Colombia is poised at a crucial juncture - an opportunity to achieve lasting peace or, alternatively, to spiral into another cycle of violence. How can local, regional, and national actors help build upon peace initiatives to acheive a reconciled society in Colombia?

Summary

  • With the reelection of incumbent President Alvaro Uribe on May 28, 2006, a "ripe moment" may be emerging for resolving Colombia's long-standing armed conflict. After exerting pressure on the guerrillas and demobilizing the largest paramilitary organization during his first term, President Uribe is well positioned to pursue a political solution to the conflict. If he does not, the window of opportunity may close and the conflict could quickly intensify.
  • The Colombian state has a rich and varied history of negotiating peace at the national level with illegal armed groups. Increasingly, state authorities at local and regional levels, as well as individuals, groups, and communities within civil society, have gained experience in negotiating peace with armed actors and establishing mechanisms for the nonviolent resolution of conflict.
  • Since local peacebuilding involves informal, unofficial ("track two") diplomacy, a central question is how these local experiences might contribute to "track two" diplomacy at the national level.
  • Vibrant, organized, and diverse, civil society actors are seeking ways to participate in a future negotiation while debating what form that participation might take. These actors generally agree on the need for citizen mobilization and peace education, political support for dialogue with armed actors, increased and broader citizen participation in any peace process, and solidarity with all the victims of violence.
  • Peace initiatives that cut across geographic lines offer opportunities for more comprehensive approaches. Women's, indigenous, and Afro-Colombian groups have successfully organized at the local, regional, national, and, increasingly, international levels, and women's groups have designed consensus peace agendas. These sectors have borne the brunt of the conflict and have high stakes in its resolution.
  • International actors can be most effective if they play a subsidiary or complementary role that supports and builds on local, regional, and national peace initiatives. They can provide financial or technical assistance, support basic human rights protection and monitoring, and accompany peace and development initiatives. They also can facilitate consensus that will lead to public policies more conducive to the transformation of the conflict.
  • Contrary to the usual notion that peacemaking should take place before peacebuilding, post-conflict reconstruction, and reconciliation, and that humanitarian assistance should be emphasized over development, the case of Colombia suggests that concurrent pursuit of these goals can help reduce violence, mitigate conflict, and create conditions for a peace accord.

Introduction

Colombia is in the midst of a prolonged and chronic, internal armed conflict that involves multiple armed actors (including guerrillas, paramilitary forces, state armed forces, common criminals, and drug traffickers) and has lasted for more than four decades. It also involves a broad range of individuals, organizations, and institutions dedicated to finding a nonviolent resolution to the conflict. This report, the USIP-Cornell conference on which it is based, and the upcoming book focus on the often-unacknowledged actors in what we broadly consider "peace initiatives."

Civilians are increasingly involved in the Colombian conflict, not only as victims but also as protagonists seeking ways to end the violence, marginalize actors advocating violence as a vehicle for change, and negotiate conflicts as they emerge on the ground. Armed actors are thus not the only or even the primary stakeholders in the resolution of Colombia's conflict. Peace initiatives are promoting attitudes and structures that may help create a more inclusive political system that can manage conflict nonviolently. Thus these and other expressions of social mobilization and collective action must be seen as integral parts of any comprehensive and strategic peace policy and as important mechanisms for building the relationships of trust necessary for a reconciled society in Colombia.



Conclusions and Possible Ways Forward

Colombia now has the chance to achieve lasting peace or, alternatively, to spiral into another cycle of violence that could engulf the next generation. Having applied tremendous military pressure on the guerrillas and demobilized 30,000 paramilitaries during his first administration, Uribe has an opportunity to provide leadership for a fresh push for peace in Colombia. With his recent victory at the polls and control of both legislative chambers since congressional elections last March, Uribe is well positioned to make bold moves toward a political solution to the conflict. Whichever avenue he chooses, Uribe will do well to draw on the experiences of those engaged in peacemaking and peacebuilding at the local, regional, national, and international levels.

Conference participants discussed a number of options for moving forward. First, the international community could encourage the Uribe government to initiate a guerrilla-government dialogue or could facilitate such a dialogue. One participant suggested that dramatic gestures on the part of the FARC—such as the release of Ingrid Betancourt, three captured U.S. personnel, or other kidnapped Colombians—could "go a long way towards getting European and U.S. buy-in" and could "press Uribe to come to the table." He noted, "If the FARC appears willing to negotiate in good faith ... the U.S. government is likely to place enormous pressure on Uribe to reciprocate and get to the table." Conference participants expressed hope that given the proper conditions, agreements with the FARC could be reached in the future.

Participants underscored the important role of civil society in the ongoing efforts to bring the ELN to the peace table and the potential role of civil society in moving the FARC toward a political solution as well. Jonesproposedaseriesofgoalsthatmightbeachiev- Jones proposed a series of goals that might be achievable with the participation of civil society—a prisoner swap with the FARC as an opener and token of good faith, followed by an agreement to start a dialogue about an agenda and preconditions for talks with insurgents, government, and civil society amply represented. This, in turn, could lead to talks themselves, suspension of the armed conflict, and agreement on a strategy for demobilization of the FARC guerrillas, he suggested.

Second, some participants felt that meetings among and with armed actors in pursuit of a peaceful settlement might be worth exploring. FARC leaders had once proposed meeting with the Colombian generals, noted one participant. He asked whether the United States might be in a position to encourage or facilitate Colombian military-guerrilla conversations or engage in confidence-building measures that might get both sides thinking about how to break through the current impasse. He recalled that the pre-peace-accord talks between the Guatemalan military and guerrillas paved the way for negotiations that ended Guatemala's civil war a decade ago, and he cited the role of the Israeli military in pushing Israeli political leaders to seek peace. Any U.S.-Colombia military talks, cautioned another participant, would need to take place with the approval and knowledge of the highest levels of Colombia's executive branch, or they could be seen as undermining civilian control of the military.

Third, dialogues with armed actors could be more effective if civil society actors, such as the Catholic Church or one of the peace commissions representing civil society, were actively involved in crafting and executing them, another participant said. This was the case in Guatemala and is being tried now with the ELN.

Fourth, involving the military in planning for peace could minimize the chances that it would take on the role of "spoiler" in future peace talks. In a paper prepared for the conference, Schirmer underscored this point. She noted that the armed actors of both the insurgency and the state—"those actors who have the most capacity to wage war"—need to be engaged and brought into pre-dialogues early on.

Fifth, given their backgrounds, demobilized and reintegrated ex-guerrillas may be in a position to make an important contribution to current and future peace efforts. Schirmer noted, "Those ex-guerrilleros with both military experience and political skills, as well as experience with negotiating a cease-fire, are often, unsurprisingly, the most able to reach across the table and speak frankly and respectfully about delicate issues without raising rancor."

Finally, and perhaps most important, those engaged in peacemaking and peacebuilding at the local, regional, national, and international levels are primary stakeholders in the conflict, and they constitute a tremendous untapped resource whose accumulated experiences—negotiating agreements on humanitarian issues or for conflict mitigation, promoting inclusive and participatory governance, promoting regional development, educating for peace and nonviolent conflict resolution, and marginalizing actors advocating violence—may hold the keys for transforming Colombia's conflict.


About the Report

Nearly half-a-century old, the Colombian conflict has spawned a long tradition of peace initiatives that offer innovative alternatives to violence. Peace Initiatives in Colombia, a conference sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace and the Latin American Studies Program at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, November 19-20, 2005, analyzed these initiatives from various perspectives and identified the variables and strategies relevant to their success.

The conference brought together contributors to a book on Colombian peace initiatives being edited by Virginia M. Bouvier, a Latin American specialist and senior program officer of the Jennings Randolph program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Conference speakers included some twenty individuals from a broad range of academic fields, as well as human rights and development specialists, photographers, and political and military analysts from Colombia, the United States, and Europe. A list of conference participants, about half of whom are current or former USIP grantees or peace scholars, is at the end of this report.

The conference was organized by Dr. Bouvier and Dr. Mary Roldán. Additional sponsors included Cornell's Africana Studies and Research Center; its departments of development sociology, government, history, and anthropology; the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies; the Institute for European Studies; the Johnson School of Management; the Peace Studies Program; the Society for the Humanities; the Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR); and the Colombian Student Association, as well as Syracuse University's Program for Analysis and Resolution of Conflict (PARC). This report is based primarily on presentations and papers prepared for the conference, and participants have reviewed it.

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