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Colombia’s fourth attempt at peace with the Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) started formally last month in Oslo and will continue the 15th of November in Havana, Cuba. The earlier attempts- starting in 1984, 1990 and 1998- to end one of Latin America’s longest and bloodiest armed conflict all failed. Why would the outcome of the peace talks this time be different?
In the past the agenda that was agreed upon covered over 100 items to be dealt with. This time there is a limited five-point agenda. The five point agenda concerns the topics of rural development, political participation with guarantees for the exercise of political opposition, end of the armed conflict (ceasefire, disarmament, demobilization, reintegration), drugs, and victims rights.
The FARC have been weakened. During the Uribe and now Santos governments, backed by billions of dollars of US assistance (Plan Colombia), several top commanders have been killed or captured and a lot of soldiers have deserted. Once a force of over 20 000 men, it is estimated that the FARC now have been reduced to around 9000 men, who have been pushed back into remote mountain hideouts. While public support for the FARC was never high in Colombian society as a whole, it hit rock bottom in recent years after FARC’s military strategy (atrocities, extortion, landmines, and other tactics) and funding from drug trafficking antagonised a war-weary population.
The FARC, officially founded in 1964, initially defending peasants’ interests became a sophisticated insurgency movement with an ideologically dominated political agenda. It developed in response to a political system that reduced political competition to two parties: the conservatives and the liberals. There was no voice for the communists, who called for land reform and re-distribution. In 1984 as part of another failed peace process, the FARC set up a legal political party, the Union Patriotica (UP), but several thousand party members were killed by paramilitaries (funded by wealthy landowners and supported by government forces) leading to its eventual decline and virtual disappearance. Therefore guarantees for the exercise of political opposition is now on the agenda with the role of the UP being played by the Marcha Patriotica today. The FARC’s political legitimacy however has declined as kidnapping and extortion increased and drug trafficking became their main income source.
Alongside this, Latin America has seen the emergence of left-wing leaders, legitimately elected to lead their respective countries. These left-wingers offer an example of how to achieve socialist ends through peaceful means. However as socialism in Colombia, because of the FARC, is associated with violence and kidnappings, the left remains weak. Colombia’s strong ties with the United States is another reason for the weak left, where most Colombians accept the interference of the United States in combating the drugs trade and related violence.
The Santos government prepared for negotiations by pushing through a constitutional amendment setting out a legal framework for peace, allowing for the integration of demobilised combatants into civil society. The amendment paves the way for widespread immunity for atrocities committed by guerrillas, paramilitaries, and the military, and directly conflicts with Colombia’s obligations under international law, Human Rights Watch said. The immunity is also the issue most sharply dividing the population, as a recent poll showed with 66% of the population saying that the guerrillas should not be forgiven. Although almost unanimously backed politically, demobilising and integrating them into civil society is a challenge, as the demobilization of right-wing paramilitaries shows.
The 2005 Justice and Peace Law that offers former paramilitaries reduced prison sentences in exchange for their full confession has been criticized widely because of its lack of providing justice, but could provide an infrastructure to be adopted to the FARC. Another useful structure is the in 2011 passed Victims and Land Restitution Law. This law has been a positive step forward in recognising the existence of an armed conflict in Colombia, something that had previously been systematically denied by the State. By recognising the existence of an internal armed conflict, the government has afforded protection rights to the population under international humanitarian law (IHL). The Victims and Land Restitution Law aims to return stolen and abandoned land to internally displaced Colombians (peasants). FARC rebels but mostly paramilitaries, sometimes acting in cooperation with the security forces, were responsible for the seizure of the land. The matter of land restitution in Colombia must be understood in light of the high concentration of land ownership,with the majority of productive land belonging to a small minority of economic and political elites, one of the main problems faced by rural development. As this is one of the main sources of the armed conflict in Colombia, the Victims and Land Restitution Law could provide a useful structure to build on during the peace talks.
“Negotiations need to be sustained by the active participation and endorsement of civil society, notably of rural and indigenous communities. To lay the foundations of durable peace, talks need to lead into a wider social process aimed at tackling the problems affecting the countryside that provide the backdrop for the conflict”, the International Crisis Group noted in a recent report. Even then, peace between the FARC and the government would not eliminate violence. Colombia will still have to deal with illegal armed groups (rooted in the officially demobilised paramilitaries and from other criminal and drug trafficking groups) and splintered FARC factions unwilling to lay down arms, notably those involved in the drug trade.
Colombia’s half-century long armed conflict has had a devastating impact on civilians. Thousands have been killed, forcibly disappeared, kidnapped and almost 4 million people have been internally displaced. While you can be sceptical about the current peace process when looking at the past, the time has come to be a little more optimistic.
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