Total Peace: A Chance to Increase Human Security in Colombia?

Dec 21, 2022 | News, Peace and Nonviolence, War and Conflict

The Colombian Congress recently approved the so-called Total Peace Law. (Source: NTN24)

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), there are currently six different armed conflicts in Colombia. In addition, criminal groups are active in many regions throughout the country. Decades of war have resulted in 8.8 million victims. In the past 50 years, several bilateral peace negotiations took place between the Colombian government and different guerrilla groups, including a large-scale demobilization process of paramilitaries almost 20 years ago. In 2016, a bilateral peace agreement with the largest Colombian guerrilla group at the time, the FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army), was signed and thousands of combatants demobilized.

Six years later, civilians, historically victimized and marginalized throughout decades of conflict, experience similar or new patterns of violence. Human rights defenders are being killed at a terrifying rate. This year, a total of 186 human rights defenders were killed (20 more than last year at the same time).

After the peace agreement, many regions in Colombia saw armed groups leave, only to have them replaced by a new criminal group. Other regions simply did not benefit from bilateral peace agreements, as the dominant armed group did not negotiate a peace agreement.

“Honestly, we don’t have guerrilla fighters in the region anymore, but we were left with paramilitary groups and the military”, remarks a member of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó in Antioquia, about the situation post-2016.

“I remember when I was in Casanare after the peace agreement with the FARC-EP and the victims organizations told me: Ok, very interesting, but…when will they sign with the ELN? Because this is the situation we have to deal with”, said the director of the Unit for the Search of Missing People (UBPD), Luz Marina Monzón.

These experiences are neither new nor unexpected. Bilateral negotiations with a single armed group in a multilateral conflict are, at best, shortsighted and to date, much of the 2016 peace agreement has yet to be put into effect. The concept of “Total Peace”, coined by newly elected president Gustavo Petro, is multifaceted, focusing on social and environmental justice and emphasizing the importance of constructing peace that takes numerous expressions of violence into consideration and that focuses on victims’ rights. Negotiating with different armed groups simultaneously is a crucial element of the concept of Total Peace.

Over the past few weeks, significant steps have been made towards starting peace negotiations and dialogue between the government and several armed groups, including FARC-EP dissident groups, paramilitary successor groups and the guerrillas of the ELN (National Liberation Army). On the 21st of November, the first official talks between the Colombian government and the current largest Colombian guerrilla group, the ELN began in Caracas, Venezuela. Additionally, at least 23 other illegal armed groups have expressed their interests in entering into peace talks as well.

Social dialogue and a participative and inclusive construction of the National Development Plan are also part of the Total Peace plan. Underlying transversal guidelines of the plan aim at putting victims and marginalized regions at the center of the plan to help define peace and to strengthen the rule of law.

Many human rights defenders consider Petro’s peace plan an important paradigm shift, but very ambitious. Just the name itself, Total Peace, sounds utopic, like a dream for many.

When asked what total peace meant to him, a member of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó replied:

“It is a dream. Total peace doesn’t exist, nowhere in the world and even less in Colombia. But a society needs dreams. Petro’s dream is the pacification of a country. Millions of Colombians share this dream. In four years, Petro will not make it. He can set the course, he can initiate a true peace process”.

Meanwhile, the United Nations enthusiastically welcomed the new government’s position:

“I welcome the government’s willingness to adopt a new approach to human security aimed precisely at strengthening the integral deployment of the State, the public’s confidence in civilian institutions and the security forces, and progressively deactivating the root causes of violence”, emphasized Carlos Ruiz Massieu, representative of the UN in Colomia.

Legislation recently approved by congress, entitled “the total peace law”, defines total peace as a special concept for human security.

Human security is not an invention of Colombian’s new president Gustavo Petro nor of his fellow campaigners. The concept of human security was originally launched in 1994 as, “humanity living free from war, free from fear and free from indignity through empowerment and protection”. 

In 2012, the UN General Assembly unanimously declared that human security would be considered, “the right of people to live in freedom and dignity, free from poverty and despair. All individuals, in particular those facing vulnerability, are entitled to freedom from fear and freedom from want, with an equal opportunity to enjoy all their rights and fully develop their human potential”.

The original idea of human security was defined as a security of people – or rather of humanity – created by non-military and nonviolence, and which is not centered around securing national territory. The choice of Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace, Danilo Rueda, gives hope that this non-military, nonviolent aspect will take precedence in its implementation. In the past, Danilo Rueda accompanied many nonviolent grassroots resistance processes, victim’s organizations and humanitarian zones in regions of armed conflict. While working as a human rights defender, he himself has been subject to several threats, including death threats, and parts of the concept of total peace are built on his prior work with victims’ organizations.

In the spirit of human security through civic actions, i.e. non-military actions, the “total peace law” set the framework to include a one-year Social Service for Peace, which is an alternative to the obligatory military service. It will provide similar accreditation and income benefits as the military service, and consist of activities designed to support victims and strengthen peace particularly in war torn, marginalized communities. Activities will include educational programs and victims support, with emphasis on victims of sexual violence and environmental protection (Article 10/11: Public Order Law No. 418). Such alternatives have been requested from civil society for many years and the legal framework has been implemented at impressive speed. Antimilitarist organizations dedicated to nonviolent action have additionally requested a lack of participation and prior collaboration in the design of the future Social Service for Peace.

The Total Peace law also supports the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement through the expansion of “regions for peace”. Regions for peace is a project which will be carried out in areas most affected by armed conflict that focuses on prioritizing development investments. These investments will be guided by the suggestions of the local population. In order to guarantee a broad participation in the design of the national development plan, binding regional dialogues will be held with civil society throughout Colombia.

On the 24th of November, our partner, the Interethnic Commission for Peace of Blanquita-Murrí, took part in one of these dialogues in the department of Antioquia.

True participation from all people will be a huge challenge for Colombia, given decades of clientelism and the presence of armed groups. The government must first earn the trust of the Colombian people, whose basic rights have been violated by their own government for many years – one example being the Parapolitics scandal. This scandal revealed how Colombian politicians were collaborating with illegal paramilitary groups. This, amongst other continuous human rights violations make it challenging for the general public to regain trust in public forces.

The Peace Community of San José the Apartadó has been documenting and publishing those violations for the past 25 years, but the vast majority of crimes perpetrated by the Colombian armed forces are neither solved nor sanctioned by the state. On the contrary, contributions to state investigations by victims often lead to persecution or even assassination. In 2005, these issues led the Peace Community to institute a nonviolent protective strategy of non-collaboration with the Colombian State. The bulk of this strategy is based around four points which, upon completion by the Colombian government, would reinstate collaboration with State authorities. These demands focus on creating conditions of justice and no-repetition for the Peace Community and its region, a widely accepted condition for a durable and sustainable peace.

A recent visit to the Peace Community by the new Minister of Defense, Ivan Velasquez, and the High Commissioner for Peace, established possible follow-up actions from the government which may be an important indicator for possibilities for real participation from victims of the armed conflicts in building a durable peace and human security.

The visit of the Minister of Defense Ivan Velasquez is the first visit of a high state authority since the rupture of the Peace Community with the state in 2005.

It is no coincidence that Ivan Velasquez is receptive to the claims of a community which has been using nonviolence and publicly denouncing human rights abuses, despite impunity rates and the possibility of threats from paramilitary forces. Between 2006 and 2012, Ivan Velasquez coordinated the commission that was in charge of investigating Parapolitics and in 2013 he worked as Commissioner of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). In 2015, the CICIG brought down then-President Otto Pérez Molina through its investigation of a criminal network in the state apparatus. During Ivan Velasquez’s first few months in charge of Colombia’s Ministry of Defense, numerous police and military commanders have been removed, and replaced with commanders who have no accusations of human rights abuses or corruption. The question is: will this improve the general public’s trust in governmental institutions?

Over the past few years, a general lack of trust and overall lower sense of security has been reflected across the globe. The world has seen discrepancy expand between the Human Development Index (i.e. more wealth and more health) and a sense of overall security, and led to recent updates of the UN concept of human security. Building solidarity and fostering actions from people everywhere, alongside with the actions of NGOs, governments and UN entities, were introduced as additional strategies to empowerment and protection.

On one hand, broad participation in the Total Peace process will be a huge challenge for the Colombian government, and will require major shifts from clientelism and collaboration with armed groups to solidarity and respect between people and functioning governmental institutions. Its success will widely depend on how political and now-armed sectors of Colombia can be taken on board.

On the other hand, creating a state policy centered around human security is a global issue, one that plays a key role in the Colombian conflict. Hence, any peace effort needs the support of international politics and solidarity. Durable peace requires support and willingness not only from Colombians and their government, but from the international community as well. These policies will only be sustainable with support from international politics that protect victims and grassroots peace organizations, which have shown to be essential actors in the creation of sustainable peace.

According to the United Nations Development Program, “solidarity recognizes that human security in the Anthropocene must go beyond securing individuals and their communities to systematically consider interdependence across all people and between people and the planet.”

Drug politics are one of many examples. They are crucial in Colombian peace politics. Despite years of a militaristic war on drugs in collaboration with the US army, this year the UN reported the largest increment in coca growing areas in Colombia since the beginning of documentation. Dialogue with armed groups, together with the possibility of dismantling paramilitary groups involved in the drug trade (so called narco paramilitaries), an ambitious land reform policy and the recognition of small-scale farmers as a political subject, could open new paths for combating the historical dependency of peasant farmers on drug trafficking economics. Nevertheless, drug trafficking is a transnational business and thus addressing transnational criminal structures operating in Colombia remains a crucial topic. As has been observed during previous demobilization attempts, dismantling armed groups creates new vacuums of power, only to be filled once again. The fear is that transnational (or international criminal structures with headquarters for example in Mexico, Italy, Russia and Venezuela) might fill the vacuum, hurling Colombia into a new cycle of violence.

Climate change, extractive industries and global economics are highly interconnected transnational topics, with major impact in Colombia. President Petro proclaimed a consequential transition from fossil fuels – Colombia is Latin America’s leading coal exporter – to instead focus on key minerals for renewable energy, such as copper and nickel, and whose demand is expected to increase significantly in the next few years. And Colombia needs this money. In 2022, the country experienced the highest fiscal deficit in recent years and its external debt increased to half of the country’s GDP. But these extractive activities are also problematic. Illegal mining, human rights violations and environmental damage around extractive activities must be of international concern, responsibility and accountability. The same goes for protecting natural reserves, such as the Amazon.

“My proposal for humanity is to exchange external debt for internal expenses to save and recover our jungles, forests and wetlands”, said president Petro during his speech at the COP 27 in Egypt.

After a bit more than 100 days of the new government, the main law for Total Peace politics has been approved, regional dialogues for the construction of the national development plan are being held, peace talks with Colombia’s current largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN) have been resumed, and diplomatic relations with Venezuela have been reestablished. Nevertheless, these are only first steps and overall violence has not significantly gone down so far.

The government obviously has good intentions. It will not have much time, only four years. Petro’s re-election is not allowed by the constitution. However, the government can prepare the ground for a different Colombia.

“Yet, what is worrying so far, is that we are only seeing a peace process that comes from above and that has not yet reached the regions. If this continues this way, then it’s business as usual”, said a member of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó.

“Total peace is a big word and we know it won’t be easy, but we feel a great yearning for it to happen, we are optimistic,” says Eleodoro Sanchez, a 74-year-old social leader and victim.

Finally, only time will tell to what extent the government can implement its proclaimed project of “total peace” in a country dominated by regional clientelism, international economic interests and the presence of illegal armed groups.


Michaela Söllinger, FOR Austria and FORPP Team Member