In 2016, the Colombian government and FARC signed a landmark agreement to end decades of conflict – but five years on, President Duque’s reactionary politics are putting peace at risk.
Colombian president Iván Duque has been busy using COP26 to cultivate his image as a ‘green’ leader. The UK government and parts of the media have obliged, often painting him as a beacon of morality in Latin America, in stark contrast with his counterparts in countries like Brazil. But Duque has much more in common with his authoritarian counterparts than he would care to admit.
Despite Duque’s much-hyped green credentials, in 2020, 65 environmental activists were murdered on his watch. And from March 2020 to April 2021, 22 trade unionists were murdered, making Colombia the deadliest country in the world to be a trade unionist, human rights activist or environmental campaigner.
The situation for former FARC combatants is even more extreme, with over 296 assassinated since being incorporated into civilian life. In fact, almost one thousand activists have been murdered in the last four years – on average, that’s more than four a week.
The 2016 Colombian peace process was supported by Colombian and international trade unions. Justice for Colombia, a British and Irish trade union campaign, was crucial in supporting it, even organising exchanges between Northern Irish politicians involved in the Good Friday Agreement and Colombian negotiators.
The Conditions for Peace
In 1985, during an earlier attempt to end the armed conflict, thousands of Colombian left activists and former guerrillas organised in the Patriotic Union Party were exterminated in a prolonged episode of state-backed paramilitary violence – a political genocide.
Colombia is often praised for being one of Latin America’s oldest democracies, but as the massacre of the Patriotic Union shows, its democratic system was built on the violent persecution of organised opposition.
The 2016 peace agreement proposes fundamental democratic reforms which would open the door for broad political participation, but the escalation of politically-motivated violence taking place in Colombia today lays bare the failure of the Colombian government to act on the democratic reform demanded by the accords.
Another important part of the agreement is on comprehensive rural reform, which addresses the problematic concentration of land ownership and huge levels of inequality which have driven the conflict from the very beginning. Here, too, the Colombian government is reneging its obligations, and Duque is committed to a staunchly neoliberal economic settlement – putting the structural reform elements of the accords at risk of becoming a dead letter.
Despite triumphant rhetoric and greenwashing, even the state’s obligations to dismantle Colombia’s notorious rightwing paramilitaries and financing sustainable crop-substitution to support farmers away from growing coca has fallen dramatically short of what is needed.
Where the FARC have acted honestly, handing in their weapons and submitting to the transitional justice process, the Colombian state has failed to consistently or completely uphold many of its most important commitments.
An Opportunity for Democracy
Continued democratic exclusion and tenacious opposition to the peace process from the far-right culminated in the election of a government determined to ignore, impede or