After four years of negotiations, the Colombian government and the FARC finalized a peace agreement in August of this year. The agreement was signed by both sides in a public event in Cartagena on September 26th in front of a number of heads of state and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. The last hurdle, as previously agreed, was a national plebiscite on the agreement with a YES or NO answer. It was generally seen as a formality. On October 2nd, Colombians went to the polls, but the result was completely unexpected by any party: with a low voter turnout of a little over 13 million people (37%) the NO vote won by a mere 60,000 votes, a margin of 0.4%.
While international headlines were focusing on these historic events, the situation on the ground is more complex than a simple YES or NO. Worrisome threats against those defending human rights continue. This translated into the murders of 22 human rights defenders across the country in a time span of 3 weeks, between the end of negotiations and the signing of the agreement in Cartagena alone.
During the last two months in San José de Apartadó, Antioquia – one of the regions hardest hit by the armed conflict between government and FARC – there has been an increase in neo-paramilitary activity, with direct threats towards members of our partner, the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. This phenomenon is generally associated with reconfiguration of power structures in territories traditionally controlled by the FARC. Along the river San Juan (on the border of the Valle de Cauca and Chocó regions), more than 120 families of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities remain confined due to threats by neo-paramilitary groups and without adequate guarantees of return. In the department of Cesar, where FOR-PP accompanies Tierra Digna, death threats against public officials, the assassination of a community leader, and protests against fracking, have brought an atmosphere of fear and instability to the region.
How the government will dismantle these neo-paramilitary groups and guarantee essential protection, especially in rural areas, remains a huge challenge and one of the main concerns for the security of human rights defenders. Peace in the territories cannot mean changing one armed actor for another. FOR-PP calls upon all actors involved to redouble their efforts in this regard, keeping in mind the centrality of non-violence and the hope of future reconciliation between Colombians.
Despite the great challenges that Colombia faces, there have been a number of positive developments of late that keep us motivated during these turbulent times. A few days after the rejection of the peace accords, the Colombian government announced that formal negotiations with the second remaining guerrilla group – the ELN – will commence on October 27th, though due to delays in releasing a hostage that date has been set back. Meanwhile, the FARC seems to be committed to a negotiated solution to the conflict, and to making the transition from armed struggle to a political movement, despite the outcome of the plebiscite. In a powerful act of forgiveness, in which FOR Peace Presence accompanied the organization CONPAZ, the FARC apologized publicly in Apartado for the Chinita massacre they committed in 1994.
The government has now embarked on a broad consultation of interested parties following the plebiscite result, and has extended the bilateral ceasefire until the end of the year, giving some room for the possibility of a diplomatic solution to the armed conflict. In Bogotá and other cities, civil society has mobilized large demonstrations and assemblies to show their general support for peace.
At FOR-PP we reaffirm our commitment to Colombians’ defense of life, land and dignity, despite the threats they face, by continuing to provide much-needed and solicited protective accompaniment to people and organizations. We value the persistent efforts being made by civil society and human rights’ defenders towards the construction of a meaningful and long-lasting peace, across the country and especially in their territories, at this time of national uncertainty.