Colombia should not go back to the negotiating table

After 50 years of a bloody civil war, Colombians are beginning to see the first signs of peace. Former rebels are rejoining their communities, cities are reviving and opening for tourism, and in June of 2018, the country held its first peacetime presidential election. The resulting victory of conservative senator Ivan Duque, however, introduces a great deal of uncertainty about if this momentum towards peace is sustainable.

In 2016, the Colombian government signed a peace agreement with the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC), ending a conflict that lasted more than five decades, killed 220,000 Colombians, and displaced millions. Two years later, however, many are worried that President-elect Duque may renege on key provisions of that agreement and threaten a peace a half-century in the making.

The 2016 Colombian peace process was the first of its kind. It was the first to give victims of the conflict a formal negotiating role, and one of the first to include a gender subcommittee to ensure that the voices of women and sexual minorities were heard. Besides planning the disarmament and reintegration of rebels, the peace process also addressed the roots of the violence through implementing rural development programs to target inequality and reserving former rebels 10 seats in Congress to give FARC a political voice.

The resulting peace agreement sought to balance justice with reconciliation while addressing the key drivers of violence in the country — and for the most part, it’s working. Since 2016, almost all of the 7,000 FARC rebels have laid down their weapons and rejoined their communities. Violence in Colombia has also seen a steep decline — 2017 had the lowest murder rate in over 40 years.

The peace agreement set a powerful precedent that a victim-centered, gender-inclusive peace process that emphasized transitional justice was possible. Now, by threatening to revoke key provisions of the agreement, Duque sends the message to not only former and current rebels, but also all the citizens of Colombia, that peace agreements may end up becoming empty promises, and that peace may come at a higher cost than previously agreed upon.

This is especially concerning as studies have found that peace is at its most fragile in the years immediately after a peace agreement is reached. It is during this period that maintaining trust and cooperation between former warring parties is critical. Although FARC leaders have claimed that they will not resume fighting if the deal is renegotiated, Duque’s threats to renegotiate the agreement introduces uncertainty that may provoke former FARC members to rearm, convince other militant groups to remain armed, and shift the momentum towards resumed violence rather than sustained peace.

A renegotiated peace deal was a key platform of Duque’s presidential campaign, during which he argued that the peace agreement is too lenient on perpetrators and called for harsher penalties for former FARC rebels who have committed war crimes and eliminating amnesty for drug traffickers. Duque also called for revoking the FARC’s 10 guaranteed seats in the legislature until the members have been tried and punished for their crimes.

Substantial changes to the peace deal are dangerous at a time when rebel groups and militias still remain active in Colombia, especially in the rural regions of the country. Although violence has decreased in Colombia overall, Colombia’s countryside has seen a rise in drug-related violence as FARC’s disarmament has created a power vacuum filled by militias and drug cartels. Other rebel groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) remain active. More than a thousand former FARC rebels have regrouped and rearmed. They are dissatisfied with the implementation of the deal and were spurred by targeted killings of other former FARC rebels..

The fodder for resumed conflict in Colombia is building, and Duque’s promises to revoke key portions of the agreement now threaten to light the fire.

The uncertainty surrounding future political participation of the FARC is especially concerning, given that many FARC rebels saw the peace deal as a trade-off rather than surrender, as pursuing change through politics rather than violence. As one former rebel put it two years ago: “We are not demobilizing. We are laying down our weapons to become an open and legal political movement.” Now, Duque’s threats to limit that political movement could push more disenfranchised former FARC rebels to regroup and rearm.

Other armed groups, fueled by a rise in cocaine production, are seeking to solidify their power in rural regions by murdering activists and local leaders. Stopping this violence requires cutting off its source of funding by eliminating farmers’ dependence on coca cultivation. However, this must be done without depriving coca farmers of their source of income and worsening rural poverty. Although the peace deal outlined plans for rural development, land reform, and programs to help farmers substitute away from growing coca plants to legal food crops, implementation has been slow.

Duque has not only remained noncommittal on implementing these provisions, but has voiced support for wealthy landowners who refuse to return illegally confiscated lands back to displaced Colombians. To decrease cocaine production, Duque advocates for the continued aerial fumigation of coca crops, a measure which is not only ineffective, but was also banned in 2015 because the chemicals contaminated neighboring food crops, endangered farmers’ livelihoods, and harmed the health of residents. Thus, while Duque has been vocal about punishing FARC for 50 years of violence, he has neglected to address its root causes in rural poverty, economic inequality, and political disenfranchisement.

Peacebuilding in Colombia is an uphill battle, but we know what works from previous experience — power-sharing designed to politically empower marginalized groups, distributive justice programs that emphasize greater economic and social equality, and fear-reducing provisions that increase trust between parties are all key to long-term, sustainable peace. Duque’s proposed amendments to the peace agreement would upend all these principles, yet even the mere proposal of revoking key provisions has introduced a dangerous uncertainty during a time when peace is at its most fragile.

We urge President-elect Duque and his new administration to tread carefully around any renegotiations, and to place sustainable peace above the fulfillment of campaign promises. The 2016 peace deal was by no means perfect, but the fulfillment of its potential — peace, justice, and reconciliation — requires increased cooperation and enforced implementation. Colombia needs to move forward without going back to the negotiating table.

-2018 Alliance for Peacebuilding

-AfP would like to recognize Lulu Qian for her contributions to this publication.

Alliance for Peacebuilding is the leading global network working to end conflict and build sustainable peace worldwide. Our 120+ members work in 153 countries.

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