Colombia: President Santos’s Conflict Resolution Opportunity
Colombia: President Santos’s Conflict Resolution Opportunity
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 34 / Latin America & Caribbean 3 minutes

Colombia: President Santos’s Conflict Resolution Opportunity

President Juan Manuel Santos has taken welcome steps toward reform in his first ten weeks but now must put in place and execute a truly comprehensive and integrated conflict resolution strategy for Colombia to secure sustainable peace.

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Executive Summary

President Juan Manuel Santos, in office since 7 August 2010, has an opportunity to end Colombia’s generations of armed conflict by building on but adjusting and substantially broadening the strategy followed for eight years by his predecessor. Alvaro Uribe’s predominantly military approach – the “democratic security policy” – did produce important security gains, but Colombia remains plagued by new illegal armed groups (NIAGs) and other criminal actors. By concentrating mainly on fighting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), it neglected other sources of violence and, most importantly, failed to address underlying causes of the conflict. Santos, who was elected with the largest majority in history, should use his political capital to implement a more integrated conflict resolution strategy that advances institutional and structural reforms needed to address illegality and impunity, expand access to services and tackle issues of land and victims’ rights.

FARC and ELN have been weakened significantly but are not defeated. FARC, which still has some 8,000 to 10,000 combatants, has partly adapted to the heavy military pressure and has forged alliances with NIAGs, exposing unprotected civilians – mainly indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities – to mounting violence. The armed forces have been tainted by allegations of thousands of extrajudicial executions and other violations of human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL), due in part to the single-minded pursuit of battlefield successes. With diplomatic ties at a nadir with Venezuela, the Uribe government was unable to control cross-border movements of illegal armed groups, weapons and drugs. Despite costly counter-drug efforts, Colombia has the largest number of hectares under coca cultivation in the world and is the origin of a significant share of global cocaine production.

The Uribe administration sought to consolidate security gains by expanding and strengthening the presence of state institutions in formerly insurgent-dominated areas and produced some positive initial results in two pilot regions. However, those successes are overshadowed by the persisting threats of illegal armed groups and a distrust of the authorities that prevent citizens in such areas from exposing themselves by openly participating in state programs. Consolidation efforts have further suffered from a legally weak and financially uncertain framework; poor coordination of military and civilian roles; delays and problems in the restitution of land to victims of the conflict; and the limited access of citizens affected by the violence to legal income-generating opportunities. Victims and organisations that defend them are exposed to death threats, while implementation of the transitional justice framework has been slow to establish the truth behind atrocious crimes, prosecute perpetrators and provide comprehensive reparation to victims.

Santos was Uribe’s defence minister and is expected to continue applying military pressure on the insurgents. But he needs also to correct the flaws of his predecessor’s policies and push forward vital reforms. The military and law enforcement aspects of the strategy should be conducted with full respect for human rights and IHL. He needs simultaneously to implement a comprehensive rural and urban citizen-security strategy capable of addressing related threats, such as the expansion of NIAGs, domestic drug trafficking and violence against victims. Reforms are required to tackle the pervasive problems of corruption, impunity and criminal influence in politics and government, so as to expand the rule of law and consequently the greater legitimacy of state institutions.

To advance the “democratic prosperity” policy Santos has proclaimed the successor of the Uribe policy, he must widen access to services and alternative development programs, as well as speed up land restitution. Rebuilding relations with Venezuela and Ecuador, as a prerequisite for joint security and intelligence cooperation and engaging all the country’s neighbours in developing effective regional security mechanisms, is another major challenge.

The new president has indicated he is prepared to negotiate at some stage with the FARC and ELN. This is prudent and should be actively pursued, since a complete military victory continues to be unlikely. The new government’s initial proposals on land issues, judicial reform and victims’ rights, among others, suggest that it is committed to go beyond the Uribe legacy to pursue a broader-gauged response to the full range of issues underlying the conflict, as must be done in any event if a peace is to be sustainable.

Implementing extensive reforms as part of a comprehensive conflict resolution agenda will not be possible without a broad political and social coalition. Some conditions appear favourable. Fresh from a landslide victory, Santos operates from a strong base in Congress and with the media and the population at large. He shows an encouraging willingness to consult broadly that has contributed to a palpable sense of political honeymoon in Bogotá and is essential to maintaining sufficient support. However, as he moves forward on issues like land that touch the special interests of many powers in Congress and the country, he is likely to encounter resistance that will test both his commitment and his skill to move Colombia to a truly new day.

Bogotá/Brussels, 13 October 2010

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