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After 52 years of armed conflict, the Colombian government and the country’s oldest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), announced a final agreement last night aimed at ending one of the world’s longest-lasting insurgencies. The U.S. Institute of Peace’s Virginia M. “Ginny” Bouvier, who has studied the peace process from the outset and advised Colombian government officials, civil society and others promoting a political solution to the conflict, comments on the accord and its prospects for ending the country’s decades of unrelenting violence.

Hope
"Hope"

“A peace deal in Colombia is a much-needed sign of hope and an affirmation that peace between sworn adversaries is possible.”

In talks that began in Havana in 2012, the two sides have reached understandings on peacebuilding measures that include transitional justice, accounting for the “disappeared” and a plan for demobilizing the rebels’ estimated 7,000 fighters. The historic agreement opens the way for peace after an internal conflict that, in a nation of 50 million, has left 220,000 dead, 7.65 million registered victims and more than 6 million people displaced from their homes.

In a nutshell, what does this agreement mean?

The accord marks the beginning of the end of the FARC as an armed group and of Colombia’s internal armed conflict. This is a tremendous achievement by not only the two negotiating teams and the international community that supported the talks but also by Colombian civil society, which for decades pressed for a political solution.

What comes next?

Today President Juan Manuel Santos will send the accord to Congress with a request to hold a plebiscite on it on October 2. Congress has a month to act. Assuming lawmakers agree, the president will then set the final date for the vote and the precise question to be voted on. The country has been gearing up already to campaign for the “yes” or the “no.” It looks like it will be close.

Why might Colombians reject the accord?

While Colombians overwhelmingly support peace, polls show deep polarization over the accords themselves. Most controversial are parts of the special justice system to be used in the transition. The international community has largely embraced the agreements as striking a reasonable balance for all sides, addressing root causes of the conflict; victims’ rights to truth, justice, reparations and non-repetition of the conflict; and the government’s obligation to investigate, prosecute and punish violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

Part of the problem is that Santos, who has staked his presidency on ending the war, is unpopular at home, primarily for his handling of the economy. He also faces powerful opponents to the deal in former President Alvaro Uribe, who calls the accord an agreement with terrorism, and Comptroller General Alejandro Ordóñez, who has challenged the agreement’s legality. It will be unfortunate if the plebiscite becomes a political referendum on Santos rather than a vote to move out of the shadows of war.

What about the specifics of the accords?

That’s another problem—people don’t know what the accords say. It will take creative strategies to quickly educate the public on what’s in some 267 pages that are particularly complex on the subject of transitional justice. The accords in many respects are premised on a commitment to reconciliation—a hard sell in a country where the FARC has been the enemy for so many years and violence has been perpetrated by a range of armed actors, including state security forces, paramilitaries, and regional elites. But folks here who have been running workshops on the content of the accords tell me that people’s attitudes become more favorable once they know what is in them.

Uribe, meanwhile, has largely hijacked the debate on justice. He hammers home two simple points: FARC militants must face jail time for their crimes and be banned from political office. Those positions win more than 75 percent support in public opinion polls. In fact, the agreement allows prison terms of up to 20 years for victimizers who don’t confess their crimes fully and reduced sentences with alternative restrictions on liberty for those who do.  

Could the peace deal fall apart and the nation return to war?

It’s unclear what would happen if the agreement is voted down. Although the FARC has reiterated a commitment to peace in recent months and said it will not return to war even if the accord isn’t approved, the fear I’ve heard is that a strong “no” vote would leave those favoring a military solution with the upper hand. It could also lead to a resurgence of violence in the countryside against social leaders and politicians who have led the charge for victims’ rights to restitution and reparations.

Chief negotiator Humberto de la Calle has said that the team reached the best deal possible for Colombia. They have done an extraordinary job, and I think it would be hard both physically and emotionally to either reach a new deal or to start the process over. Four years of negotiating has taken a toll on the negotiating teams and on the public. Opening the process up again would not find much support in Colombia or in the international community.

While Santos is technically barred from renegotiating the deal, other actors such as the Congress could step in under a constitutional provision guaranteeing Colombians the right to peace. It wouldn’t be easy, but I think those working for peace would find a way forward even if the “no” vote wins. 

Perhaps the greatest challenge is reaching a peace agreement with Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla organization, the National Liberation Army (ELN).  Although it’s smaller than the FARC, failure to advance from an exploratory phase that began in 2014 to a serious peace negotiation could easily undermine the agreement with the FARC and provide a landing place for disaffected FARC combatants.

So what happens to the FARC now?

While the Colombian public prepares for their plebiscite, some 600 FARC leaders will gather in southern Colombia to assess the deal, probably in the first two weeks of September. If the FARC wins the backing of its constituents—which is widely expected— a formal signing will take place.

At that point, FARC troops will begin their journey to 23 safe zones and eight camps. Over a period of 180 days, the fighters will turn over their weapons to the United Nations, which, under a Security Council resolution, will oversee the bilateral ceasefire and cessation of hostilities scheduled to begin on Monday. The UN also will oversee the decommissioning of weapons, which will be forged into monuments to peace in New York at the U.N., in Cuba, which hosted the peace talks, and somewhere in Colombia.  Within six months of the formal signing of the agreement, the FARC will have turned over all arms, and the transformation of the group from an armed organization into a political and social movement will begin. 

By the time of the plebiscite, some FARC troops already will have begun to head to the concentration zones. The timing was a major sticking point because of FARC concerns that they would be vulnerable during the transition. But the parties and their advisor found a last-ditch solution using a law that allows the state to suspend arrest warrants during peace processes. By April 2017, the transitory zones will be closed down, and FARC will be reincorporated into civilian life. 

The government and the FARC originally set a March 23 deadline to reach a final accord. What were the last sticking points and why were they difficult to resolve?

The final sticking points included when the law granting amnesty for crimes relating to membership in the FARC—not war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide, which will be judged in a Special Peace Tribunal—will go into effect. The law would identify which crimes will be considered related to the crime of rebellion.

Another major sticking point related to political participation of the FARC. It was resolved by guaranteeing the FARC 10 seats in Congress beginning in 2018 and a system of “voice without vote” in the meantime.

A third point related to whether reintegration of the FARC would be “hyper-collective” or by individual; a middle ground seems to have been found. Security guarantees were also very sensitive, given the assassination of many FARC leaders following the last successful peace process in the early 1980s.

Finally, there were remaining agenda items that included the process for appointing judges to the Special Peace Tribunal and mechanisms for verifying and implementing the agreements and resolving disputes under the accords.

woman mediatorAre there any behind-the-scenes factors that affected the timing of the agreement?

Both sides would like to have the settlement wrapped up before the end of the Obama Administration rather than take a chance on what might come next. U.S. President Barack Obama has been very supportive of Santos and the peace process.

One of the FARC’s persistent demands has been the return from U.S. prison of Ricardo Palmera, alias “Simón Trinidad,” a member of the FARC executive committee who is serving a 60-year term for his role in the 2003–2008 kidnapping of three U.S. defense contractors. The president has the power to issue a pardon and FARC negotiator Ivan Marquez made an appeal to him in last night’s ceremony in Havana. This might be a good carrot for rapid implementation and compliance with the accords.

Likewise, Colombia needed this process to come to fruition.  The public was getting impatient and losing interest at not seeing results; the FARC troops were feeling unprotected; and Colombian presidential elections in 2018 demand that Santos give attention to a tax reform that is waiting in the wings once the plebiscite has taken place.

You have studied peace processes that ended conflicts in many parts of the world. How have the Colombian negotiators broken new ground?

There is no other peace process in the world where victims have occupied such a central role. The transitional justice design here is historic and innovative.  It gives priority to truth-telling, but respects the need for justice. The model is innovative in its inclusion of restorative justice and its focus on repairing the damage inflicted on individuals and communities through a process of dialogue and healing. This bears watching, as it could provide new models for other conflict zones seeking to find a way out of war.

Another innovation has been the process’s attention to issues of exclusion. The lesson here is that inclusion only happens when excluded groups demand a place in the process and work to secure it. Women’s organizations pushed hard for and secured two plenipotentiaries at the negotiating table. They also won a gender subcommission to ensure that the accords would have a gendered perspective and consultations in Havana with 18 representatives of women’s organizations and LGBTI organizations, as well as a dozen female ex-combatants around the world.

Likewise, indigenous and Afro-descent groups were, belatedly, invited to the negotiating table, and have been working closely with the teams in the past two months to ensure that the peace accords do not exacerbate conflict in their regions or undermine collective and territorial rights. Word came today that the ethnic delegations invited at the last minute to create a special chapter regarding territorial and collective rights of Afro- and indigenous groups are satisfied that they have been heard. All of these groups—victims, women, LGBTI individuals, Afro-Colombians and indigenous people—are expected to give the accords legitimacy and to be powerful advocates for the peace accord in the coming month.

What dangers lie ahead for Colombia?

The biggest danger would be a failure to carefully and fully carry out a broad, accepted national reconciliation. Almost every family in Colombia has suffered some kind of loss in the conflict and the polarization is intense.

To avoid revenge and future confrontation, and cycles of violence, reconciliation with political momentum is essential. This is why the transitional justice provisions and recognition of historical memory are so important.

What has been the role of USIP in this process?

Reconciliation has to take place on a personal, as well as political level. USIP has done a lot of work in this field. For example, we have supported the creation and training of a national network of women mediators from 12 departments in Colombia, who are in turn training other women in their own regions to mediate for the prevention and transformation of current and anticipated conflicts.

We have funded and provided technical support for a network of regional and local reconciliation committees in 10 of the country’s 32 political subdivisions as models for getting citizens involved in peace and reconciliation. We’ve also supported Catholic and Protestant women to address long-standing divides between them to work for peace and reconciliation. These are just a few examples.

At the end of this 52-month process, which capped a half-century of conflict, what is the most important understanding you’re left with?

Colombia shows that political solutions for violent conflict can be found with persistence, hard work, political will, leadership and dialogue. When violence seems to be 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, and that there is much that can be done to prepare the way, even when there is no peace process in sight. 

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