Peace in Colombia: the complicated finale

Peace talks between Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC, and the Colombian government were initiated in November 2012 after a decade in which such negotiation seemed all but impossible. Based in Havana, the talks advanced further than ever before and, in an historic meeting last year which saw the President and FARC leader, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, shake hands, a commitment was made to sign a final deal before the end of March 2016. Although this deadline is now appearing increasingly optimistic the peace process continues to advance.

The FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, was formed as a peasant guerrilla force in the 1960s in response to deep rooted social inequality and an exclusive political system. Whilst it and the Colombian state have been engaged in battle, particularly in the mountainous countryside, for more than half a century, the war has also provided the platform for some of the worst human rights abuses in the world. The political left, trade unionists and human rights activists have been particularly targeted with the Colombian state heavily implicated, directly or indirectly through its collaboration with paramilitary forces.

The peace talks have seen numerous historic advances not just for Colombia, but also in the context of peace processes internationally. Agreements have been made regarding rural development, drugs, political participation and victims. As an indication of its complexity, the agreement on victims was signed in December after eighteen months of discussions – the same amount of time as the other three combined.

The victims’ agreement encompasses perhaps the most difficult hurdle to any peace process: how to guarantee their rights whilst also adopting a transitional form of justice for those involved in the war. This friction is inherent to peace negotiations but, whilst some human rights organisations have expressed their reservations, the deal signed has received widespread accolade for placing the victims at the centre of the agreement. More recently, the UN Security Council passed a resolution which gave a commitment to provide observers to oversee a future ceasefire – this was the first resolution of its kind.

Perhaps the most divisive issue still to be agreed concerns how to finalise the peace deal. Whilst the FARC have called for a constitutional convention to form part of the final implementation, the Colombian government has defended a simple, but potentially risky, referendum. This, along with an agreement on how to end armed hostilities, issues around prisoners, the paramilitaries and a revision of points of contention ‘left in the freezer’ for later discussion, are the issues which remain on the table to be discussed.

There are also other significant challenges. Political activists and human rights defenders continue to be targeted – more than 65 trade unionists have been killed since the talks began and paramilitary networks are reportedly strengthening across the country. Also of significant concern is the anti-peace camp. Led by the former President Alvaro Uribe, it still enjoys significant influence and is able to promote widespread antipathy towards the talks. Any advance in Havana is presented as further submission to the guerrillas.

With such internal division, international support has been an important ingredient to the peace talks. Justice for Colombia (JfC), the British and Irish union campaign, has been building support for the process internationally. JfC has brought together a group of politicians from all sides of the conflict in Northern Ireland to share experiences with the negotiators in Havana. In addition it has encouraged engagement from politicians in the United States coordinating a letter of support signed by politicians from the US, Ireland and Britain and has hosted public events in the British and European Parliaments where representatives from both negotiating teams were able to speak for the first time on a joint panel about the advances in the talks.

Whilst an end to the armed conflict is closer than ever before, the work towards a final agreement, and its subsequent implementation, will be a long and complicated one. Though Colombian civil society organisations know that their work for peace will continue until long after the signing of a final deal, it is essential that international support replicates that commitment.

Hasan Dodwell is the Campaigns Officer at Justice for Columbia