13. November 2016

The Colombian Aftermath: Why the International Community Should Support Peace after the Referendum

Last October, the Colombian people voted on a historic peace accord to end the armed conflict between the government and FARC rebels. The ‘no’ camp won by 50.21 % which shocked the international community as four distinct barriers block any further engagement. But what are these barriers made of and how can they be overcome?

A Comment by Leon Schettler and Sascha Menig


The First Barrier: From Mediation between Government and Rebel Groups Towards Overcoming Internal Polarisation

Clearly, the lost referendum means that peace negotiations must continue. Yet, the involved parties are not the same this time. Peace negotiations so far included the Santos government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) as main actors. However, civil society as well as leading opposition figures like Álvaro Uribe (Centro Democratico) or Andrés Pastrana (Partido Conservador Colombiano) have been excluded. Both Santos as well as FARC have agreed to continue to seek a peace agreement. The more important negotiations ahead, however, will be held between the political camp in favor of the peace treaty and those opposing it, between the people in the cities and those living in the countryside, between Manuel Santos and Álvaro Uribe.

The abstention rate of 62.57 % in the recent referendum indicated substantial detachment from peace negotiations. Yet, while mediation in armed conflicts is a well-established discipline in international politics, it is questionable how external actors such as Norway, the UN, also Cuba, Venezuela and Chile could assist negotiations between social milieus in a divided Colombia.


The Second Barrier: FARC Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration

The second barrier focuses on the UN Mission in Colombia. According to the pre-referendum schedule, FARC fighters should have been positioned in 20 “transition zones” (Transitory Areas of Normalisation) as well as in eight camps, where they should have been registered, disarmed, demobilised and prepared for the “economic, political and social reincorporation into civilian life”. This proceeding shows that the FARC is still anxious when it comes to safety and vulnerability after disarmament. In the mid-1980s, during peace negotiations with the government, many of its members were killed as a response to their political engagement in the Patriotic Union, FARC’s political party.

In compliance with the ceasefire agreement, the UN Mission was supposed to deploy 450 unarmed observers to be a part of a tripartite mechanism of monitoring and verification, alongside the Government of Colombia and the Guerrilla. While preparations started shortly after the Security Council unanimously adopted the Resolution 2261 in January 2016, the mission has now come to a halt as the negative outcome of the plebiscite forced a delay of the disarmament process.


The Third Barrier: Post-Conflict Development in a Stalemate

A considerable amount of development funding designated for peace process cannot be dispensed. Research on the transition to peace and democracy after civil war indicates that a visible peace dividend decreases the likelihood of renewed conflict outbreak. Most critically, the financial “post-emergency package” by the European Union – the largest donor supporting Colombia´s post-conflict process – should have been approved immediately after the referendum.

The financial actions foresaw around €575 million to support Colombia with the implementation of the provisions authorised in the peace agreement, including short and medium term measures, technical assistance, grants and loans. A trust fund was established particularly to support progress at the local level, to support government reforms and to strengthen decentralisation, citizen participation and resilience of the most vulnerable victims. However, due to the referendum’s ‘no’ these measures were postponed to further negotiations, leaving a possible peace dividend at stake.


The Fourth Barrier: Colombia Between Peace and Legality

The Colombian peace process surely symbolised a renewed understanding towards the persecution of severe crimes committed during a conflict although Colombia is not the only post-conflict country where inherent tensions between international norms of criminal justice and peace arose. The FARC rebels have been accused of murder, sexual violence, hostage-taking and forced resettlement of civilians. And members of the Colombian army and various paramilitary groups for their part have been accused of killing thousands of innocent civilians.

The Colombian peace treaty therefore sought to strike a delicate balance between criminal justice and peace by avoiding amnesias for serious crimes, while also avoiding prison sentences. Those found guilty of serious crimes ought to commit to a prolonged period of social service under the present treaty. So far, the international community did what it could to support this interpretation: The Security Council passed a resolution welcoming the peace negotiations, while the International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda signaled cautious support for the treaty as it stood.

Yet, it is also clear that the provisions in the peace treaty fall short of established criminal justice norms. Especially the Inter-American Court for Human Rights (IACHR) well-known for its strict interpretation of criminal justice norms, excluded compromises on that matter in the past. For the ICC and especially the IACHR, public legitimation of the agreement via a referendum could have been a strong argument for the treaty´s compliance with international law, particularly the Inter-American Charter of Human Rights. Without public legitimation however, odds are that the IACHR subsequently rules the agreement illegally.


The Way Forward: Renewing International Support

In times of tumult, both signals of tranquility and hope are essential. The EU should point out clearly that the support for projects precluding the transition period will remain in place until a new deal is ratified. In the meantime, the EU should play a constructive role in facilitating the national dialogue including the opposition, civil society actors and the public at large. And in specific terms, the EU should help to persuade opposition leader Álvaro Uribe to abandon his blockade to the peace process. This is of course a highly difficult task but Uribe should be able to join negotiations without losing his face.

Additionally, the EU must provide funding and technical support for public deliberation during the peace process. In order to guarantee stability, Germany and other EU members should strongly embrace the Security Council’s decision to authorise the UN Mission and encourage observers already deployed in Colombia to stay – despite the legal limbo until a new treaty is ratified. Since most armed groups respect the United Nations, its mere presence will help avoid a return of armed confrontations.

Also, some important tasks can be accomplished below the threshold of a peace treaty mandate. Signaling presence, destroying munitions and strengthening the UNHCR capacity are instruments with favorable prospects to prevent armed conflicts. Germany and the EU should lobby the UN Security Council to welcome a new peace treaty version, making sure that its measures for the most serious crimes do not fall behind those stated in the current version. Such an unequivocal signal from the UNSC would make it much easier for the International Criminal Court and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to accept the peace treaty as legally valid.

The international community can overcome the mentioned four barriers. In a good case scenario, this climb leads to more stability and peace. Yet, time is running. The longer these barriers exist, the more likely is another outbreak of violence. If Uribe and other opposition candidates remain able to block such important peace negotiations, the elections coming up in 2018 will eventually declare the entire peace treaty.


The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180. Image: http://bit.ly/2fhGU7P.


Leon Schettler

Leon Schettler is researcher at the “Collaborative Research Center 700 – Governance in Areas of Limited Statehood” where he works in a project on the `Talk and Action´ of International Organizations. In this context, Leon did field research in Bogotá, Colombia where he interviewed staff from ECHO, IADB, FAO, WFP and the World Bank.

Sascha Menig

Sascha Menig is currently finishing his M.A. in Interdisciplinary Latin American Studies (Freie Universität Berlin) with a thesis about the Colombian peace process. He is also a student assisent at the Collaborative Research Center’s projekt „‚Talk and Action‘. How International Organizations React to Areas of Limited Statehood“. His research focuses on Tranistional Justice, Forced Migration and Security in the Andean States.


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