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Many Colombians have never lived a day of peace. The internal armed conflict between the guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the government and paramilitaries was driven by inequality, drug-trafficking, and territory control lasting over fifty years. Every generation was affected. More than 220,000 people died and 6.7 million people were left internally displaced. The historic peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC took four years of complex negotiation and was eventually signed in November 2016, but the agreement is still in very early stages of implementation. According to Sergio Jaramillo, Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace, “the implementation of the accord will be more challenging than the peace negotiation with the FARC.” The design and content of the agreement was innovative in many ways and represents a valuable opportunity to address the underlying social inequalities at the root of the conflict and build a just and sustainable peace in Colombia. However, its implementation will have to be just as innovative – and inclusive – if peace is to be sustained with thousands of rebels reintegrated into society.
International support is also crucial for the peace agreement is to succeed, especially that of the USA. America has provided the Colombian government with $10 billion in mostly military and police assistance since 2000, and the meeting between Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and President Trump this week in Washington should be an important opportunity for the US to reaffirm its support. In the words of Alberto Franco, a leader with the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission in Colombia, “The end of the armed conflict is not peace. Peace is building a more just society, a more inclusive society, respectful of human rights and the environment.”
There are signs that the peace agreement in Colombia is still delicate. The government has accused the FARC of failing to comply with the terms of the peace deal. In addition to the surrender of arms and explosives, even before the final agreement of August 2016, guerrilla leaders had promised to return all minors fighting in the rebel army to child welfare agency, but last year no more than 13 children were released, said Sergio Jaramillo, the government’s peace commissioner.
Guerrilla forces also accuse the government of failing to uphold its promises. A sustainable peace in Colombia relies upon institutional and structural reform to correct the acute inequalities and injustices that fuelled the conflict. Particularly important is agrarian reform and improving access to land and other resources for rural women, Afro-Colombian, indigenous and smaller farmer communities, who were often forced by land grabbers to sell their land or flee for their lives during the war. According to Maithe Matheu, Oxfam country director in Colombia, “For the peace process in Colombia to be successful requires progress toward improving rural livelihoods, and to achieve that progress, both the causes and consequences of the armed conflict must be addressed.”
Land distribution in Colombia is one of the most unequal in the world, with nearly two-thirds of properties lacking formal titles and vast swathes of land owned by a very small elite. Yet thus far, the Colombian government has been slow in adequately addressing these issues. Fundación Paz y Reconciliación, a conflict think tank based in Bogotá, reported in February 2017 that 23 of the planned 26 demobilization zones for ex-FARC fighters were incomplete. Plans for these zones, designed to ease the transition of guerrillas into civilian life, included housing, classrooms, water tanks and a water treatment system, but after seven months of planning consisted of “an empty field with nothing but a few dozen wooden planks and a tent.” A FARC rebel told the Guardian, “All they’re interested in is that we hand over our rifles…Once we give them that they won’t do what they promised.”
What seems to be the Colombian government’s lack of managerial, technical or financial capacity prepare the demobilization zones – many of which were relatively not that remote – with housing, power and other services does not bode well for a sustained peace. As we have seen in countries like Iraq and Libya, post-peace-agreement peace can often prove elusive and too often the post-conflict period can descend into a situation of lawlessness, violence and corruption. Across the country new and established paramilitary groups and criminal gangs are filling the power vacuum and violently occupying regions left behind by the FARC, hoping to harness control of the cocaine trade, illegal gold mines and other criminal economies which once financed the rebels. According to Paz y Reconciliación, new armed groups have expanded into at least 90 of the 242 municipalities previously occupied by the FARC.
In this context, it is essential that international support for the process of implementation of the Colombian peace deal is continued. The cost of providing aid to rebels and rural farmers in Colombia has been conservatively estimated at $4 billion a year over the next ten years, said Adam Isacson, a Colombia policy expert at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. “That’s a big bill for a country running fiscal deficits and suffering from price declines in principal exports crude oil and coal.” After the signing of the peace agreement, President Obama promised Colombian President Santos $450 million in aid for next fiscal year, but there are now severe doubts over that amount. President Trump has spoken of cutting foreign aid in general and so far has not said publicly whether Colombian peace will be a priority. There remain many obstacles to peace in Colombia, but US commitment to substantial financial aid and political support could do much to convert hopes for peace into a reality.
Also important in the peace process is the guarantee of strong and active civil society engagement in the process of implementation. According to Oxfam America, “For the peace process in Colombia to be successful requires many actors to work together over the coming months and years. Strong civil society engagement, particularly by rural women and their communities, is vital.” A 2016 UN report, “Gender and the Role of Women in Colombia’s Peace Process” also stresses the gendered nature of both war and peace and underlines how the increased participation of women could make Colombia’s peace agreement more sustainable. The report notes how, in a country which tops the charts as the most dangerous place in the world for journalists and human rights defenders, women’s groups have been particularly articulate in raising awareness about sexual and gender-based violence and the impact of the war on children, women and LGBTI people (transgender women in Colombia face particularly severe discrimination). The involvement of victims, women’s groups and LGBTI organisations in the Colombian peace process is unprecedented and “has contributed to repairing both the historic continuum of inequality, discrimination, exclusion and violence to which women and LGBTI persons have been subjected, as well as their particular victimisation during Colombia’s internal armed conflict [and] initiating possibilities for repairing the social fabric that has been torn during decades of war.”