The narrow public rejection of a final peace agreement between the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas has taken much of the shine off what was one of the most significant recent global achievements for peacebuilding. After four years of negotiations in a process described as “highly innovative,” a plebiscite saw the “no” vote triumph over “yes” by 50.2% to 49.8%. Yet this should not be a cause to lose sight of the many valuable lessons from the peace process. In particular, it remains an exemplar for inclusion of women in the negotiations and gender considerations in the final agreement.
There remains hope that the Colombian peace deal can be salvaged, with new negotiations underway between its political opponents and the government. The latter’s position has been slightly bolstered by President Juan Manuel Santos being awarded with Nobel Peace Prize a few days after the voting, while negotiations with the ELN—Colombia’s second largest rebel group—have also been formally announced.
A key to ensuring the ongoing sustainability of the negotiations and the success of subsequent peace processes may be the combination of a high degree of ownership by local actors with strategic international involvement, largely by the “guarantor countries” of Cuba and Norway and the “accompanying countries” of Venezuela and Chile. Other international stakeholders have been also involved in different capacities, including the United Nations, Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, European Union, and United States.
International actors almost unanimously welcomed the agreement. They highlighted not only that it ended armed hostilities, but factors that, notwithstanding the numerous obstacles, foretell positive outcomes for the implementation phase if it finally arrives. These include the high level of women’s participation and a focus on gender considerations in the negotiations. Why is this relevant?
Sixteen years after the approval of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security, research indicates that both women and gender continue to be largely absent in peace processes. Last year’s global study on Resolution 1325 recognized that women were largely underrepresented at all levels of the UN system, and peace processes were one of the most challenging areas for achieving equal and meaningful participation. Peace negotiations in Colombia challenged this trend.
This could be highly relevant to peacebuilding efforts in Europe, for example, where official European Union policy recognizes the crucial importance of women’s participation to achieve sustainable peace. In parallel, the EU has also stepped up its multitrack diplomacy efforts in the context of increasingly complex negotiation and mediation processes.
Both the Comprehensive approach to the EU implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1820 on women, peace and security (2008) and the Concept on Strengthening EU Mediation and Dialogue Capacities (2009) acknowledge that women have been excluded from decision-making and mediation and that there has been a lack of interaction between negotiators and women’s organizations. As a response to these findings, the latter document includes among its five guiding principles the “promotion of women’s participation.”
Colombia has a long history of women’s movements being directly involved in promoting peace efforts throughout the country, mainly at the grassroots level. The turning point that led to women’s involvement and gender inclusion in the peace process with the FARC took place in October 2013, with the National Summit of Women and Peace. This gathered more than 400 Colombian female representatives of civil society organizations, most of them feminist and peace-advocating groups.
Concrete demands presented during the summit resulted in the 2014 formation of the sub-commission on gender as part of the formal peace process. This was composed of representatives of the negotiating delegations with support from Colombian and international experts. Its mandate was to integrate voices of women and a gender perspective into all partial and final agreements reached at the negotiating table.
The sub-commission held several meetings with different women’s and LGTBI organizations as part of the formal peace talks. This eventually led to the final agreement including a dedicated gender perspective. For example, it excludes sexual violence from amnesties and pardons to be considered and positions gender as a factor in the process of demobilization and reintegration of former guerrillas into civilian life, among many other issues.
Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored that gender was one of the issues raised by the opponents of the agreement during the plebiscite process. Many religious and conservative political groups particularly pointed to provisions referring to LGBTI groups and decried the “gender ideology” included. Some Colombian women’s organizations have highlighted that the opposition against gender aspects in the agreement could have long-term impacts on women’s rights. They are thus calling for renewed support for maintaining their hard-fought advances within any future scenario.
It remains unclear what will become of international commitments to women and LGBTI rights as a result of the current deadlock. The EU had allocated funds aimed at strengthening gender equality and human rights as well addressing the particular needs of women and girls affected by the conflict under the EU Trust Fund for Colombia, but it remains to be seen if the funds will be finally disbursed. Brussels and individual EU member states including Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Spain also gave support to the Second National Summit of Women and Peace that took place days before the plebiscite.
Many challenges remain for achieving peace in Colombia, but maintaining gains on inclusiveness and gender equality will be crucial for ensuring sustainable peace in the country. External supporters and observers of the process must also continue to study the lessons it offers, not least of which is the need to prepare for unexpected obstacles to progress.
Ana Villellas, Pamela Urrutia, and María Villellas are Research Fellows at the School for a Culture of Peace (ECP), Autonomous University of Barcelona. This article is based on research for the Whole of Society Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding project.