Colombian Peace Process

by Professor Menninga

In September, a peace deal was signed between the Colombian government and the FARC. While this agreement could end one of the longest on-going civil conflicts, the path to peace was not easy. This process highlights the challenge of providing both peace and justice, a common obstacle to resolving civil wars.

For over 50 years the conflict between the Colombian government and the FARC (the acronym translates in English to Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army) has taken 220,000 lives and displaced more than 7 million Colombians. As 2016 comes to a close, however, so might this seemingly never-ending conlict. In September 4 years of negotiations between the FARC and the government ended with a signed peace accord between the combatants. The optimism felt by many with the announcement of the peace agreement was soon tempered as the world waited In October, however, the optimism brought to many by the signing of the peace accord was tempered as the peace accord was brought to the Colombian people in a referendum. On October 2nd the referendum, by incredibly narrow margins (50.2% to 49.8%) was rejected.

While much of the international community (including the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the Colombian President Santos), encouraged Colombians to accept the deal, the deal had many opponents as well. Those who voted no expressed distrust of the FARC and discontent with leniency provisions for the fighters (read more about the vote break down here). These two sticking points are not unique to Colombia, they are common in civil war resolution processes throughout the world. Concerns that the FARC wouldn’t actually put down their weapons is classically known a “commitment problem” among scholars. While they might agree to stop fighting in the agreement, once the agreement has been signed what is to stop the combatants from changing their mind? Agreements had been broken in the past, what would prevent this one from being broken as well.

For many, provisions in the peace accord also seemed too lenient on those who had committed atrocities during the war. Human rights abuses are hard to forget and to many important to address. Unfortunately, demanding justice can come at a price. Combatants who could be charged with crimes once the war is over have an incentive to keep fighting. Providing leniency can encourage them to put down their weapons and accept the deal. To encourage combatants to sign and accept peace accords, amnesty provisions are not uncommon.

The referendum created uncertainty about what was to come next, many feared that the years of negotiation would be declared failed. A few days after the vote, however, Santos was awarded the Noble Peace Prize for his efforts. Many credit this with infusing the process with momentum. Santos and FARC leadership negotiated changes to the peace accord, signing a revised version on Nov. 24. This agreement was submitted to Congress for approval instead of a referendum. On December 1st, Colombia’s Congress approved the revised agreement. This approval did not come easily either with opponents of the peace process walking out before the vote.

While the agreement has now been ratified, the concerns expressed during the referendum remain. Will both sides abide by the agreement? Early signs indicate that FARC is serious about demobilizing. Regional FARC leaders have been expelled for not demobilizing in accordance with the peace accord. Many members of the FARC benefit from the drug trade. A successful peace will require not only demobilizing combatants, but also finding opportunities that makes giving up their profitable criminal businesses seem appealing. The government has begun the process of pardoning rebels in line with the agreement (the Agence France Presse reports 110 pardons so far), indicating an intention to move forward with the agreement as well.

Inevitably, new stumbling blocks will appear. The events of the last few months and the continued pursuit of an agreement provide reasons to be optimistic. The resistance from some within FARC as well as Uribe and his followers provide reasons to be cautious in our optimism.   Only time will tell if this is the end of the war or only a pause in the middle.