Half of all peace agreements break down in the first five years after they are signed. That’s a sobering prospect that means U.S. support will be just as important even if an accord is reached in negotiations underway between the government of Colombia and the FARC guerrillas.

Humberto de la Calle Head of the government delegation at the talks in Havana. Photo Credit: wsp.presidencia.gov.co
Humberto de la Calle, head of the government delegation at the talks in Havana. Photo Credit: wsp.presidencia.gov.co

The talks have been touch-and-go since the beginning, when they began in November 2012 in Havana, Cuba, after being launched in Norway. Despite a well-resourced process with highly capable professionals involved, stresses and strains are a constant threat. The government’s decision to escalate its war against the rebel group back home even while talking peace has been particularly problematic, especially since polls show the Colombian people largely feel they have yet to benefit from the negotiations.

Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and his allies remain virulent opponents of the talks.  Their opposition is likely to accelerate as congressional and presidential elections this spring become a choice between war and peace. For current President Juan Manuel Santos, moving a peace agenda forward as a state policy and not merely the campaign of a single candidate poses its own challenges.

Threats have continued unabated against those seeking restitution of their lands. The government also has been unable or unwilling to provide effective protection for victims who choose to return to their lands or organize others to do the same, for union workers struggling for better work conditions, or for social organizations or politicians from the left who threaten the status quo.

The ability of these nonviolent forces to work safely for advancement within the electoral system is a litmus test for what’s to come after any peace accord.  While an agreement reached in Havana last year on the issue of political participation addresses at least some of these concerns, the security environment for legitimate political dissent continues to be problematic. 

Allegations earlier this month that 29 members of the FARC-aligned political movement Marcha Patriótica (Patriotic March) have been killed since the group was given legal standing last year, and that the organization has experienced other forms of physical and legal persecution led Marcha Patriótica leader Piedad Córdoba to announce that she is considering disbanding the organization for security reasons.  On Jan. 22, the FARC’s lead negotiator in Havana, Iván Márquez, read a communiqué noting that the killings and detentions of Marcha Patriótica members is a betrayal of the political participation terms reached last year. 

As we think today about the ways that the U.S. government might support peace in Colombia, it’s important to consider the long term. Peacebuilding in the aftermath of a conflict that has endured for half a century, as has this one, will take time and resources. 

We must think not only about ways to support the Colombian government’s peace efforts, but also to protect and empower a strong, autonomous, independent civil society.  This includes human rights and peace groups, churches and faith-based organizations, and assemblages of young people, women, entrepreneurs, peasants, workers and many more.

They helped pave the way for the talks, with actions such as pressure on the insurgents to change their behavior and on the government to pursue a peaceful settlement. They also highlighted the cost of war and the plight of the victims, created spaces of nonviolent resistance, and identified potential stumbling blocks and ways to navigate around sticking points.

While civil society is not represented at the negotiating table, the government’s recent addition of two women to its team could provide a crucial link to organizations of women or victims of the violence.

Thus far, civil society has provided inputs through a variety of mechanisms. Four forums have been held, for example, on agrarian development policy, political participation, and illicit crops and drug trafficking.  The negotiators also have received briefings on issues such as the land question by thematic experts and academics from government as well as nongovernmental and international organizations.

Given that whatever agreement is reached will require public endorsement, civil society will be absolutely critical in educating the public about the terms of the accord and creating support.  For now, public sentiment is beginning to gain momentum in support of the official process, but nothing can be taken for granted.

In addition to educating the public, strong, independent civic organizations will be needed to monitor compliance with any agreement, anticipate potential new conflicts or the resurgence of old ones, and foster mechanisms for conflict prevention and resolution. 

In the aftermath of war, communities grapple with the legacies of violent conflict.  It falls to societies to create a collective understanding of the nature and causes of the violence, and to establish the truth of past crimes. 

In Colombia, though a peace accord has not yet been signed, civil society, the government, and the international community are already being called on to support victims in recovering their lives and their dignity, and to foster the reintegration, coexistence, or reconciliation of displaced people and ex-combatants.  This work will grow in the aftermath of a peace accord.

That said, civil society is itself a microcosm of the schisms of the broader society. Discriminatory and exclusive practices are often reproduced in peace processes and within civil society.  So particular care must be taken to ensure inclusivity.

Supporting both the Colombian government’s transition and the role of civil society in the aftermath of any peace agreement is the best assurance that any peace accord reached will also be sustained.

Virginia M. Bouvier is USIP’s senior program officer for Latin America. Viola Gienger is a senior writer at USIP. This post was adapted from a presentation Bouvier gave on Jan. 23, 2014, at a conference at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs sponsored by the non-governmental Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

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