Winning Colombia’s Peace: Try, Try and Try Again

Voters in Colombia have rejected a landmark peace deal with FARC rebels in a shock referendum result, with 50.2% voting against it. This represents a serious setback – but not a fatal one – to efforts to end one of the modern world’s most prolonged conflicts.

After four years of negotiation, the Colombian government and the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), signed in late September an agreement in the port city of Cartagena, appearing to bring an end to 52 years of an armed conflict which had claimed more than 220,000 lives.

As Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said on the occasion, ‘We will achieve any goal, overcome any hurdle and turn our nation into a country we’ve always dreamed of – a country in peace.’ His counterpart, the guerrilla leader Timoleon Jimenez (better known by his nom de guerre ‘Timochenko’, after Soviet Marshal Semyon Timoshenko), used the occasion to apologise to ‘all the victims of the conflict’.

Yet despite this mood of optimism and the considerable negotiating effort and suffering endured to bring the fighting to an end, getting citizens behind the agreement has proven more difficult.

The deal went to a national plebiscite on 2 October 2016, allowing all Colombians, not just politicians, the final say on what had been agreed. Against expectations, in a low voter turnout of just 40%, a tiny majority voted against it (50.2%, only 63,000 votes out of 13 million ballots).

The public’s reticence is understandable. Despite its length and complexity, the 297-page peace accord left many finer details on the table. It also committed the government to substantial expenditure at a time of economic and regional uncertainty. And a majority of Colombians believed it let the FARC off the hook for past crimes.

The accord comprised five elements: a series of provisions to end political violence through disarmament and reintegration of former guerrillas; justice for victims of the conflict; an end to FARC involvement in the drug trade; rural development; and provision for the FARC to re-enter politics. Each of these elements, even if taken separately, would have been difficult to deliver. Taken together, the task was enormous.

The signing of the accord set in motion a 180-day timetable for the estimated 7,000-strong FARC to assemble its forces at 28 gathering points across the country. There they would have been required to hand over their weapons to a UN monitoring and verification force. The guerrillas were then to enter reintegration programmes, with those accused of war crimes being dealt with by a transitional justice system.

The theory is straightforward; the practice would have been much more demanding.

There would have had to have been a transparent understanding of the location and numbers of both fighters and weapons amassed by FARC since it started out as a peasant army in 1964, a stumbling block of disarmament and demobilisation operations worldwide. There would have inevitably been rumours of retained weapons dumps and, rather than reintegrate, some FARC guerrillas may have simply chosen to join the rival leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels, who were not part of this agreement, or instead turn to violent crime, taking both their weapons and tactical knowledge with them.

A significant number of former guerrillas were set to join a new corps of bodyguards created to protect former FARC leaders, whom the government was obligated to protect under the peace terms. This cadre of FARC militants would have remained armed and organised, although under the theoretical control of the post-conflict Ministry of National Defense.

But perhaps the most controversial part of the accord was contained in the provisions for transitional justice. An amnesty to all FARC members was proposed for the crime of ‘sedition’ (not war crimes), which meant that they would not have been liable to arrest on demobilisation. Some 29 pages of the Peace Accord were dedicated to the text of an amnesty law for political crimes, suspending arrest warrants for FARC members. It also proposed that members of the FARC, the armed forces and civilians who confessed to war crimes would have stayed out of jail, being instead subjected to ‘restricted movement’ and community service.

This proved a major sticking point. Former president Alvaro Uribe, who upped the fight against the FARC during his two terms in office (2002–10), headed the ‘no’ campaign. He argued that the government had made too many concessions to secure the peace agreement. A slim majority of Colombians have clearly baulked, too, at the apparent equivalence afforded to FARC with the Colombian armed forces and police.

The transitional justice scheme also called for civilians who were involved in supporting illegal armed groups to confess in order to avoid jail. This seemingly innocuous provision proved highly controversial because a significant number of Colombians had been forced to make extortion payments to various paramilitary groups during the conflict, and many were worried that they could stand accused of collaborating with armed formations.

Legitimisation also has an economic dimension. FARC engagement in the cocaine trade funded the expansion of guerrilla activities in the 1990s. After a significant reduction during the 2000s – from 700 tons of cocaine in 2001 to 165 tons in 2012 – drug production has again been on the rise; by the end of 2015, the US Department of State calculated that there were 159,000 hectares under coca cultivation, an amount close to the 2006 levels.

Eliminating this production is easier said than done, as are promises about rural regeneration; with six million people displaced by the conflict, land claims may number in the hundreds of thousands.

And Colombia faces other economic difficulties, for the downturn in global commodity prices could not have come at a worse time for the country. The fall in global oil prices since 2015 has already triggered an 18% drop in government revenue this year alone. We may be witnessing the demise of the oil economy in Colombia, as old wells are exhausted and sustained low prices have frozen fresh exploration.

Yet the money for the dramatic increase in social and infrastructure investment envisaged by the agreement would have to come from somewhere. Before the deal was rejected by the electorate, the prognosis was that defence investment would have been slashed by 40% in 2017, along with a cut of up to 10% in the military’s operating budget. And even now, without a peace deal to fund, measures will have to be found to compensate for the fall in oil income.

The peace accord also provided no guarantees that the FARC would renounce the use of violence, or of other illegal means – principally the subversion of electoral democracy, and the manipulation of social unrest – in order to accomplish its political goals. This, along with the sense of impunity granted to the FARC despite past crimes, seems to have been a major concern for those Colombians who ultimately voted against the deal.

Finally, concerns over Colombia’s political and economic stability have been compounded by the prospect of state collapse in neighbouring Venezuela. In July 2016 more than 60,000 people (including a significant number of FARC supporters and cadres) crossed the frontier into Colombia seeking to escape the crisis. In doing so they, placed significant humanitarian, security and financial strains on Colombia’s departmental authorities and regional military commanders already operating at their maximum capacity.

But despite these challenges and the referendum result, there are many positive lessons for others – including some groups and states in Africa – from Colombia’s transformation. Through assiduous governance and an empowered military, the Colombian government has been able to bring the parties to the war to the negotiating table, thus turning the country around in just 15 years from a failed state blighted by narco-terrorism to one where the guerrillas had more to gain by suing for peace than by continued fighting.

Following the referendum, President Santos announced that while he accepted the result, he ‘won't give up’. Similarly, Timochenko said the group remained committed to finding an end to the conflict.

So despite the referendum’s failure, peace negotiations will most likely continue. But it is not clear how much room for manoeuvre the leadership of the FARC has with its rank and file; if pushed too hard many may choose to just leave, rendering a new peace deal much less effective overall.

Olusegun Obasanjo, Dickie Davis, David Kilcullen and Greg Mills are all associated with The Brenthurst Foundation and among the co-authors of A Great Perhaps? Colombia: Conflict and Convergence, the Spanish edition of which is being launched in Bogota next month. 


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