Colombia Reconciliation: A Multi-faceted Task

By Christian Wlaschütz *

U.S._Special_Envoy_for_the_Colombian_Peace_Process_Bernard_Aronson_Addresses_Conflict_Victims,_Ex-_Combatants,_and_At-Risk_Youth_Speak_About_a_Job-_Training_Program_at_the_Escuela_Taller

Last September, a U.S. delegation addressed conflict victims and ex-combatants in Cartagena, Colombia, as part of a transnational effort to encourage the peace process. Many Colombians are distrustful of the “transnational justice” provisions of the peace accord. / The U.S. State Department / Wikimedia / Public Domain

The term “reconciliation” is now omnipresent in Colombia’s post-conflict strategies – and helps attract tens of millions of dollars in aid – but its meaning is still vague.  The intention is more than rebuilding interpersonal relationships and bringing former enemies together to embrace in public.  Political reconciliation is predominantly about social change, and in Colombia that means mending relations between the state and its citizens.  Pablo de Greiff, a Colombia human rights advocate now serving as a UN Special Rapporteur, highlights the importance of “civic trust,” by which he means the realistic expectation that state actors have to act within the law’s boundaries.

Congressional debate on aspects of the peace accord has already demonstrated broad discord on and aggressive resistance from multiple sectors of society.

  • Causing most tensions are the “transitional justice” and “special jurisdiction” provisions, which deal with allegations of rights abuses by both the FARC and the state. It is the centerpiece of efforts to achieve political reconciliation but is also the most hotly contested.
  • Even more difficult will be overcoming the widespread distrust of citizens toward the political system, as expressed by the huge rates of abstention in momentous decisions such as the peace plebiscite in October (63 percent). This distrust is caused by a sense of a lack of representation, a lack of government efficiency, and, more generally, the perception that political actors lack the will to change a system that suits the needs of a privileged elite.
  • The assassination of dozens of social leaders so far this year further fuels citizen distrust, as it reminds them of the initial phase of the extermination of the Patriotic Union – the last attempt to transform the FARC into a political actor some 30 years ago. The violence has raised questions about the state’s willingness or ability to protect civilians who are committed to social change.  It further fuels fear that the territories evacuated by the FARC will simply be taken by other armed actors.
  • Corruption poses a vexing challenge. The peace accord seems to leave open the possibility that corruption will be within the mandate of the Truth Commission, but the result is unclear.  Corruption gets to the root of the armed conflict and its persistence.  It includes the use, or abuse, of public money for private benefit.  For people in rural areas and those who live in marginalized areas of the major cities peace has simply no tangible meaning when there is no basic health system because the social insurance company collapsed because of the flow of resources into private pockets.  The same applies to education and the public transport system, most notably in Bogotá.

In an almost prophetic intervention at the Congress in late November, Todd Howland, the representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stressed the urgency of implementing the peace accord in areas previously controlled by the FARC, where 2 million citizens depend on social investment and measures to increase security in these areas.  In a country characterized by enormous estrangement between the citizens and the state, reconciliation depends on representatives being willing to pursue policies based on people’s needs.  The result of this responsiveness is new trust.

March 28, 2017

Christian Wlaschütz is an independent mediator and international consultant who has lived and worked in Colombia, in particular in conflict zones in the fields of disarmament; demobilization and reintegration; and reconciliation and communitarian peace-building.

Local Ownership in Peacebuilding, Colombian style

By Angelika Rettberg*

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“Colombian peace is our American peace.” / urban_lenny / Flickr / Creative Commons

Amid the increased political juggling in Colombia as the government’s peace deal with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) has advanced, one key lesson is that the nature of “local ownership” will have an impact on its success or failure. After the razor-thin victory of the agreement’s opponents in the referendum on October 2 propelled the country into uncertainty, its proponents – buttressed by the informal deadline created by the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to President Juan Manuel Santos on December 10 – tried a different track. Instead of calling for a new referendum, as many expected, the government appears to have learned its lesson about the perils of direct democracy and sent the new agreement to Congress, where it was approved by an undisputed majority in both houses. A Constitutional Court ruling on December 13 gave Congress fast-track authority to approve required changes in the law, paving the way for implementation. Meanwhile, FARC fighters have begun moving toward the more than 20 camps in which complete disarmament is expected to conclude by June 2017.

The country’s shifting approach to the accord has been caused by uneven local ownership. As scholars and practitioners alike underscore, broad participation in transitional countries must be involved in order to achieve sustainable peace. To avoid difficulties such as those experienced by Guatemala, where many felt the agreement was imposed by international actors, societies need to feel that agreements and the resulting commitments have been developed bottom-up, or at least with domestic actors. The Colombian process was touted as one “by Colombians for Colombians.” International participation was intentionally kept to a low profile and key players in the negotiations were all Colombians. But when the results of the October referendum temporarily pushed the country back to square one – “Nada está acordado” – it became clear that local ownership in this case had a broader meaning: Paradoxically, submitting the agreement to the popular will did not cause collective responsibility behind it to surge but rather gave a boost to people’s sense that they had the democratic right to reject the deal altogether. Similarly, despite the actions of Congress and the Constitutional Court, debate on how the agreement will be translated into action is taking place within and among the domestic institutions, including the Presidency, Congress, the courts, and several control organisms.

Colombia’s peace deal has powerfully posed the question not of whether to include popular opinion in peace deals, but how to do so in the most constructive way. The result will be very much a reflection of the Colombian people’s and their institutions’ capabilities to negotiate and establish priorities and to design policy accordingly. After all, peace is a public policy. The Colombian case thus holds many lessons for peacebuilding in general, and for the potential tensions and dilemmas needed to balance peace, majoritarian democracy, public opinion, and justice. The agreement itself may turn into a moving target as different sectors on all sides of the debate seek to steer implementation toward their interests. Regardless of what happens, the quality of “local ownership” will be central to determining the shapes and contents – and the durability – of Colombian peace.

December 22, 2016

* Angelika Rettberg is a Professor of Political Science at La Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá.

Colombia’s Last Day of War?

By Aaron T. Bell and Fulton Armstrong

Peace Signing Colombia

Photo Credit: Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Colombia’s half-century-old war entered its final stages yesterday as President Juan Manuel Santos and leaders of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) signed a ceasefire agreement in Havana, but the successful implementation of a comprehensive peace accord still faces several uphill battles.  The five key agenda items of peace talks that began in 2012 have now been agreed upon, and the final details are expected to be hashed out by the time Colombia celebrates its independence day on July 20.  The FARC has pledged that its 7,000 soldiers will enter “Temporary Hamlet Zones of Normalization” once a final accord is signed and finish turning over their weapons to a United Nations mission within 180 days.  After signing the ceasefire, a teary-eyed “Timochenko” – the FARC’s top commander – proclaimed, “May this be the last day of war,” while President Santos celebrated that “We worked for peace in Colombia, a dream that is now becoming reality.”

One major hurdle that remains to a final peace accord is the fulfillment of President Santos’s pledge to subject it to a plebiscite.  In an interview last week, the president cautioned against any notion that a “no” vote will produce a better deal and instead warned that such an outcome would mean a return to war.  Recent polls show that 60 percent of the population says that they’ll vote yes in support of a peace accord, but the Centro Nacional de Consultoría reports that Colombians’ worst fear, which could sink approval, is that one or both sides will fail to meet its commitments.  Another poll suggests that 77 percent of Colombians do not want the FARC to participate in politics, a suggestion that Timochenko has rejected.  Former President Álvaro Uribe and his Centro Democrático party have led the charge against peace talks under the slogan “Yes to peace but not like this,” and they are unlikely to stop now despite Uribe’s pledge yesterday “not to react to the impulse of first impressions.”  Uribe and his supporters have accused Santos in the past of “handing over the country to the FARC,” and 37 percent of Colombians have reported feeling that the government is conceding too much.  They are not entirely alone in this estimate, as even generally neutral observers like Human Rights Watch have suggested that the transitional justice provisions – which will provide reduced sentences to those guerrillas who confess their crimes – let the FARC off the hook.

The signing of a peace agreement between the two sides is indeed historic, but Santos and Timochencko affixing their signatures to the document is just the beginning of another arduous process.  Winning the referendum will require Santos to show vigorous political leadership and enforce greater discipline on his own cabinet team, some of whom have been less than enthusiastic in support of an accord.  Even approval in the plebiscite will of course not immediately resolve the many security challenges facing Colombia.  Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commission for Human Rights in Colombia, has noted that the FARC’s demobilization and disarmament could create a power vacuum in rural areas.  Turf wars over coca cultivation, cocaine processing, and the drug trade in which the FARC has been deeply involved since the 1990s are likely to continue, while neo-paramilitaries will likely to fight for a bigger piece of the pie.  In addition, government negotiations with the smaller Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) have been slow to start.  The international community can help with some of these issues, as it has in supporting the years-long peace process, but the real work will need to be done by Santos and his supporters.  Santos’s presidency and the long-term success of any accords rest on his ability to ensure public support, not only now but in the future, as he enters the final years in office.

June 24, 2016

U.S.-Colombia: Launching “Peace Colombia”

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

Kerry Santos

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State / Flickr / Public Domain

The United States, buoyed by good feelings about what President Obama called Colombia’s “remarkable transformation,” last week pledged $450 million a year in continued aid for the next five years, but it’s not clear yet whether “Peace Colombia” will be very different from Plan Colombia, to which the United States contributed some $10 billion.  The new spending includes unspecified amounts to support the reintegration of FARC combatants who lay down their arms as part of a peace accord expected next month, but much of the emphasis appears to be on old priorities, such as “consolidating and expanding progress in security and counternarcotics.”

  • Obama and Colombian President Santos announced the new program in Washington events marking the 15th anniversary of the launch of Plan Colombia. Amid the many remarks about Colombia’s progress, indicators such as homicide rates (down 50 percent since 2002), kidnapping rates (down 90 percent), economic growth (averaging 4.3 percent), and poverty and unemployment (down slightly) stand out.  By most accounts, moving around core regions of Colombia is easier and safer than it’s been in decades.

Some of these gains of the past 15 years remain tenuous, and “Peace Colombia” will face new challenges as well.  In speeches and backgrounders, government officials have acknowledged that coca eradication and crop substitution programs have failed to reverse Colombia’s role as the world’s biggest producer of coca.  Moreover, programs supporting the demobilization of the FARC will be more difficult to implement than those given to the rightwing paramilitaries in 2002-2006.  Tens of thousands of former paramilitaries are now active in bandas criminales (BACRIMs), which President Santos recently referred to as “2,500 miniscule criminal organizations scattered throughout the country.”  Changing economic circumstances could also complicate efforts to advance peace.  During the years of Plan Colombia, the country got a healthy bump from both domestic and foreign investment – because of the improved security environment as well as the external economic environment, including the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement and Chinese demand for commodities.  Investment remains strong, but the export boom is over, which is lowering growth and squeezing government budgets.

The creation of economic opportunity is at least as important to the success of Peace Colombia as continued support for the Colombian military and security system, although last week’s speeches and press releases did not shed much light on that.  Achieving peace and building democracy will also require addressing infrastructure deficits, educational inequality, inadequate job training, and poverty.  Several Florida congressmen, arguing that “Peace Colombia” supports an accord that’s overly generous to the FARC, say they’ll oppose Obama’s pledged aid.  The assistance will almost certainly advance, however, because of the strong Washington consensus that Colombia is its biggest (if not only) success worldwide in beating back irregular armed groups.  Moreover, as President Santos and U.S. Secretary of State Kerry emphasized in a press conference, there are no conditions on the new assistance – which should assuage Congressional opponents’ concerns that the relationship will get held up by investigations into alleged human rights violations in the past.  The Presidents spoke of pulling Colombia back from the “verge of collapse” in the 2000s to the “verge of peace” now.  A broadening of strategies in both capitals, including a reassessment of the emphasis on military options, could push the country toward becoming a more inclusive democracy, which ultimately may be what is required in order to achieve lasting peace.

February 8, 2016

Colombia: President Santos’s Challenges

By Maribel Vasquez

President Santos Calderón / Photo credit: Agência Brasil, Creative Commons

President Santos Calderón / Photo credit: Agência Brasil, Creative Commons License

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has yet to announce whether he will seek a second four-year term in May, but with the November deadline fast approaching for him to declare his candidacy, many Colombians are expressing dissatisfaction with his performance. Three years after taking office, and after a protracted honeymoon period, Santos’s approval ratings dropped to a dismal 21 percent several weeks ago. (A more recent poll surged to 41 percent but the rollercoaster ride appears likely to continue.) Colombia has experienced a wave of strikes and protests – perhaps reflecting a phenomenon evident from Brazil to Chile to Peru by which popular sentiment nosedives despite steady economic growth because much of the population is left out and institutions fail to respond to needs. The Santos administration has governed more democratically than his predecessor and shown greater commitment to the rule of law and accountability. Unlike the Clintonian dictum that “It’s the economy, stupid,” Colombia’s long-standing adage has been that “La economía va bien, el país va mal.”

The stalled peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are also to blame for Santos’s dwindling public support. On October 13th, the 15th round of negotiations concluded in Havana without visible progress towards an agreement. (Talks are set to resume next week.) The agenda has six major points agreed to by both sides: land reform, political participation, disarmament, illicit drugs, rights of the victims, and implementation of an eventual peace accord. To date, agreement has been reached on only land reform and rural development. A number of thorny issues persist, including the FARC’s demand that a constituent assembly be convened to incorporate the peace deals into the country’s constitution – which the government has rejected.  In the latest development, the government also turned down the FARC’s call to have civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson act as mediator in the release of Kevin Scott Sutay, a former U.S. marine abducted by the FARC earlier this year. Criticism of Santos’s handling of the talks is due in part to perennial public concern that the FARC is stalling the peace talks to regroup and rebuild its capabilities.

President Santos has staked his political legacy on ending Latin America’s longest-running armed conflict. Success or failure of the peace talks will define his presidency for many Colombians, and failure to reach an accord would cast a cloud over his political future. While he has talked tough – saying FARC stalling is wearing out the government and the Colombian people’s patience – President Santos appears in every bit of a hurry to see these negotiations come to a conclusion before the end of the year. Former President Alvaro Uribe and his loyalists in the Centro Democrático (CD) have already blasted what they claim is excessive leniency on the President’s part.  Santos is in a bind: if he rushes the peace talks, he risks making too many concessions and playing into the Uribistas’ hand, while canceling the talks would strip him of the desired distinction of being Colombia’s peace president. The easy road to reelection – effective conclusion of the peace process and greater responsiveness to the country’s widespread malaise – seems remote.  A strong opposition candidate has yet to emerge, however, giving Santos time to rebuild public support. CD frontrunner Francisco Santos’s recent threat to leave the party hints at a split within Uribismo.  The failure of an organized opposition may be the only advantage Santos has at the moment.

Is the truth finally arriving in El Salvador?

By Héctor Silva Ávalos

Memorial of massacre site at El Mozote, Morazan, El Salvador | By Efrojas | Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Memorial of massacre site at El Mozote, Morazan, El Salvador | By Efrojas | Wikimedia Commons | public domain

A U.S. court is on the verge of making a major contribution to El Salvador’s struggle to end impunity.  A former Salvadoran military commander six weeks ago admitted in a Miami immigration court that his troops had engaged in human rights violations and extrajudicial killings in the 1980s.  More significantly, he confirmed that the U.S.-trained and -funded Atlacatl Battalion was responsible for the horrendous massacre at El Mozote, a hamlet in which the elite Marine-style battalion killed an estimated one thousand peasants, mostly women and children, over three days in December 1981.  Until recently, current and former military commanders claimed that reports of the bloodbath were communist propaganda.  In his defense, General José Guillermo García, who was defense minister, said he was unaware of the soldiers’ actions at the time.  The judge responded skeptically, saying García “didn’t do what a military officer respectful of the law should have done in order to fully serve his country and his people.”

The General’s confession is no small matter.  An Amnesty Law passed in 1993, pushed by allies of the war-era government, put the lid on many investigations.  Its passage kept two mid-ranking officers convicted of involvement in the 1989 Jesuit massacre from serving their prison sentences, and it paved the way for other military and civilian leaders to cover up that atrocity. The air of impunity has endured for 20 years.  General García’s testimony provides the first real open window for Salvadorans to start learning about what happened despite strong efforts to keep the truth under wraps.  The political and economic elites’ defense of the Amnesty Law has focused on the argument that El Salvador should not be confronting its past if it really wants reconciliation and peace.  But two decades after the peace accord brought the end of the war, that kind of thinking is beginning to fade, and will continue to wane as Salvadoran society is confronted with the naked truth, the naked horrors.

The Obama Administration deserves some credit for advancing the legal case against García and a former colonel facing similar immigration charges in Boston, Inocente Orlando Montano.  Both processes have been encouraged by a U.S. policy of locating and ousting foreigners on U.S. soil who have been credibly accused of human rights violations abroad.  However ironic it is that some of the violations were committed by units receiving U.S. assistance, Washington is promoting an important lesson:  generals who once held in their hands power over citizens’ lives and deaths become common defendants – criminals – when the truth is known.  The impunity enjoyed by the colonels and generals – and their civilian sponsors – has grown roots in Salvadoran institutions and still feeds today a culture of obscurity, injustice and inequity that prevents the country’s progress towards development and modernity.  This vicious cycle will not will not end until they are held accountable.

Read the full text of this essay.