There are landmark moments in the history of a nation that transcend borders and herald a new vision for the future. The signing of the peace accord in Colombia represents such a moment. If the Colombian people ratify the Havana peace agreement in the plebiscite scheduled for October 2, it will be the beginning of a transition that finally puts decades of war behind and opens the way to genuine peace. It will be mined across the globe for lessons that might apply to other intransigent conflicts. 

Artwork of doves with the Spanish word for "yes," urging support for a coming referendum, in the window of a kindergarten on the day of the signing of a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in Bogota, Sept. 26, 2016. In a moment that generations of Colombians yearned to see, the state and Marxist insurgents confirmed an accord to end a 52-year-old conflict, the last major war in the Americas. (Federico Rios Escobar/The New York Times)
Artwork of doves with the Spanish word for "yes," urging support for a coming referendum, in a window on the day of the signing of a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Federico Rios Escobar

As senior advisor for peace processes at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), an independent and bipartisan organization funded by the United States Congress, my work in the past decade has been dedicated to facilitating a political resolution to the armed conflict in Colombia. In this capacity, I have had the privilege of witnessing this process and multiple attempts to achieve peace. As a result, I recognize the significance, the challenges and the possibilities of this historic moment.

“Even in past peace processes in Colombia, the country has benefited from opening the way for ex-combatants to participate in politics.”

No one should underestimate the significance for Colombia of the signing of a peace accord. After four years of hard and steady work at the negotiating table in Havana, two bitter enemies have agreed to end a conflict that has lasted over half a century.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), the most persistent insurgency in the Western Hemisphere, has promised to hand over all of their weapons within six months of the signing to the United Nations, the principal guarantor of both the ceasefire between the sides and the decommissioning of arms.

In exchange, the government has agreed to guarantee the FARC security conditions and 10 seats in Congress for the next two terms.

The practice of opening space in political life for insurgents who demobilize has helped make successful transitions in South Africa, Northern Ireland, El Salvador, Guatemala, the Philippines and other countries affected by armed rebellion. Even in past peace processes in Colombia, the country has benefited from opening the way for ex-combatants to participate in politics.

Preventing Resumption of War

The peace agreement not only silences the guns in Colombia but also provides a roadmap to prevent any resumption of warfare. The accord institutionalizes profound changes—though not radical ones—that go to the heart of the issues behind so many years of violence. This accord seeks to correct an accumulation of historic inequities and injustices left unattended for far too long.

These changes include long-delayed proposals such as formalization of land titles and a better balance of resources between rural areas and major cities; more equitable political participation with guarantees for everyone; development programs, credit, and plans that offer alternatives to illicit crop production; and a greater effort by the state to fight criminality.

The final agreement creates mechanisms to confront the past through historical memory in ways that conform to international standards. In addition to establishing a new comprehensive transitional justice system, both state and FARC representatives are taking responsibility for their victims in places including Putumayo, Bojayá, La Chinita, Valle del Cauca and Chocó.

Over the past year, without any media attention, each side has begun to offer symbolic reparations, as well as emotional relief, to victims, as they prepare to address the local impacts of the war and to implement a peace accord.

Innovations

For the world, the peace agreement in Colombia has additional significance. Colombia has introduced a series of innovations that are already becoming models for other countries in conflict. I will mention a few here:

First, the agreement formally signed in Cartagena provides evidence that peace is possible even in conflicts generally viewed as intractable. There are no conflicts where resolution is impossible, only conflicts that have not yet been resolved.

Second, Colombia has put its victims in the center of the process. The negotiators established shared principles on victims, they invited victims to participate at the negotiating table in Havana, they listened to their proposals, and they gave them a leading role in the new transitional justice system established by the accords. These roles are unprecedented.

Third, the accord provides a reasonable formula to balance the tension between peace and justice; the lead government negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, asserted that the accord achieved in Havana represents the best deal that could have been obtained. The Colombian formula is one of the first to explicitly deny amnesty or impunity for sexual violence or other war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. The amnesty it offers will apply only to crime of rebellion and related activities, a practice promoted by international humanitarian law when a war ends.

Fourth, the Colombian formula favors restorative justice. Rather than throw criminals in jail (generally at a high cost without many positive results), the new system (through the Special Jurisdiction for Peace) seeks to establish a dialogue between victims and victimizers that satisfies the rights of the victim to truth, justice, reparation and non-repetition of the wrongs committed. It goes futher, though, as it also seeks to contribute to reconciliation and to the restoration of the victim into society, and a constructive re-weaving of the social fabric.

Paths for Reconciliation

In Colombia (as in other countries like Sierra Leone), where perpetrators are often young or have been victims themselves, a generous approach can offer new paths for reconciliation. This process is being watched carefully from around the globe.

Fifth, the process offers some important innovations on the issue of gender. The table in Colombia established a gender sub-commission with a mandate to ensure the final agreement has a differential gender approach, something that was fully fulfilled. The only other peace process that ever set up a similar sub-commission was Sri Lanka’s, and theirs fell far short of Colombia’s.

Colombia’s final agreement reflects and responds to the differences in harm experienced by women and the LGBTI community. It meets the demands made by delegations of women, lesbians, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex people to protect their rights and recognize them as citizens equal before the law.

As the agreement is implemented, it is expected to close traditional social gaps that have blocked these groups’ access to land, credit and training, education and justice, and economic projects. It should also be noted that indigenous and Afro-descent organizations established an ethnic commission apart from the negotiations, spurred by their exclusion from the formal process and supported by members of the international community. At the last minute, this effort resulted in a chapter on ethnic groups placed at the end of the final peace accord document. The experience of these ethnic organizations reminded the international community that going forward, it will need to think more concretely about how to integrate excluded voices in other peace processes in order to avert new conflicts later.

At the end of the day, the significance of a peace process depends on the rigor with which it is implemented. For now, the route forward set by the accords is clear. The next hurdle is the referendum. The world watches with hope and anticipation, ready and willing to assist Colombia and contribute whatever it may need to end an anachronistic war.

While Colombia enters this new stage—one perhaps even more demanding than the negotiations themselves—the world wishes Colombia success and looks forward to learning from Colombian efforts to establish a stable, lasting and inclusive peace.

Virginia M. (Ginny) Bouvier is USIP’s senior advisor for peace processes. She also is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Latin American Studies; and editor of Colombia: Building Peace in a Time of War (also available in Spanish). Dr. Bouvier blogs at “Colombia Calls” at http://vbouvier.wordpress.com. This article first appeared in Spanish in the Colombian publication Portofolio: El acuerdo: un compromiso de Colombia para la paz

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