Colombia’s Landmark Agreement: The End of 50 Years of War?

A pigeon flies over Bolivar Square after the signing of the ceasefire agreement between the Colombian government and FARC rebels. Bogota, Colombia, June 23, 2016 (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

While a final peace accord is likely still a few weeks away, Colombia’s government and FARC guerrillas reached a momentous agreement on June 23. The consensus on the last of five substantive items in negotiations taking place in Havana, Cuba, since 2012 delineates conditions for a permanent ceasefire and the demobilization of the guerrilla movement, which had been by far the thorniest issue on the agenda. Though the parties have decided that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” the accompanying Havana ceremony had the feel of the end of a 50-year war that has killed over 200,000 people and displaced six million.

Attending the ceremony was Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos; FARC Commander Timoleón Jiménez; Cuban President Raúl Castro and Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende (representing the two guarantor countries); United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other senior UN officials; Presidents Nicholas Maduro of Venezuela and Michelle Bachelet of Chile; and many other world leaders and envoys. The impressive lineup sent a clear political message: no one should harbor doubts about the possibility of a peace agreement being signed, and the international community will put its weight behind it to ensure its success.

The June 23 agreement describes the timetable and ways in which the guerrillas will turn in their weapons and enter civilian life. While normally this process is known as disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR), the FARC has been adamant about not using the term, which it claims implies a defeated army’s surrender. The group, instead, speaks of “dejación de armas,” which has the awkward English translation of “laying aside/leaving of weapons.”

The agreement, it is important to note, goes to great lengths to avoid mistakes committed in previous peace processes, in particular those of the last negotiations with the FARC, which took place in El Caguán, Colombia, between 1998 and 2002. First, it establishes a clear and short timeline: the FARC will begin to move its units into so-called “temporary hamlet zones for normalization” (THZN) five days after the signing of the peace agreement. The guerrillas also commit to turn in their weapons stockpiles in no more than 180 days. This means that the whole process of demobilization of the 7,000 or so FARC members must be completed within six months. The FARC will provide a list of all the combatants entering each zone, and the government will suspend all outstanding arrest warrants for them. Those who aren’t charged with committing serious human rights crimes will be given amnesty and can begin their process of reincorporation into civilian life.

The THZN are a central feature of the agreement. One of the biggest mistakes of the El Caguán negotiations was that they gave the FARC control of an expansive chunk of territory, disrupting the lives of those citizens and local authorities within. Because the FARC kept their weapons, and visitors were able to come and go, many critics have said that the guerrillas used these years to reorganize and gain strength, while never really committing to serious negotiations. This time around conditions are significantly different: the 23 zones, which are distributed throughout the country, were chosen because they were small enough that they would allow for easy monitoring of events within. They are also far from urban centers, border areas, natural parks, illicit crops, mines, areas with strategic infrastructure, and territories of indigenous or ethnic minorities. Each zone will be surrounded by a 1-kilometer buffer zone, where neither the Colombian army or the FARC may enter. The guerrillas will mostly remain in each of the THZN, with the exception of 10 pre-determined FARC members per zone, who will be able to travel within the department where the zone is located, and only for purposes of implementing the peace agreement. Nationally, 60 guerrillas will be allowed to travel anywhere within the country, though they will have to leave their FARC uniforms and weapons behind.

The June 23 agreement also breaks with the past in creating a tripartite monitoring and verification mechanism, with participation of the government, the FARC, and the special political mission approved in January by the UN Security Council. The mechanism will verify that both parties are following the rules of the ceasefire and will be in charge of investigating any violations. While the Colombian state and the FARC will participate in the mechanism, the agreement makes explicit that the UN mission will preside and be in charge of settling any disputes between its members, giving recommendations and producing reports, and guarantying impartiality and transparency. The monitoring mechanism will be in charge of, first, storing the weapons collected from the FARC in warehouses only accessible to the UN and, second, overseeing construction of three monuments made of some of these weapons. The mission will be composed of mostly non-military observers from the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.

A hugely important process that hasn’t yet been defined, but where an important advance has been made, is the means of popular ratification of the peace accords. President Santos promised earlier on to convene a plebiscite whereby Colombians could vote “yes” or “no” to the totality of the agreement for the first time in the history of the country. Colombia’s attorney-general opposed the measure, and a decision from Colombia’s Constitutional Court is pending. Meanwhile, the FARC had insisted on convening a national constituent assembly to rewrite the 1991 Constitution as a way to ratify the agreements, which the government vehemently opposed. In the June 23 agreement both parties decided to support whatever the court decides. In practice, this means the FARC has given up one of its central demands.

There are still several important points to be agreed upon, such as the ways in which the FARC may participate in politics and be reincorporated into civilian life, and some details of the transitional justice system. Then, naturally, the biggest challenge remains convincing Colombians, especially those who have been highly skeptical of the legitimacy of the peace process, not only to vote “yes”—in the case that the plebiscite proceeds—but to genuinely embark on a process of reconciliation that brings peace into the post-conflict era.

Renata Segura is the Associate Director of the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum of the Social Science Research Council.