Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Shaping the Peace Process in Colombia
Shaping the Peace Process in Colombia
Report 45 / Latin America & Caribbean

Colombia: Peace at Last?

After decades of failed attempts to defeat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) militarily and flawed negotiations, a political solution to the Western Hemisphere’s oldest conflict may finally be possible.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executive Summary

After decades of failed negotiations and attempts to defeat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) militarily, a political solution to the Western Hemisphere’s oldest conflict may be in sight. Following a year of secret contacts, formal peace talks with FARC are to open in Oslo in October 2012 and continue in Havana. They may be extended to the ELN. There seems a firmer willingness to reach an agreement, as the government realises military means alone cannot end the conflict and FARC appears to recognise that the armed struggle permits survival but little else. With no ceasefire in place, both sides must act with restraint on the battlefield to generate immediate humanitarian improvements. And they will need to balance the requirements of fast, discreet negotiations and those of representativeness and inclusion. The government and the guerrillas have the historic responsibility to strike a deal, but only strong social and political ownership of that deal can guarantee that it leads to the lasting peace that has been elusive for so long.

There are many challenges, but they are, on balance, less formidable than on previous occasions. Scepticism towards the guerrillas remains widespread, and there is political opposition to the talks, most vocally and radically articulated by former President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010). His discourse resonates strongly among large landowners and other powerful regional actors with significant stakes and a historical proclivity for using violence to defend their interests. But the large majority of Colombians back a peace process, and mainstream political forces have endorsed it, though a failure to secure quick results could breathe new life into political resistance. The security forces are better aligned with the civilian leadership than in the past and represented at the negotiation table, reducing risk of the coordination failures between political and military agendas that have marred previous peace attempts. 

Broader conflict dynamics also encourage a political settlement. With neither side likely to win by arms alone, both have a strong incentive to negotiate. FARC is weakened militarily, but an entire generation of its leaders now has possibly its last opportunity to vindicate decades of struggle in a peace deal that responds to some of the issues that spawned the insurgency and that allows the guerrillas to participate in the construction of peace as social and political actors. The government operates from a position of strength. Its military advantage, if not decisive nevertheless appears irreversible; Santos, who is more sensitive than his predecessor to victims’ rights, has started to tackle problems such as rural development that are of direct concern for the guerrillas, and his administration has acknowledged the state’s responsibility for some key human rights violations. It also still has a reasonably cohesive partner to deal with, avoiding the problems that can be envisaged if more years of heavy military pressure were to cause FARC to splinter. 

Nevertheless, the outcome depends on more than the will and negotiating skill of the parties. After 50 years of guerrilla warfare, systematic human rights violations and indifference by both to the plight of rural areas, communities in conflict regions no longer consider the guerrillas defenders of their interests and have lost faith in the state’s capacity and willingness to solve their problems. Negotiations thus need to be sustained by the active participation and endorsement of civil society, notably of rural and indigenous communities. To lay the foundations for durable peace, talks will ultimately need to lead into a wider social process aimed at tackling the problems affecting the countryside that provide the backdrop for the conflict. Lasting peace is also only possible on the basis of accountability for the many grave abuses committed by all sides in the conflict. The international community, represented during the talks primarily by Norway, Cuba, Venezuela and Chile, will need to stand by Colombia throughout, including as it takes up the challenges of a post-conflict society. 

Fears over peace talks are tactically exaggerated by their opponents. But those promoting a political settlement also need to keep expectations in check. A deal would not eliminate violence. It likely would fail to convince some FARC elements to lay down arms, notably those deeply involved in the drugs trade. There would still be significant security threats from illegal armed groups rooted in the officially demobilised paramilitaries and from other organised criminal gangs. Nor can the socio-economic problems underlying the conflict be solved overnight. But ending the conflict with the guerrillas would give Colombia the best prospect yet to come to grips with all these issues. Crisis Group will accompany the process with analysis and recommendations on the substance of the agenda. 

Ten years of intense counter-insurgency warfare have greatly weakened the combat strength of the guerrillas and pushed them into ever more remote rural hideouts, substantially reducing the impact on the major urban centres. But the conflict still costs lives on a daily basis, holds back socio-economic development and impedes the consolidation of a truly inclusive and pluralistic democracy. The road ahead will not be short or smooth, but Colombia cannot afford to muff this chance for peace.

Bogotá/Brussels, 25 September 2012

Peasants from Colombia’s south west march in favour of the the peace agreement after the plebiscite, in Bogotá, Colombia. Kyle Johnson

Shaping the Peace Process in Colombia

Colombia’s 2016 peace accord was a spectacular breakthrough after five decades of war. It was also an outcome Crisis Group helped work for during 15 years of Bogotá-based research and advocacy, including 36 reports and briefings, 91 op-eds and commentaries and more than 500 meetings with all parties.

Peace talks started between the Colombian government and the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2012, an outcome International Crisis Group had helped work toward for a decade. Our ideas fed directly into the 2016 peace agreement, and helped resolve the difficult tension between securing both justice and peace.

When Crisis Group began work in Colombia in 2002, the conflict between the government and FARC guerrillas was entering its fifth decade. The latest attempt at negotiations had just collapsed, giving way to a tough military approach under President Álvaro Uribe. This policy prioritised security gains at the expense of addressing the conflict’s root causes – frequently with disastrous results for civilians caught up in the violence.

We also sounded the alarm for emerging threats. Our 2004 report on the regional dimension of Colombia’s counter-insurgency policies was prescient in warning that the conflict could spill over the country´s borders. Four years later this danger materialised, causing a major Andean diplomatic crisis and threats of war between Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.

A new impetus for peace came in 2010 with the election of President Juan Manuel Santos, who signalled his ambition to find a negotiated end to the conflict and address its root causes. Crisis Group seized the moment to lay out possible negotiation paths. A high-level government contact was among Colombian and U.S. officials who praised our early report laying out this new agenda – President Santos’s Conflict Resolution Opportunity – saying that Bogotá used a number of our recommendations in initial informal talks with the FARC.

“The analysis of the International Crisis Group on Colombia constitutes an important source of reference that helps us better understand our reality, as well as how to sensitively address key issues such as progress and obstacles on human rights, and the enormous challenges of comprehensive victims’ care in our country”. Angelino Garzon, Vice President of Colombia, February 2011

FARC fighters stand in formation in Cauca, Colombia. Kyle Johnson, Senior Analyst for Columbia.

In September 2012, as formal peace talks opened in Havana, Cuba, our report Colombia: Peace at Last? summarised our private advocacy and quickly became a reference point for media and public debates. In one meeting, a top-level Colombian official brandished his copy of the report, with parts of it underlined: our analysis of post-conflict security risks was of great interest, he said, especially when it pressed for particular care over the reintegration of mid-level FARC commanders.

Arguably the most difficult part of the peace talks still had to be negotiated: accountability for devastating crimes carried out by guerrillas and state operatives in a decades-long conflict that killed some 220,000 people and displaced seven million more. Justice was crucial for a sustainable peace, but the prospect of lengthy prison sentences could easily deter the FARC from agreeing to lay down arms.

“Crisis Group’s work is “useful and objective”. Pablo Catatumbo, FARC negotiator, June 2016.

Crisis Group could combine intimate knowledge of the Colombian conflict with decades of transitional justice expertise: our then President Louise Arbour was previously UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Chief Prosecutor of war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and our Latin America Program Director Javier Ciurlizza had served both civil society and government sides of truth and reconciliation processes in his native Peru and four other countries. We did extensive field work on victims’ experiences and expectations, local transitional justice initiatives and the national and international legal context and standards for victims’ rights. Our conclusion: a strong emphasis on judicial prosecution for the most serious crimes committed by all parties to the conflict needed to be accompanied by some kind of amnesty for lesser crimes.

Though controversial, we decided to propose a comprehensive model of transitional justice, including an amnesty for political crimes and “effective restriction of liberty” sentences for lower-ranking FARC perpetrators under conditions linked to reconciliation. These elements would be accompanied by an independent truth commission and grassroots initiatives for truth-seeking and truth-telling, and a commitment to comprehensive reparation for victims.

We published these recommendations in Transitional Justice and Colombia’s Peace Talks (August 2013), accompanied by intense advocacy with the government and FARC. Louise Arbour met with President Santos, former President Uribe (the principal opponent of the peace talks), and the government’s chief negotiator in Havana, Sergio Jaramillo. We discussed our proposed solution across Colombian society, including the victims’ groups and activists we had consulted throughout our research. We argued in Washington DC for U.S. support for the peace deal, and engaged key actors in Oslo, The Hague, London and Brussels. President Santos publicly cited our analysis and messages, including in a speech at the UN General Assembly in September 2013. In March 2014, Louise Arbour was consulted by the Colombian government’s Advisory Panel on the peace talks.

After many months of contentious debate, Crisis Group’s proposals on transitional justice emerged as one of the basic building blocks of the breakthrough agreement on transitional justice that the parties reached on 23 September 2015. Several elements ­directly mirrored Crisis Group recommendations, above all regarding the distinction between the most serious wartime crimes and lesser crimes ­liable for amnesty, as well as the selection system for judges in the Special Juris­diction for Peace. President Santos cited Crisis Group’s statement on and analysis of the transitional justice agreement while presenting it to the Colombian public.

“Crisis Group’s reports are the “most detailed, realistic and useful” analysis available to delegations at peace talks in Havana. Oscar Naranjo, Colombia’s peace negotiator and post-conflict minister, September 2013.

The peace deal was signed on 26 September 2016 at an emotional ceremony in the Colombian port of Cartagena as fourteen Latin American presidents looked on. Just days later, however, the process suffered a terrible shock. In a referendum on the final agreement, Colombians rejected it by a margin of 0.5 per cent, and with a turnout of only 37 per cent.

The entire peace process hung in the balance, even if the “no” vote was partly a reflection of the government’s general unpopularity. Crisis Group kicked into action, advocating a renegotiation of the agreement with the government and FARC, the opposition and international actors, and identifying ways to mobilise popular support for it. The two sides were already deeply committed to making peace work, leading to a new deal signed in late November and approved by the Colombian congress shortly thereafter.

Despite many uncertainties in late 2016, the FARC-government ceasefire mostly held. Crisis Group continues to press ideas for smooth implementation of the deal, including, for instance, overcoming delays in the FARC handover of weapons, and reducing violence in rural and urban areas. Our analysts are now focused on the next step: advancing the newly-opened peace process with Colombia’s second traditional guerrilla group, the ELN.