in which they have had historical control, it seems more likely that an agreement could be made, but this could also bring with it serious consequences for campesinos living in those regions and for a possible continuation of violence.

Many also look to the Santos government’s victims and land restitution law as an important rapprochement to the FARC’s long-standing demand for agrarian reform. It is too early to say whether this law will be effective without further measures, or how it might relate to the FARC’s idea of land reform. Indeed, while the law appears to represent progress, it is clear that there will be many challenges for its application. Considering Colombia’s history of progressive laws and reforms that are impressive in theory but in practice are shot dead before they can even get off the ground, unfortunately, full implementation seems unlikely. Indeed, many of those who reclaim their land under the law have been seriously threatened or murdered, but little protection has been provided.

These threats come principally from paramilitary successor groups that continue to function in the same way as before their demobilization of 2006, and are another major obstacle for both the negotiations and the construction of peace in Colombia. The continued phenomenon requires a response.

In fact, former paramilitaries have pointed to this problem. According to alias ‘El Alemán’, “the success of negotiations depends on the treatment of those who demobilize. If the government makes a bad decision, the soldiers may rearm, as happened to the paramilitaries who reorganized themselves into ‘criminal gangs’”.

The FARC has its own history of painful experience with attempted demobilization. During negotiations with the government in the 1980s, it formed a political party, the Patriotic Union, but thousands of its leaders and members were murdered. FARC leaders will have that memory close by during the current talks.

Combatants have also switched sides. A supposed demobilization of another guerrilla group, the Popular Liberation Army, in 1991, was followed by threats to their security, which led to many members then joining the right-wing paramilitaries. This must be avoided this time as opportunities and incentives need to be given for guerrillas to reintegrate into civilian life. In order for peace to take root, paramilitary structures must be thoroughly dismantled and those responsible must be held accountable for their crimes.

A negotiation between the government and the FARC in itself will not be able to eradicate violence. The divide between rural and urban Colombia has often led to huge discrepancies between what is said and decided by elites in the capital and the reality in different regions of the country. As such, there is fear that different factions of the guerrillas may splinter and refuse to lay down their arms.

This is perhaps more the case with those fronts deeply involved in drug-trafficking, which leads to a doubt about this point on the agenda for the dialogue. As Antonio Caballero maintains, “the issue of drug trafficking is an insoluble problem for Colombia, with or without the FARC.” The demobilization of an armed group is unlikely to impact the drug trade, because it will not touch the underlying problem. Other groups will simply take over the space left by the guerrillas as demand for production will not decrease. Indeed, the Urabeños/Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia and the Rastrojos already fight over territory for drug trafficking routes, and removing the FARC from the equation may simply consolidate drug production, trafficking and violence in the hands of other groups.

In order for peace to take root and for the deeply ingrained wounds of violence to heal, the socio-economic problems and fundamental inequities underlying the conflict must be addressed. Social movements and civil society must be allowed a role in the peace process, and investment must be made in the remote conflictive regions of the country. As several social movements say, “this peace process must have a chapter of regional dialogues that allows [them] to participate with autonomy and [our] own voice in the new scenario of peace.”

To lay the foundations for peace, the militarizing logic of the Colombian state should be countered with an insistence on other types of state investment (education, health etc.) Space must be made and recognition granted for those social movements and nonviolent resistance movements (such as the indigenous peoples of Cauca and the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó), to have a role in building peace.

In conclusion, other important lessons need to be learned and emphasized throughout the process: that of previous failed demobilizations and paramilitary successor groups; the lesson we all need to learn from a decades-long ‘drug war’ that has barely affected the drug trade and has caused thousands of victims; the need to focus on structural changes, land reform, and investment in rural regions of Colombia; and the importance of including civil society movements in the construction of peace.