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The Day After Tomorrow: preparing for peace in Colombia
The Day After Tomorrow: preparing for peace in Colombia
The War on Drugs in Colombia’s Countryside
The War on Drugs in Colombia’s Countryside

The Day After Tomorrow: preparing for peace in Colombia

Speech to the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia.

It is a particular pleasure to be here with you today in Colombia, and at the Universidad de los Andes, one of the most important academic centres of Latin America. From my own experience as a policymaker, a peacekeeper, and in academic settings I have a great appreciation of the contributions that can be made to the pursuit of peace by academic institutions.

The organisation I now head, the International Crisis Group, has a simple goal: we want to save lives by persuading policymakers to calm conflicts before they boil over into war. Once that war is present, we develop policy advice that draws on fine-grained, field-based analysis to help bring the killing to an end. And when peace and conflict-resolution opportunities appear, we firmly support them. Colombia is naturally a candidate for this third perspective. We have been present here since 2001, and publish reports and conduct advocacy that we hope contribute positively to Colombia’s own effort to bring decades of violent conflict to an end, and build sustainable peace.

Crisis Group’s analysts work in or nearby more than 40 war zones, or countries that we fear could be hit by crises in the future. They meet with all parties – from presidents to rebel commanders; business and religious leaders to women and children affected by war. We engage not only in the countries themselves but with regional organisations — for example, the Union of South American States – influential regional states and members of the UN Security Council.

What we see if we look around the world today, with a few notable exceptions, is not happy picture. Deadly conflict is again on the rise. There are wars in areas of high geostrategic value, with Ukraine recasting Russia-West relations. The war in Syria rages; South Sudan – whose independence just four years ago appeared such an achievement – has descended into a civil war that is fuelled by some of the same regional actors who are tasked with overseeing the peace process. Some parts of the world appear chronically unstable; armed groups that espouse radical ideologies or have criminal motives have proliferated and are extending their presence across much of the Middle East and Africa. Even strong states in East Asia – where I have just come from – are in tension. In Latin America, we are increasingly worried about neighbouring Venezuela, where polarisarion and antagonism have replaced agreement and good politics. We are also present in Mexico and Guatemala, where we look at the threats posed by transnational crime and criminal violence and the challenges both present for democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights.

Within this difficult environment, Colombia is in many respects an exception. Indeed we frequently cite Colombia as one of the few examples where the good news of conflict settlement appears within reach. Your conflict’s origins lie deep in your history. It has seen many of the characteristics of the disorder of the twenty-first century – including its exacerbation by the drugs and other illegal resources, the presence of multiple armed actors and high levels of displacement. But its political roots suggest that a negotiated outcome is possible. If – as we all hope – Colombians find a path for their differences to be addressed by peaceful and democratic means, and the state to extend its civilian presence across the national territory for the first time in Colombia’s history, the outcome will be one from which all Colombians, and their international friends and partners, benefit.

Reasons for cautious optimism

Viewed in comparative terms, there are a number of reasons to be at cautiously optimistic about the Colombian peace process. First and foremost, Colombia – unlike many of the countries with which I was involved when head of UN peacekeeping – is a relatively capable and well-resourced state, rich in human capacity and resources. Colombians have agreed the terms of the peace process and will implement the agreements reached – between Colombians – in Havana.

Second, the process is grounded in realism. President Santos has recognised the armed conflict for what it is. His government has accepted that the guerrillas cannot be defeated by military means, whilst the FARC have acknowledged that military victory will not be possible. There is every indication that the decision of the FARC is firm, and the progress of negotiations, including a series of unilateral ceasefires, has confirmed that it has a hierarchical and cohesive structure, with solid command and control.

Third, the design of the process reflects lessons learned from past experience in Colombia, and other peace processes. The negotiating agenda itself is clearly defined in and the talks include mechanisms for the participation of civil society, the inclusion of victims – the visits of a wide variety of victims to Havana in the fall of 2014 were very significant – and consideration of gender, a subject of particular importance given the high number of women among combatants and victims.

The process counts with a solid international architecture – the roles of Cuba and Norway as guarantors and Chile and Venezuela as accompanying states have been exemplary – and broad support from the region and wider international community. Here I should like to draw attention to the critical importance of this regional support. In too many other conflicts where Crisis Group is engaged – Libya, South Sudan, and of course Syria, all stand out – the interference of regional actors both fuels the conflicts and directly impedes attempts by others to help resolve them, to the very great detriment of the countries’ suffering populations.

Fourth, and finally, the progress already made is in itself encouraging, if slower than many would have liked. Partial agreements were reached on the first three substantive items on the agenda [rural development, political participation and drugs], and in the visits of the victims and work of the Historical Commission there has been evidence of a serious attempt to grapple with the difficult issue of the past. Since the talks resumed after the kidnapping of General Alzáte late last year, there has been recognition of the value of de-escalation and a number of measures taken to build confidence in the process: the FARC’s unilateral ceasefire has held, and it has made an important – if not fully satisfactory – commitment to end the recruitment of child soldiers; the government has declared itself willing to begin negotiation of a bilateral ceasefire; and there are reports of serious work taking place in Havana to advance discussion of the difficult issues that still remain – transitional justice and the end of the conflict.

But making peace is always difficult

But making peace is always difficult. In many respects the challenges in Colombia are particularly daunting: the long duration and degradation of the conflict, and the size and geographic diversity of the country, represent complicating factors to the conflict’s resolution. The exceptionally high level of victims and displacement, the contamination of the conflict by drug trafficking and paramilitaries and other criminal actors, all point to a culture of endemic violence. A history of frustrated peace processes – notably including the assassination of members of the Patriotic Union which undermined an earlier attempt at political integration by the FARC – and the controversial process with the paramilitaries contribute to the high level of distrust between the parties. And, although things on that front appear to be advancing slowly, we do still not have a clear sense of whether the ELN will join this process. All these factors suggest that the risk of the recurrence of violence in the post-agreement period is real.

Meanwhile, as all of you know better than I do, the peace process has powerful detractors, and the timetable for the government is tight. The issues on the negotiating table now – including the judicial aspects of transitional justice and the complicated question of “leaving behind weapons”, as the agenda calls it – are of existential importance for armed actors on both sides: the FARC has been fighting the Colombian state, with its weapons in its hands, for more than half a century; generations of the Colombian military have defined themselves – even (and in particular) as the institution has grown in size and power – in terms that reflect the war with the FARC. It is not difficult to understand that each may suffer a sense of uncertainty, vertigo, even fear, as they look toward an uncertain future at the conflict’s end.

Finally, despite the relatively narrow agenda of the Havana negotiations, the expectations held out for what the High Commissioner for Peace has termed a “territorial peace” are very high. The ambition is commendable in many respects, but it also brings with it a risk – especially given the contested legitimacy of both the FARC and the government and in many of the areas of the country most affected by conflict – of disappointment.

These factors place particular importance on the need to prepare now for the “day after”, and in doing so, draw from what can be learned from international experience.

Preparing for the day after

It is encouraging to hear, as I have in my meetings here in Bogotá, that there is an acute realisation within the Colombian government and among its international partners of the need to begin preparing early for implementation.

There is an inevitable tension between the political timetable of the early post-conflict period, and the longer-term perspective of a successful implementation strategy. When a peace agreement has been concluded, there is always a dramatic rise in the level of expectations. People expect quick peace dividends, and political leaders are under pressure to deliver rapidly. The roadmap or timetable that that has emerged from these negotiations will be an important factor in the success or failure of the peace process. It shapes expectations – which are frequently further amplified by the presence of the international community and/or promises of interested donor countries – and may set an unimplementable timetable. A major peace agreement was reached in the Philippines last year; it is behind its own timetable already, which we have to hope will not create problems for its full realisation.

A failure to deliver on expectations – for example, the hopes that a peace agreement will end all kind of violence – can fuel resentment and lack of social support for implementation. This happened in Guatemala, when the constitutional reforms that were supposed to consolidate the 1996 agreements, were rejected in a referendum in 1999. Some regions in Guatemala are currently suffering higher levels of violence than in the last years of the civil war. The experience suggests the very great importance of a concerted effort to sustain public confidence in a peace process.

Implementation of a peace process is always slower than is hoped, and beset by problems along the way – even when things are going well. A partial answer to the problem is to inject, if possible, realistic constraints in what is committed to in the negotiations, as well as adequate mechanisms for monitoring of the agreements reached, and resolution of the disputes and differences that will arise along the way. For all committed to the peace effort, it is critical to manage the short-term horizon for an obvious reason – if there is no short term, there will be no long term. In the case of Colombia it will be important to maintain a distinction between what is negotiated with the FARC (and maybe with the ELN) in Havana, and broader issues of reform, to be discussed and agreed with a wider range of political forces inside Colombia, once the end of the armed conflict has been achieved.

In any peace process, the parties will want to decide on the roles to be played by international actors. International engagement can take several forms: the provision of technical expertise and financial resources, direct participation within a monitoring or verification mission, as well as political support that can help build confidence in the process both nationally and internationally. Early consultation can help ensure that agreements entered into are consistent with international standards and that international involvement is both timely and effective.

I can understand that there is considerable nervousness about the involvement of the international community in the implementation of Colombia’s peace agreements. On this let me say two things: (i) it is up to the parties to determine the extent and terms of international involvement in a peace process that is quite clearly, and will and must remain, Colombian-owned and led; and (ii) there is nonetheless ample scope for defining international roles – in addition to the provision of assistance for costly elements of the peace process such as reintegration – that could prove helpful to the process. There are moments in any peace process when only an external actor may be considered sufficiently independent and impartial to retain the trust of parties emerging from conflict and a sceptical, and sometimes, fearful population.

Drawing on experience from elsewhere, Crisis Group has recommended the establishment of a joint committee to oversee implementation of the peace agreements as a whole. If the parties so wish, trusted third parties, international and domestic and international, could play helpful roles as participate as guarantors and mediators. Peace processes in which implementation structures have not been established have generally faltered during implementation. One example of this problem is Nepal where the robust mechanisms put in place for monitoring the military aspects of the accord were in contrast to the absence of oversight of some of the other elements of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2006).

A more urgent need, however, is likely to be for the involvement of international actors in a monitoring and verification mission to oversee the ceasefire, decommissioning of weapons, and demobilisation of former combatants. This will not mean deploying blue helmets. Here Nepal is a more positive reference: fewer than 300 unarmed observers helped maintain a ceasefire between armies of thousands. Some military personnel will still be needed, given the tasks at hand, but a mission in Colombia should be civilian-led.

Whatever the institutional arrangements for such a mission, it should have clear and credible political leadership. It would need sufficient autonomy to generate leverage with the parties, and credibility among the population at large, as well as a capacity to respond with flexibility to the changing demands upon it. Critically, preparations should be put in place for the mission to hit the ground running. I speak from a long experience of slow UN deployments to advise that there is no way to undermine a peace agreement more rapidly than by introducing unnecessary delays in the third party mechanisms that have been designed to help it move forward.

There is no single model for successful ceasefire monitoring architecture: its design should be determined by its intended purpose and the context within which it will operate. However, an effective monitoring mechanism must be impartial, independent and credible, its responsibilities defined in a clear mandate, the access required to fulfil it freely provided by the conflict parties and the adequate personnel, equipment and financing ensured. Involving experts in the negotiation and planning of a monitoring mechanism can help parties draw on best practices acquired in other situations

The most comprehensive monitoring mechanisms have contributed to keeping the overall peace process on track in three different ways: (i) verifying compliance; ii) controlling the scale and impact of possible violations and incidents and preventing their escalation, including through the resolution of disputes; and (iii) building confidence by requiring the parties to work together in some kind of joint military or monitoring commission.

A critical element in the implementation of any peace process is the balance between the technical and the political. Parties reach peace agreements because they have separately reached the political decision to do so, and political will, and the trust that will grow from recognition by each party of the other’s will to stay the course, will be required to make them work. But when it comes to the technical aspects of peace implementation – and here I am thinking specifically of ceasefires and weapons management – the devil is in the details. Close attention paid to technical details related to issues such as the separation of forces, weapons storage and monitoring and the code of conduct during a the negotiation of a ceasefire is essential. These issues should be clearly and mutually understood, as any ambiguity will give rise to problems later.

Difficult political calculations are also necessary when it comes to the reintegration of former combatants – an issue of which Colombia of course has ample experience. In this area the hard truth is that the long-term success of a peace process may depend on the political health and viability of the weaker party. In order to facilitate the transition of the FARC to political life and minimise the risks of its fragmentation into criminality, Crisis Group has therefore recommended a collective reintegration scheme for the FARC – with the possibility for FARC members who want to opt out the possibility of participating in an individual reintegration program. If the FARC is able to meet strict standards of financial transparency, accountability and internal democracy, we would also recommend that that FARC has co-responsibility for running its reintegration programs.

Reconciliation and transitional justice also have implications for a post-conflict strategy: issues of property and land ownership are often closely related to the history of the conflict, which – as in Colombia – may have been partly triggered by such issues, and will often have been amplified by years of violence. Ignoring them will seriously hamper development, as uncertainty on ownership prevents returns of IDPs, the revitalisation of agriculture, and may hinder new investments (two situations as different as Kosovo and Timor-Leste are good illustrations of this problem). Here I would like to draw attention to the critical issue of demining, which, as has been seen in conflict situations as varied as Cambodia, Afghanistan and Senegal (Casamance), can be a critical tool for peacebuilding, as well as a humanitarian necessity.

In the case of Colombia it will be important to ensure that transitional justice mechanisms are compatible with reintegration incentives for rank-and-file members of the FARC, while providing accountability for serious international crimes. Wherever possible, reintegration and transitional justice should help local reconciliation by generating benefits for communities. Transitional justice measures should help to build a credible narrative of the conflict, providing ample opportunities for victims to ventilate their grievances. Justice should not be an insurmountable obstacle for peace, can be met through a wide array of measures; criminal justice is but one among them, to be reserved for the most serious crimes and those most responsible for them.

Finally, I would caution that the structural issue of the “orchestration” of the international effort in support of peace cannot be ignored. It has two main aspects: on the one hand, the interaction between the international community and the host country, and on the other hand, the overall coherence of the political, military, humanitarian, and development strategies. There are too many cases of overlapping mandates, and wasted time and resources in international experience of post-conflict peacebuilding.

To Conclude

I would like to conclude my remarks today with two suggestions. The first is to encourage both the government and the FARC to take further steps toward the de-escalation of the conflict. Beyond the obvious reasons for de-escalation – after a long and bloody conflict, there are lives that can be saved and new displacements avoided by conflict de-escalation. As negotiations toward a bilateral ceasefire advance, the winding down of offensive activities, or introduction of new confidence-building measures – for example on demining – can help bring reassurance to both sides that the other is serious in its efforts to move toward peace. And this, in turn, will encourage Colombians more broadly to believe that the long night of conflict is coming to an end.

The other is very simple. To the Colombian parties, and the broad range of actors in Colombian society, obviously including its committed academic community, but also its international partners, I would say, get ready. It is never too soon to begin preparing for peace, or gathering the resources that will be needed to support it. For our own part, you can be assured that Crisis Group, through its field analysis, publications and engagement with Colombians and Colombian partners, is ready to play its part. We are honoured to be with you today and look forward to accompanying you in the months and years ahead of this critical time in Colombia’s history.

The War on Drugs in Colombia’s Countryside

This week, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk to Beth Dickinson, Crisis Group’s Colombia expert, about the violence in Colombia’s countryside over coca production and why the government’s forced eradication of coca is making things worse. 

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh speak with Beth Dickinson, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Colombia, about the Colombian government’s new war on drugs and the escalation of violence in rural areas. Beth unpacks the complex dynamics between vulnerable farming communities, criminal groups vying for control over illicit markets, and security forces failing to contain the bloodshed. She explains how the downward spiral undermines the 2016 peace process. They discuss Crisis Group’s recent reports on the subject, including how women’s involvement in coca cultivation means they are at a particular risk of violence, why armed groups have emerged as winners of the post-FARC peace deal, and the social activists and leaders caught in the crossfire. They also look at what an alternative to Bogota’s current heavy handed approach would look like.


Click here to listen on Apple Podcast or Spotify.

For more information, read Crisis Group’s reports: Deeply Rooted: Coca Eradication and Violence in Colombia and Leaders under Fire: Defending Colombia’s Front Line of Peace.