More than a half-century of internal warfare in Colombia is on the brink of a peaceful resolution after four years of talks that suggest how other seemingly intractable conflicts in the world also might be brought to an end. With the announcement yesterday of a ceasefire between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), the adversaries in one of the world’s oldest guerilla insurgencies disclosed new agreements on the two major issues that were holding up a final accord — disarmament and demobilization of the rebels’ estimated 8,000 fighters.

negotiations in Cuba

Top leaders from around the world—United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the head of the General Assembly, seven presidents, foreign ministers, and the U.S. and European special envoys—joined President Juan Manuel Santos and Rodrigo Londono, the head of the FARC-EP, to celebrate signing the deal in Havana, where talks have been underway since late 2012.

“For the world, Colombia is an emblematic case that demonstrates that political solutions can be found.” – Virginia “Ginny” Bouvier, U.S. Institute of Peace

For a turbulent world, the success of the accord is a sign that political solutions are possible to even the most entrenched armed conflicts.

For Colombians, ending warfare that has caused 260,000 deaths, displaced 7 million people and disrupted the economy across large swaths of the nation opens the way to a better future. Even so, reconciliation of the former guerrillas with the population—assuming a final accord is signed and approved—will remain a massive undertaking. USIP supports various networks in the country that are poised to help with the crucial reintegration efforts.

The U.S., too, has been deeply involved with the nation’s conflict. Through Plan Colombia, the American government has spent $10 billion bolstering the government’s campaign against rebels and drug traffickers with cash, equipment, intelligence support and training. The U.S. has designated the FARC-EP as a terrorist group and major drug trafficker. The ceasefire agreement includes a commitment by both sides to fight trafficking and other forms of organized crime, including paramilitary gangs that often target demobilized guerrillas.

Virginia Bouvier, a senior advisor for peace processes at the U.S. Institute of Peace, who has led the institute’s work on Colombia for the past decade, discusses the cease-fire accord and what comes next.

What does this agreement do?

While the deal falls just short of a final peace, it essentially puts the finishing touches on ending the conflict. It includes three sets of accords:

1. Definitive, Bilateral Cease-fire, Cessation of Hostilities, and Setting Aside of Weapons. The government and the FARC-EP, the largest insurgency in the western hemisphere, will stop fighting. They agreed to create a “new culture that forswears the use of arms in the exercise of politics” and that “privileges the values of democracy, the free exchange of ideas and civilized debate.” Specifically, they committed to

  • A road map for the rebels to put down their weapons within six months after signing a final accord.
  • Monitoring and verification of the ceasefire and disarmament by a U.N.-led unit that includes both sides and observers drawn largely from the Latin American and Caribbean Community of Nations (CELAC).
  • Giving the U.N. responsibility for ensuring that all FARC-EP weapons are turned in and publicly accounted for.
  • Having the weapons melted to build peace monuments at the U.N. headquarters in New York, in Cuba and in Colombia, resolving a major sticking point around the destination of the arms.
  • A plan for concentrating FARC-EP troops, beginning the day after the accord is signed, as part of a secure and accountable demobilization process.
  • Creating 23 transitory hamlet-based zones and eight encampments, protected by state security forces, where the FARC-EP members will prepare for reintegration into civilian life. The U.N.-led monitoring unit will address any unanticipated situations that may arise.

2. Security Guarantees. The agreement promises the government will provide security for guerrillas who give up their weapons, and spells out principles on which the security guarantees are offered. They include respect for human rights and the rule of law, and recognition that the state has a legitimate monopoly on the use of force and the power of taxation. A series of bureaucratic steps in the agreement aim to create a secure environment for the demobilized fighters—an issue of key concern that was left for the end of the negotiations. The two sides also agreed to create a set of technical commissions to provide further security guarantees, including one to formulate policy on dismantling criminal organizations, as well as a special investigations unit in the Attorney General’s Office to tackle organized crime.

3. Endorsement of the Accords. Perhaps the most surprising item, because there was no hint before yesterday’s event, was agreement to accept a decision by the Constitutional Court on the legitimate mechanism for endorsing the final accord. The government has long pushed for a plebiscite, while the FARC-EP has consistently sought a national constituent assembly. The Constitutional Court is currently reviewing the constitutionality of voting on the peace accords in an up-or-down referendum and the terms under which that might take place.

What is the wider significance of the new agreements?

This final stage of negotiations is historic for Colombia, the region and the world. For Colombia, ending the conflict will ensure that there will be no new victims of the internal armed conflict. The toll—at more than 8 million victims, including 7 million internally displaced people—is far too high already. Regionally, Colombia’s conflict has sent over half a million refugees over its borders, spreading insecurity and criminality and exacerbating poverty in these largely neglected regions. 

Ending the last armed conflict in Latin America and the Caribbean will enhance regional stability. Finally, for the world, Colombia is an emblematic case that demonstrates that political solutions can be found with persistence, hard work, political will, leadership and dialogue. At a time when violence seems on the rise all over the world, a peace deal in Colombia is a much-needed sign of hope and an affirmation that peace between sworn adversaries is possible.

Where does the peace process go from here?

The agreements signed yesterday suggest that there is no turning back. Santos put the full weight of his office behind yesterday’s event, as did FARC leader Londono, better known as Timochenko. There has never been such a serious and persistent effort to find a peaceful resolution to Colombia’s conflict. But … we are not quite there yet.

A few dozen items are still outstanding from previous deals on rural agrarian development, political participation, illicit crops and drug trafficking, victims and transitional justice. There are still discussions needed on how they will be implemented and the mechanisms for resolving conflicts that may come up.

In addition, the commission analyzing gender effects of the agreements still needs to complete its review of the documents, and an initiative to bring an ethnic delegation to the peace table has yet to be completed. This visit will be important because the agreements will have a direct impact on indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities and could potentially fan new conflicts if these issues aren’t raised before the final signatures.

Santos said this week that a final agreement should be signed by July 20th while FARC leader Timochenko cautioned that there is still much to be discussed.

A key remaining question regards the integration of the FARC into politics. The latest agreements hint at the need to separate arms from politics, but the parties have not established the specifics of how the government and the FARC can enter the political arena.

The political prospects generally are uncertain. Opposition to the FARC’s engagement in politics in Colombia consistently surpasses 75 percent, so approval of the final accord in a plebiscite is obviously not a given. An education effort to inform the Colombian voters about the content of the accords will need to be stepped up. It has started, but there is much to be done before the Colombian people will be in a position to judge the accords.

If the final accord does get approved, will Colombia then be at peace?

Unfortunately, the failure to launch formal talks with Colombia’s smaller insurgent group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), means that this will be an incomplete peace. The presence of an active ELN will make it difficult to provide security for those who demobilize and the communities where they relocate, and difficult to monitor and verify violations.

After ratification, it will be a time to celebrate. Then it will be time to get back to the working of translating agreements on paper into reality. And looking back at four years of negotiations, one can imagine that this first stage was in fact the easy part.

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