Compromise May Not Be Enough for Opponents of Colombian Peace

Supporters of the Colombian government-FARC peace deal embrace at a rally. Bogota, Colombia, November 24, 2016. (Ivan Valencia/AP Photo)

New peace agreements signed on November 24 between the Colombian government and FARC guerillas aim to revive a deal the two parties struck in September, after four years of negotiations. While the new agreements will avoid the referendum pitfall that derailed the previous process, ending the longest running civil war in the Western Hemisphere will depend on political opponents accepting compromise—something they have been unwilling to do in the past.

Colombia perfectly illustrates the great complexities involved in effective peacebuilding and ending civil war. These complexities do not diminish once peace agreements are signed. These agreements are promises, not realities, and only define what countries aim to become in the future. The structures that fed and bred violence likely remain; what changes and is meaningful is the political willingness of armed actors to stop the killing.

Colombia reached such an agreement with the September accords. Commendable as it was, it did not, however, involve other political parties and armed groups. This absence became a contentious issue and caused much of the agitation that disrupted progress.

In theory, the agreements should have been swiftly ratified and implemented. One of the reasons President Juan Manuel Santos was reelected in 2014 was the possibility of establishing peace. However, two elements colluded against this possibility: Santos’ continuing low approval ratings, and the successful disinformation campaign by political sectors who felt marginalized by the peace process.

Opposition to the agreements does not necessarily imply that those responsible are against peace in Colombia. It instead elucidates competing visions of peace, of how this process should take place, and what the terms of an agreement should be. One sector envisions peace as a compromise between two actors, while the other instead sees it as a victor’s peace.

In addition, the September agreements suffered from its 300 page-length and florid and compounded style. Many saw this as an attempt to obscure its intentions, and signaling a lack of an explicit commitment from the FARC. Some sectors saw risks to the right to own land, the possibility of FARC members not serving prison time for crimes against humanity, and perhaps the reformation of security institutions in favor of the former guerillas. Many also feared the agreements would reform the national constitution by a back door route, and that the FARC would have new means to spread propaganda.

Colombians opposing the agreements can therefore be seen as a product of misinformation, distrust toward the FARC (particularly given the trauma of the failed 1998 peace process), government failure to explain and clarify the contents of the agreements, and sustained opposition from political parties.

In light of the uncertainty created by the result of the vote, the government and FARC should be commended for their leadership in keeping the process afloat. Both quickly stated they would explore ways to include dissenting voices and address concerns regarding the agreements; the government used the challenge as an opportunity to broaden the support for peace and address the concerns of those wary of the agreements. Both parties negotiated the redrafting in light of the concerns raised.

Their speed was remarkable considering that drafting the initial agreement took four years. The revision process took less than two months, and considered valuable inputs by different sectors of Colombian society. A new agreement was reached, and signed, on November 24. This produced several changes that, while not meeting all the demands of opponents, signaled a compromise from the government and FARC to make implementation a reality. These included:

  • Clarification on the gender perspective of the agreements as applying only to the conflict’s women and minority victims, to allay fears from Christians over inclusion of a “gender perspective,” which many believed masked a pro-LGBTI agenda aimed at disenfranchising heterosexuals. The agreements also now include explicit commitment to freedom of religion in Colombia
  • Explicit protection of the right to private property and land ownership, following concerns from industrial sectors over the FARC’s communist ideology
  • Requiring all those involved in the transitional justice framework to disclose information with regards to drug production and trafficking activities
  • Setting a 10-year limit and more clarity within the transitional justice process to reflect concerns from political opponents and groups including Human Rights Watch that the agreements provided an avenue for impunity
  • Provisions for the declaration of FARC properties, assets, and finances in order to use them for reparation and restitution of the rights of victims
  • Only temporarily attaching the transitional justice framework to the constitution, to ease fears over reform of the national charter

The only element of the agreements that was not adapted, clarified, or modified in response to opposition was the provision for FARC members to participate in politics, even as former rebels can be regarded as a risk in this capacity. Changes were made in relation to financing, however, with a reduction in the resources and means the FARC would have access to as a political party. The lack of further concessions clearly reflected the priority of this peace process to transform an armed group into a political movement through a series of transitional mechanisms.

Other actors were concerned about how the original agreements would affect the armed forces, and whether state sovereignty was being relinquished to the FARC. While two respected retired generals were part of the government negotiation team, rumors and misinformation created waves of fear and alienation within military ranks. Most of these fears have dissipated as the government has invested time in better explaining the agreements and their implications for the armed forces. This has led some former military members to now publicly support the agreements (active members are ineligible to participate in Colombian politics).

Despite this progress and the concessions made, some political parties remain unwilling to support the peace agreements. It is troubling this has occurred at the same time as a visible armed opposition to the accords is taking place. More than 70 social leaders have been assassinated since the start of this year, in an echo of the failed 1980s peace process being torpedoed by the assassination of more than 3,000 members (including a presidential candidate) of the FARC-founded UP party.

It is problematic that opponents to the peace agreements are not publicly denouncing the current violence. This may indicate apathy or desensitization to this type of violence, or, in a worst case scenario, a tacit approval of these acts. Whatever the reasons, the silence gives a veil of political legitimacy to these actions in the midst of a peace process.

In light of this violence and lack of support for peace, actions undertaken by politicians opposing the peace agreements seem to indicate self-interested agendas. Some opponents are now proposing a referendum to revoke the country’s Congress, which would stop the government from effectively implementing the agreements and again halt peace. With the ceasefire between the government and FARC estimated to have already saved the lives of 1,500 to 2,000 Colombian citizens this year, further delays and uncertainties cannot be justified.

Debates and questions on how to improve and strengthen an agreement are fundamentally different from actions directed at blocking the possibility of moving a country toward peace. The government has invited a range of constituencies opposing the agreements to take part in the negotiating process since 2014; however, most of these parties have rejected the suggestion, and many have opposed the peace process since it started.

There is a danger that many are simply stalling the government’s agenda as a means of scoring future political goals, with parliamentary elections due in 2017 and new presidential elections in 2018. This would not be unprecedented; elections in 1998, 2002, and 2014 were explicitly linked to campaigns to bring peace to Colombia. Future actions will prove if the opposition to peace is on the basis of what is being agreed, or who is doing the agreeing.

Fabio Andres Diaz is a Research Associate in the Department of Political and International Studies, Rhodes University, South Africa. He is editing a volume for Routledge on the challenges of transitional justice for Colombia.