By Lara Kovandova (edited by Isabel Leask)-
Last year marked the five-year anniversary of the landmark peace agreement in Colombia that put an end to a devastating civil war that spanned over half a century and cost the lives of an estimated 200,000. The agreement was signed – after numerous failed attempts and amendments – between the Colombian government and the country’s most notorious and powerful guerrilla group: Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). Hailed as a triumph internationally, it awarded the president at the time, Juan Manuel Santos, a Nobel Peace Prize. Embodying a precious opportunity to end the recurring dynamics of violence in Colombia, this peace deal offered a glimmer of hope for the Colombian people.
The peace process was nonetheless controversial. Perceived as too ambitious for some, others deemed it too lenient. It extended amnesty to former FARC combatants and FARC leaders avoided jail provided that they confessed to their crimes against humanity. The whole process was, and continues to be, overseen by the ‘Special Jurisdiction for Peace’ (JEP), a transitional justice tribunal created specifically to facilitate peace agreements. Responsible for the investigation and judgment of “the most serious and representative” crimes committed by the FARC leaders, it ultimately adopts a restorative rather than redistributive approach to justice, one that emphasises the unearthing of truth to reconcile victims with the offenders.
The peace deal, furthermore, guaranteed the FARC 10 seats in Congress until 2026. Attempting to channel the guerrilla’s objectives through democratic means rather than by force, the FARC formed a new political party, though rebranded as Comunes, in a bid to distance themselves from their violent past.
To many, this process is less stringent than desired, failing to truly hold the former FARC members accountable for their heinous acts. The FARC claim to have fought a just war, fighting in protest of the unequal distribution of peasants’ land ownership and against the exclusionary bipartisan political system that was established between the Liberals and Conservatives in the second half of the 20th century. Its ambitions were quickly derailed, however, as it drifted toward narcotrafficking. Throughout the conflict, the FARC beat and starved hostages, and indulged in psychological tortures such as the digging of one’s own grave. They precipitated mass displacement – affecting some seven million people. The country suffered bombings, murders, kidnappings, and extortions.
Accordingly, polls show an overwhelming majority of Colombians believe the FARC should serve jail time. But Mr Santos has strived for “the maximum amount of justice that allows us to have peace”, even though this involved some degree of impunity. Among the critics of the peace deal lies the incumbent president Ivan Duque, who painted the peace deal as too forgiving and pledged to review it.
Furthermore, amid the power vacuum engendered by the FARC’s surrendering of their arms, pockets of violence have sprouted, while more established guerrillas such as the National Liberation Army (ELN guerrillas) have been emboldened. In this post-agreement environment, violence has not abated. Caught in the crossfire of this renewed power struggle over lands previously dominated by the FARC are ordinary farmers and citizens, for whom the promise of peace has splintered. Indeed, a wave of violence is sweeping across Colombia targeting human rights defenders and social activists – propelling Colombia to the highest ranks as the most dangerous country in the world for human rights defenders, according to Amnesty International. As violence in rural lands heightens and insecurity deepens, the government scrambles to protect its vulnerable populations. The weakness of Colombia’s state capacity becomes evident as its authority fails to extend to these more remote areas. Peripheral territories in Colombia are thus left to the mercy of armed rebel groups.
Another damaging failure of the government has been the insufficient protection of former FARC members. The Economist reported over 130 disarmed FARC members having perished, predominantly at the hands of dissident FARC soldiers or right-wing paramilitary militia. This lack of provision for former FARC combatants is fuelling frustration, engendering a growing trend of a return to arms as the government is seen as violating its side of the agreement. The ELN is already recruiting FARC renegades.
The COVID-19 pandemic that has swept the world in the last few years has further undermined efforts to re-integrate former FARC fighters into mainstream society. With fledgling businesses adversely affected and communication channels interrupted, significant proportions of ex-combatants in reincorporation face unemployment.
Specific agrarian reforms targeted at these precarious territories that seek to tackle the deteriorating security situation, bolster their development, and address the country’s detrimental cocaine production by replacing it with legal cocoa plantations have been disappointing. Without much-needed state investment and technical assistance in these regions, cocaine production remains the most lucrative option for farmers. As a result, rather than declining, plantations are on the rise, which is fuelling a cycle of violence, corruption, and territorial clashes. Some of the regions most affected by this continued post-agreement violence include Piedemonte Caqueteño, Macarena Guaviare, and Montes de María.
The slow implementation of the peace agreement’s projects and proposals stemming from a political unwillingness to allocate sufficient financial funds to its implementation, is presenting an important backlash on the road to reaching a peaceful country. Respect for human rights, civic engagement, and protection is undermined, inflaming the people’s and the FARC’s grievances. Five years on, the peace process is faltering, and peace remains elusive.
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