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 even reverse the progress of the peace accords. The international community has celebrated the FARC handing in their weapons, a significant step, but the absence of open conflict does not automatically signify the achievement of a sustainable peace. For the peace process to succeed, the root causes of the conflict must be addressed.
The peace agreement has democratic transformative potential within it. The chapters dealing with the root causes of the conflict – inequality, particularly in the rural areas, and the lack of political space for any organised left or progressive opposition – are the parts that have been least implemented by the government.
But, despite many setbacks, the agreement hasn’t failed yet and the hope for a lasting peace remains alive, demonstrated by the efforts of thousands of Colombians working daily to achieve it. There have been significant achievements in the truth and justice process, placing the victims of the conflict at its heart, despite opposition from Duque’s government to the ground-breaking system.
The peace agreement has also opened space for political participation, debate in institutional spheres and even protest, as evidenced by the massive national demonstrations and industrial actions which took place in April 2021. That month thousands of people demonstrated for months despite a brutal police response, resulting in the killing of 44 protesters.
Crucially, the agreement has opened up a new political context in which blanket condemnation of leftwing opposition as ‘terrorist’ is no longer acceptable or believable. A key demand of social movements and trade unions is the full implementation of the structural reforms which were a central facet of the peace agreement.
It is time for the whole world to surround the Colombian people with solidarity, scrutinising the government of Iván Duque with the same intensity as it has the regime of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
In a sign of political possibility, the 2018 Colombian elections saw the largest turnout in recent history for progressive and pro-democratic forces. The next big challenge will be the March 2022 congressional elections and the May presidential election. This is an opportunity for all left, progressive and pro-democratic forces to defeat the far-right and give the Colombian people the chance to take the historic opportunity to tackle the causes of the conflict. The international community must be vocal in its support for clean, free and fair elections, up to and including sending election observers.
Through international solidarity work and campaigning, trade unions have raised the alarm on the fragility of the Colombian peace process. 147 UK and Irish parliamentarians have recently signed an international statement on the fifth anniversary of the peace deal, but more needs to be done.
Our government must confront the truth about the far-right Duque government, and we must all stand in solidarity with the Colombian people.
This article was originally published in Tribune and has been edited for style.