South America

A peace agreement and challenges ahead

The June 23 ceasefire is undoubtedly a major step towards ending the rural insurgency which has plagued Colombia for the past half century. But the peace process is still at a delicate stage, and many challenges remain

Juan Manuel Santos, president of Colombia (L), Raul Castro, President of Cuba (C) and Rodrigo Londoño, leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), during a meeting about transitional justice agreement on September 23, 2015 in Havana, Cuba

On June 23 the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a permanent ceasefire agreement. The ceremony in Havana was attended by President Manuel Santos and Rodrigo Londoño, the head of the FARC-EP,  as well as seven other presidents, the UN Secretary-General,  representatives from Norway and Cuba as guarantors of the negotiations, and the US and European Union special envoys.

Under the  ceasefire agreement, the FARC guerrillas will lay down their weapons within six months after signing a final accord. The disarmament process will be implemented by the Colombian armed forces, FARC and a 500-member unarmed United Nations team which is charged with monitoring and verification. The FARC fighters will be demobilized by moving them to 23 transitional  hamlet-based zones and eight encampments under the protection of state security forces. FARC members will then prepare themselves for reintegration into civilian life.  

There is a widespread concern about the security of the FARC members in this delicate stage of the process. In a previous demobilization, many guerrillas were killed by paramilitary groups. In this process, the Colombian armed forces are required to protect the lives of their former enemies, and are said to be willing to do so. But the UN mission has a mandate for only 6 months.   

A risky plebiscite
Apart from the complex terms of the agreement, President Santos has created a serious challenge by promising to put the peace agreement to a referendum. This now looks like a risky step.

A campaign against the agreement headed by former president Alvaro Uribe is reducing support for the peace process. Uribe argues that Santos, his former defense minister, is a traitor for cutting deals with terrorists, offering them impunity and providing them legitimacy and political space.  It will drive the country into a 'Castro-Chavista' Venezuelan-style dictatorship, he argues.

The peace process is very much associated to President Santos. His popularity, after the signing of the ceasefire, was only 37 per cent. Latest opinion polls, however, show rising support for the peace agreement and trust in FARC’s commitment to it.

The demobilized guerrillas will be allowed to participate in Colombia’s political life on the basis that they have accepted that the state has a monopoly on the use of force and the collection of taxes. This is a major source of controversy and debate is continuing on whether this will be allowed to happen.

'Ultimately the success of the peace agreement with FARC will depend on how it is implemented on the ground in a country where the writ of the state extends to no more than 40 per cent of the country’s territory'

The FARC guerrillas will be allowed to form their own political party but there is widespread concern about the leaders taking posts in parliament or local councils. Hardliners argue that former guerrillas will continue the insurgency using legal means.  

Another huge obstacle is a new peace process with the ELN, the second biggest guerrilla group, which was agreed in March.  The ELN wants to differentiate itself from FARC, an organization that 'had ceded too much', and criticizes the peace agreement and the referendum.  Marisol Gómez, from newspaper El Tiempo, explains 'The ELN is structured as a grass-roots organization and its leaders will consult every decision. It would drag out the negotiations endlessly'.  

The process is frozen because the ELN has not accepted the government’s demand that it free all prisoners and declare an end to kidnapping. But there is a risk this guerrilla group, will try to try to maintain its role a 'pure actor' in the revolutionary war.  

The ELN is pushing  to have Venezuela on board as a guarantor, in addition to Norway and Cuba, the two countries which have guaranteed the government-FARC negotiations. Venezuela provides a safe haven for the ELN leaders, but the volatile situation in Venezuela could mean the end of Caracas´s support for the peace negotiations, with serious consequences for the process.  

Ultimately the success of the peace agreement with FARC will depend on how it is implemented on the ground in a country where the writ of the state extends to no more than 40 per cent of the country’s territory. The mayors and governors of more than a thousand municipalities and 32 departments will have to carry out a programme of assistance and reparations for hundreds of thousands of registered victims and millions of internally displaced, and reintegrate of thousands of combatants who all need jobs, while dealing with restitution of land in cases where several contradictory title deeds are in place.  

Alejandro Reyes, former advisor of the government delegation in the negotiations, is concerned about that conflicts will may arise due to tensions between dispossessed peasants, unclear property rights, illicit mining and the effects of climate change.  

Improving infrastructure in these hitherto neglected parts of the country will be crucial so that people can feel the benefits of peace. In some regions where FARC will demobilize its forces the presence of the state is non-existent and criminal organizations could step in to recruit young people.