Colombia’s left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) have begun surrendering their weapons as part of the landmark peace agreement struck with the Colombian government late last year.
After logistical delays in gathering the rebels at 26 specially designated rural disarmament zones, the six-month demobilisation process was set to begin on Wednesday, with FARC starting an inventory of its weapons and destroying munitions under supervision of UN personnel. By 31 May about 6,300 guerrillas are to have handed over all their weapons and begin the process of reintegrating into civilian life.
President Juan Manuel Santos, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in October for his efforts towards peace negotiation in Colombia, after over half a century of conflict, hailed the disarmament as “historic news for Colombia” in a post on Twitter.
The government is attempting to end the messy, multi-sided conflict that began in the mid-1960s, and in which more than 260,000 people have been killed, 6.9 million have been displaced from their homes, and approximately 60,000 have gone missing amongst the fighting and power struggles between government, paramilitary units, drug cartels and the army.
After four-year long negotiations, a rejected referendum, final-minute compromises and two signing ceremonies, a peace deal was finally ratified in November 2016.
“This process is irreversible”, said the rebel leader known as Pastor Alape in Bogota this week. Mauricio Jaramillo, the commander of FARC’s powerful Eastern bloc, also believes there is no turning back. “We are committed to making this transition to a legal political party,” he said.
A key concern for human rights and humanitarian groups throughout the conflict has been the widespread recruitment of children to armed guerrilla forces (about 8000 since 1985), to perform various combat tasks from fighting to laying landmines. As part of the 310-page peace agreement, FARC is required to remove all child soldiers from their ranks.
This clause seeks to ensure compliance with entrenched international human rights and humanitarian standards on the issue. Under Article 77(2) of the Additional Protocol (1) to the Geneva Convention, Article 4(3)(c) of Additional Protocol II, and Article 38(3) of the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), children under the age of 15 must not be recruited into armed forces or groups and must be prevented from taking part in hostilities. Conscripting or enlisting children under this age into armed forces or rebel groups constitutes a war crime, and may be subject to investigation and prosecution by the International Criminal Court under Articles 8(2)(b)(xxvi) and (e)(vii) of the Rome Statute.
FARC handed over 13 minors to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) last September, as a humanitarian measure in advance of the final deal. However, the remaining number of child soldiers within FARC is unclear. In May 2016, the defence minister suggested that there were some 170 child soldiers in the 7000-strong rebel force, but the group disputed this figure, suggesting that just 23 of its members were under the age of 15.
FARC now say that they will release minors over to child welfare organisations once they are all in the demobilisation zones, at which point the children will be supported to reintegrate and re-establish themselves as civilians.
Separate talks are currently underway with the country’s last remaining rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN).
With continued negotiation and disarmament, the Americas may soon be free from any major armed conflict. However, the prospect of a lasting peace is uncertain – arguably the greatest challenge lies ahead. As part of the peace deal, amnesties may be granted to former FARC guerrillas for political crimes. Whilst pardons will not extend to serious international violations such as crimes against humanity, war crimes, sexual abuse or recruiting minors, and such concessions were critical to reaching an agreement, whether peace without justice in Colombia is achievable remains to be seen.
“The terrible legacy of these violations and the entrenched impunity for most of them means that, despite the peace agreement, many seemingly intractable conflict-related human rights and humanitarian challenges persist, and there is a real risk that these challenges will continue in a post-conflict environment,” argued Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.
“If Colombia is to really succeed in the long-term in making peace work for everyone, the authorities must ensure that the fundamental right of the country’s millions of victims to truth, justice and reparation is properly respected,” she said.
He is committed to multilateral diplomacy as a means to peaceful conflict resolution and ending impunity for grave international crimes.
Lucas loves to travel, explore the outdoors and can often be found half-asleep on Monday mornings after a weekend of late nights watching the English Premier League.