One year after the signing of Colombia’s peace process and approaching the most important elections of the modern era, an escalation in political violence and deliberate attempts at bureaucratic sabotage threaten the entire agreement.
In November 2016, as the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia met in Bogota’s Teatro Colón to sign an agreement – for the second time – to bring the country’s long-running armed conflict to an end, it was clear that peacebuilding in Colombia faced a myriad of challenges and obstacles.
The shock rejection of the first peace agreement in a national plebiscite revealed strong opposition towards the deal and threatened to plunge the country into renewed instability and violence. But with the No result serving as a major wake-up call, the hope was that Colombians across the socio-political spectrum would work together to overcome right-wing attempts to scupper the peace process. Sadly, one year on many Colombians’ fears over the agreement’s fragility are being realised: the peace process today finds itself in crisis, with the real and alarming prospect that it could collapse altogether.
Rather than unforeseen or unfortunate circumstances, this is the result of deliberate sabotage instigated by the same political sectors behind the effective No campaign that swung the plebiscite. The crisis is unfolding at all levels of Colombian society, from the highest courts in the country to isolated rural communities where the new dawn promised by peace has failed to materialise.
The sense of urgency around saving the peace process is intensified by looming presidential elections in May 2018. President Santos is a lame duck, unable to muster the political strength to push through core terms of the agreement – that’s if he even wants to. When the FARC completed its decommission of weapons, the government’s main incentive to fully uphold the deal was gone. Santos’ grand ambition of the Nobel Prize was, of course, already in the bag. As such, the truly complex work of implementing the social programmes designed to eradicate root causes of conflict – land reform, rural development and voluntary crop substitution – has yet to properly begin.
For all the talk of economy, crime and public services, the election will be fought along the pro- and anti-peace dichotomy. The political right has staked its opposition to the agreement from the off, with the Democratic Centre party of former president Álvaro Uribe looking to replicate its success in mobilising its constituency to vote against the 2016 plebiscite. Its candidate, Iván Duque, refuses to recognise FARC legitimacy as a political party and supports exemption for military personnel from civilian courts. Former vice-president German Vargas Lleras, of the Radical Change (which wants to keep things the same, especially economic hierarchies) is another contender. A presidential victory for either party would have severe repercussions for the entire peace process: although the FARC would not return to armed struggle, the agreement would likely disintegrate, leaving Colombia potentially vulnerable to violence that has so terribly affected post-conflict societies in Guatemala and El Salvador.
Fortunately, the pro-peace movement is widespread and strong, if not in the congress, on the streets. It is hard to believe a majority of Colombians would will the country back to conflict. However, the pro-peace camp needs to work fast to build alliances between numerous parties, including the FARC, now called the People’s Alternative Revolutionary Force (which retains the FARC acronym). As things stand, there are eight pro-peace and two anti-peace candidates for the presidency. With so much at stake, those in the pro camp must cooperate to avoid splitting the vote and facilitating a right-wing victory.
Establishment opposition to the peace agreement has driven congressional attacks on the transitional justice mechanism, known as the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), that forms one of the core elements of the entire deal. The JEP aims to bring justice to conflict victims by establishing clarity over many unanswered questions, not least relating to thousands of victims of forced disappearance, and punishing those guilty of major human rights violations. In return, it offers reduced sentences for combatants who confess their role in the conflict.
However, with many in Colombian politics implicated in abuses, there have been concerted attempts to undermine the JEP. In contravention of the terms of the peace agreement, the Constitutional Court recently ruled that civilians would not face the JEP, thereby exempting business and political figures suspected of sponsoring right-wing paramilitaries which conducted a decades-long dirty war, abetted by the military, against civil society. Peasant farmers, trade unionists and social activists were particularly targeted. Furthermore, high-ranking military officials will not face the JEP if they profess ignorance over subordinates’ actions in the field. Judges will be banned if they have a background in human rights, a ruling clearly designed to protect the powerful. The JEP eventually ratified by the congress resembles a shell of what was actually agreed during peace negotiations.
The political skulduggery has occurred alongside an escalation of violence against political activists and social organisers, with many victims actively working on implementing elements of the peace process such as crop substitution or land restitution. Since the agreement was signed at least 140 people have been murdered for political motives, as paramilitaries continue the terror campaigns that so effectively opened land for capital accumulation during the 1980s and 1990s.
While politically-motivated killings were sadly somewhat predictable in the immediate aftermath of the agreement, the sheer number of deaths – an increase on the year prior to the signing – evidences the state’s inability to successfully secure regions long abandoned by central government, where economic misery was reinforced through army or paramilitary repression. These factors underpinned the rise of guerrilla movements that sought to improve social conditions and provide the infrastructure and security so painfully denied these populations. The FARC’s demobilisation was supposed to initiate a developmental state advance into historically-marginalised territories lacking the most basic services. As the state dithers, paramilitaries and other armed groups have instead filled the vacuum and destabilised areas where the FARC previously operated as a surrogate state.
Other unpleasant tendencies of Colombia’s historic relationship between state and society persist. The police massacre of protesting peasant farmers on 5 October, in which at least nine people were killed, was not only a state atrocity: it also compounded the government’s failure to uphold terms which it had itself co-drafted. The universal guarantee of security and political liberty for all citizens was brutally exposed as a myth by the very forces of public order responsible for overseeing the transition to a stable and lasting peace in Colombia. The campesinos were killed while protesting the regional presence of over 1,000 security personnel conducting forced eradication of coca plantations. IMF-backed trade deals have decimated Colombian agriculture and left coca as the only means of survival for many rural communities. Providing alternative means of livelihood is another core chapter of the peace agreement. However, under pressure from Trump’s Washington, the Colombian state persists with the same disastrous policies of punishing those communities merely trying to survive.
In many ways the supposed post-conflict era is hard to distinguish from its violent predecessor. Regardless of the peace agreement Colombia’s military spending remains the highest in Latin America in terms of GDP. Security personnel deploy high-tech weaponry against indigenous demonstrators blocking roads and wielding traditional wooden staffs to demand that the terms of the peace agreement are fully implemented. This means land distribution, rural investment, expansion of housing, education, healthcare and security into marginalised regions. It means allowing communities to direct substitution of coca plantations with economically-viable crop alternatives and providing state support to ensure that localised economies can develop. It does not involve the perpetuation of repressive state policies applied during conflict. In November, as armoured troop carriers rolled into Catatumbo to disperse strikers occupying the main highway, the United Nations tweeted: ‘Use of military units in situations of social protest goes against international human rights principle’.
International pressure is critical to ensuring the Colombian government fulfils its commitments to peace and starts laying the foundations – development, land, security – promised in the agreement. In a world of bad news, Colombia seemingly represented a rare beacon of light. Yet the country faces a crisis as serious as any other since Santos’ election in 2010. The outgoing president may be weak, unpopular and seemingly unable or uninterested in implementing the agreement, but global legacy was assured with the Nobel Peace Prize. When Santos steps down in 2018 – following the most important election in modern Colombian history – he will have time to brightly polish it every day. Unless a major effort is made to defend peace, the country he leaves behind will remain in the darkness.