Colombia’s peace agreement: Is it sustainable?

Colombia’s peace agreement: Is it sustainable?
by Padraig O’MALLEY for Forum for Cities in Transition
26 September 2016

Today, September 26, 2016, Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, and FARC leader Timochenko, nom de guerre for Rodrigo Londono Echeverri, signed an agreement ending almost 50 years of civil war, using a pen made from a recycled shell used in combat; the said pen supposedly will symbolize the end of violence, closure to the conflict and the dawn of a new era in Colombia.

In circumstances of high pomp some 2,500 foreign and local dignitaries attended the ceremony in Cartagena, a city on the Caribbean coast, a historic old town, with beautiful colonial architecture cobble stone streets and outdoor cafes; a haven for tourists, not least because it is one of the safest places in Colombia. In short, a place little touched by the ravages of war. Outside the 400-year-old walls, ways from the cobblestones and charm of the old city are a den of slums, pock-marked with poverty and deprivation comparable to conditions in sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the residents of these forgotten barrios are black. Drug trafficking is rife; violence a part of everyday life; the children malnourished. These riffraff, of course, will be kept well away from the pageantry that marks the turning of a page on the past. Ironic, that the Marxist leader surrenders FARC’s struggle in one of Colombia’s most affluent cities with the derelict people FARC supposedly fought for banished to the margins, out of sight, out of mind, psychologically erased at this pivotal moment.

I was in Bogota, Colombia on August 24th when the historic agreement between the government and FARC was announced, bringing an end to the longest running conflict in the western hemisphere. The agreement was the result of four years of intense negotiations in Havana, Cuba between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Timochenko. However, as those involved in conflict resolution know, a peace agreement signed with great pomp and ceremony and with the principals extolling its merits, is no more than a piece of paper – a frozen peace at best. The guns may be silent but a sustainable peace is elusive.

The real work of the agreement involves implementation of its multiple components and some form of reconciliation among the once warring parties. In short measure, the people must see some benefits; tangible outcomes – a peace dividend that confirms the agreement’s potential benefits. Otherwise protagonists may begin to renege on their commitments with unpredictable consequences –none of them good. Hard as the four years of negotiations in Havana were, the process of reconciliation among those who support the agreement and those who oppose it will be more difficult to achieve. Here two sets of reconciliation are involved.

First, the future of the agreement will be determined in a referendum on October 2nd. As in Brexit, a single question will be put before the electorate: You are either in favor of the agreement or you oppose it. The “YES” campaign (accept the agreement).The more time the NO campaign has to voice its opposition with the usual distortions that come with it, the more confusing to the electorate what is actually in the agreement; hence the preemptive on the part of the government. Both the “NO” campaign (reject the agreement) and the YES campaigns are already well under way. The reason for calling the referendum so quickly is, frankly, to curtail the debate about the agreement’s merits and give the electorate as little time as possible to absorb its content (hundreds of pages in length). Unfortunately, Colombia will likely be polarizing no matter which side prevails and in that regard the people of Colombia must be reconciled with each other, easier to achieve if the agreement receives a substantial majority in favor of one option or the other. At one point the odds of a strong YES vote seemed well within reach; in recent weeks, the odds have shortened Even with this kind of mandate, there will be a dissatisfied and bitter rump. The nationally televised panorama of today’s signing will, the YES campaign hopes, give a decisive “bump” to its efforts coming into the weekend’s referendum.

The second reconciliation involves the people of Colombia and FARC.  At the end of 2014, 38 million people around the world had been forced to flee their homes by armed conflict. Colombia is the second country with more internally displaced people (IDP) in the world, around 6 million, only exceeded by Syria with 7.6 million. Iraq is in third place with 3.3 million.

The reparations program created by the Colombian Government in 2011 had registered 7.7 million victims of forced displacement, murder, torture, sexual violence, forced disappearance and kidnapping among other grave violations of human rights. This indicates that almost 14% of the population has suffered directly from the internal armed conflict and they consider themselves a victim.

Colombia is the third country with more landmines victims in the world, only exceeded by Afghanistan and Cambodia.

During the internal armed conflict, three presidential candidates, one General Attorney, one Minister of Justice, 200 judges, 175 city mayors and sixteen congressmen have been murdered. Also 220,000 killings have been registered, 80% of them against civilians. Best estimates are that FARC is responsible for between 24 percent and 33 percent of the killings; right wing paramilitaries and government security agencies for over 50 percent.

Colombia registers 100,000 victims of forced disappearance. This figure amounts to the cases reported in the dictatorships of Argentina, Chile and Brazil put together.

Authorities have registered 39,058 kidnappings between 1970 and 2010. This figure implies that during that period, each 12 hours one person was abducted in Colombia for political or economic ends.

Authorities and non-governmental organizations have registered 5,000 extrajudicial killings executed by military forces around the country.

Forgiveness will come hard, but forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing.  Forgiveness implies reconciliation, reconciliation does not imply forgiveness. The question arises: if you vote NO, what are you voting for. Many NO supporters would say that they are voting NO because the punishments  that will be meted to FARC cadres who confess to all their crimes are far too lenient –  5 to 8 years for the most part, except for crimes against humanity,  of confinement to one of a number facilities established as holding centers for this purpose. There, comprehensive programs for the demobilized FARC cadres will start, designed to reintegrate FARC members into mainstream society. During their confinement, the FARC will be free to leave the facilities under certain conditions. If they do not return, once caught, they will be tried under the criminal justice laws and if found guilty will serve time in prison.  The goal of the reintegration program is to ensure that they will become productive members of society, assimilated into the mainstream when they are released. On paper, the steps in the reintegration process are very impressive, but how they play out in practice remains to be seen.

The NO side led by Santos’s charismatic predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, as president, believes these measures are far too lenient and that FARC members should be tried as criminals and serve time in prison. However, the FARC was not about to negotiate itself into prison and when right wing militias sought amnesty in 2006 there was no talk of them have to serve prison sentences or even confinement to a period of time. Harsher sentences may whet the appetites for revenge; revenge comes at a steep price:  a leap into the dark unknown, uncertainty at every level. Santos has said that he will not reopen the negotiation talks if the No vote prevails. There are no Plan B’s.

Henceforth, the focus is on implementation of the agreement’s multifaceted components and what reconciliation involves. (Reconciliation is one of those words much bandied about in post conflict situations that means different things to different people).The Colombian agreement is dense, runs to nearly 300 pages, is written in language that is often deliberately ambiguous — a common practice in peace agreements — to provide space for protagonists to interpret some clauses in different ways in order to keep their respective constituencies on board.

One of the major tasks of the YES campaign will be to delink it from President Santos, a widely unpopular president (13 percent favorable rating). If Santos leads the YES campaign, voters may use the referendum to express their disapproval of him and the policies his government pursues, rather than on the question on the ballot. (Lessons of Brexit).

Colombia’s peace agreement has a special claim to our attention.  Ever since its independence in 1830, Colombia has suffered from epidemics of violence. The country’s two main political parties – the Liberals and Conservatives, both overwhelmingly Catholic, fought eight civil wars in the 19th century over the role of the church in state affairs. These culminated in the War of a Thousand Days in 1899 that left 100,000 people dead, destroyed the economy and left a legacy of weak governments. Fifty years later La Violencia unleashed a wave of terror that engulfed the country. Outlaws infested the countryside – robbery, pillaging, rape and killing were commonplace. But because the outlaws were not allied to the major parties, the compenseno who were exploited by landowners and powerful interests regarded the crimes the outlaws committed as a blow against the elite, who controlled all the instruments of governance.

The UNDP (2011) reported that 1 percent of Colombians own 52% of the country’s land. Oxfam (2014) estimates that 14 percent of the population own 80 percent of the land. Moreover, the Oxfam study concluded that the concentration of land ownership was on the increase to the extent that Colombia placed 11th worldwide with the worst distribution of land.  As a result, social unrest spawned violence by illegal armed groups. A culture of violence was pervasive: four formal attempts to negotiate a peace agreement preceded today’s successful outcome. A cornerstone of the agreement is redistribution of land and rural development so that the compenseno can enjoy a decent standard of living. This may become very difficult. Powerful land-owning interests – interests of the ruling elites – will do all they can to impede implementation of this part of the agreement, which if successful, may be a harbinger of further social unrest.

La Violencia was crushed in 1953. A simmering peace prevailed for a decade before FARC and other left wing militias emerged with their Marxist agendas on behalf of the compenseno. They were joined by the narco cartels, most famously led by Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel. Colombia nearly drowned in rivers of blood. It is not an exaggeration to say that at one point Escobar was more powerful than the government. But in 1993, he was finally tracked down and killed by Colombia’s elite military squad, akin to the U.S. Navy Seals, but only with the guiding hand of the DEA, U.S. Special Forces, the CIA, and years of around the clock surveillance by U.S. reconnaissance planes, outfitted with special intelligence gathering equipment.

A culture of violence is embedded in Colombia’s history and has a stranglehold on society. It is still pervasive. Over the years several previous attempts to negotiate peace floundered for one reason poor another. The reconciliation processes, rightly, stress victims’ rights. But that alone may not be sufficient to ensure that violence does not reoccur in the future. The peace agreement does not lay out measures that will begin to address the behaviors that underlie the culture of violence, making full implementation of its provisions more difficult to achieve because the roots of the problem remain.

That said, a flawed agreement is better than no agreement.  For the first time in nearly three quarters of a century the prospects of a lasting peace– at least the absence of internal conflict – have a chance to prevail. We should salute all those involved in the negotiations and those who are tasked with the challenge of remaking Colombia.

See: O’Malley  interview with Vice Colombia’s PACIFISTA in support of the YES campaign. There will be a nationwide referendum (plebiscite) on whether to adopt the peace agreement on Oct 2nd.