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Expert comment: International Day of Peace - Lessons from Colombia

Catalina Montoya Londono Wednesday 21 September 2016

As people across the globe observe the United Nations’ International Day of Peace, Lecturer in International Relations Dr Catalina Montoya Londoño looks at what can be learned from Colombia’s recent peace talks.

On Sunday 2nd October 2016, Colombians will have in their hands one of the most important decisions in a generation: the support for the peace agreement signed between the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC through a referendum. ‘The Final Agreement for the Termination of the Conflict and the Construction of a Stable and Sustainable Peace’ was signed on Wednesday 24th August 2016, after four years of peace negotiations that started between February and August 2012 in Cuba, under the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos.

In order for the referendum to be successful, the vote in support of the peace agreements must defeat the ‘no’ vote with a majority of 13 per cent or 4.5 million votes. A yes vote would allow the Congress to fast track a series of laws, constitutional amendments and decrees, to materialise the agreements, while guerrilla combatants return to civil life. If the Colombians vote ‘no’, FARC would return to their weapons, according to President Juan Manuel Santos.

This is the fourth attempt to negotiate a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, founded in 1964. The first one, from 1983 to 1987 saw the guerrillas forming their own political party, the Patriotic Union, in order to participate in elections. These efforts were followed by the killing of about 3,000 of their militants and political representatives competing for elections, by sectors of the state and the military in alliance with businessmen and drug-traffickers. The second peace negotiations from 1991-1992 occurred in the context of right-wing paramilitary expansion and the degradation of guerrilla methods against civilians, including kidnappings and extortion. The third one from 1998 to 2002 was carried out in the context of the escalation of US efforts to strengthen Colombian military against drug trafficking and terrorism, and the co-opting of Colombian political structures by right wing paramilitaries.  

In all of these processes international participation was either limited, came too late, or was sometimes counterproductive. Civil society efforts and participation in previous peace processes were marginalized, while the Colombian administration took the centre stage. In addition, the development model was not part of these negotiations, as the priority was FARC’s demobilisation. In contrast, the latest process which started in 2012 included proposals by civil society sectors in the agreements made as well as a referendum to legitimise the final result. Secondly, it took into account the need for victims’ redress in the transitional justice mechanisms designed. Thirdly, it included the military and the international community in the negotiation process in a more systematic fashion. Fourthly, the negotiations made rural development part of the negotiation agenda (a historical pact over rural development was signed on May 2013).

While most of the Colombian political parties support the agreement, the Conservative party is divided on the issue and the right-wing party Centro Democratico (Democratic Centre), led by Oscar Ivan Zuluaga and the ex-President Alvaro Uribe Velez publicly oppose the agreements. They advocate to vote ‘no’ in the referendum, go back to the negotiation table, and reformulate agreements on their terms. The Pure Democratic Centre Party campaigns using rhetorical devices such as that “Being roguish pays off”, which mocks the name of the Governmental Programme “Being clever pays off” intended for the best school graduates in low participation backgrounds to study in the best universities in the country. Other rhetorical devices used by the Democratic Centre Party are that the government will “hand over” the country to FARC, by giving them political participation in the Congress and opportunities as a political party. Accordingly, the opportunity will be opened for the ‘Castro-Chavista’ model (a reference to the Cuban and Venezuela political models) to dominate the country, should FARC be successful in elections. Moreover, they object the supposed lack of guarantees for businessmen in transitional justice schemes, and the lack of justice redress for victims of FARC, including the military.   

One of the pillars of the opposition, then, is the destabilising effect that political participation of FARC and its traditional cause of socialism and rural reform will have in the current socio-economic model of the country. As we observe the International Day of Peace, celebrated each year worldwide on the 21st of September, the case of Colombia should be an important reminder of the fact that, as the theme of this year states “Sustainable Development Goals are building blocks of peace”. Nevertheless, as Samir Elhawary proposes (Colombia International 67, 2008), the relationship should not be viewed as one where the path to development will be open once FARC ceases to exist as a guerrilla group, as violence has been historically entrenched in the capitalist development model of Colombia.  

Instead, the successful culmination of the negotiations, that is, is the referendum resulting in majority support for the peace agreements, has the potential to open the space for a more inclusive political dialogue about development. Such dialogue should be about how to achieve less violent, more institutionalised and democratic forms of accumulation in the country and a structural political redesign where the majority can actually enjoy the rich country they are living in. The political imagination to tackle this challenge and the willingness to keep that dialogue open will determine the sustainability of both the development and peace efforts in Colombian society.

The current peace process has been well-supported by the international community, including the UN, USA and Britain, amongst others. The International Day of Peace “as a day of global ceasefire and non-violence, an invitation to all nations and people to honour a cessation of hostilities for the duration of the Day” (resolution 55/282, 2001) should move us to support peace where efforts to make it a reality are actually happening, such as Colombia. More importantly, it should make us reflect on the type of development we are promoting, as conflicts are part of development paths in the societies where they take place. Peacebuilding far from being a pact amongst warriors and handing over of weapons, is a long-term effort that requires civil society involvement, political imagination and structural changes beyond country borders.

Dr Catalina Montoya Londoño is Director of the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Centre for War and Peace Studies.

Find out more about Liverpool Hope University’s MA in Peace Studies

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