More than two generations of Colombians have suffered armed conflict, kidnappings, drug trafficking and violence. Now, a political solution to the Western Hemisphere’s oldest conflict may be in sight.
Peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) will start in Norway next week. The talks will continue in Cuba and may be extended to include another guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN).
It is the fourth time since the 1980s that the government and FARC have tried to find a way out of the armed conflict that has torn the South American country for almost 50 years. But this time there seems a firmer willingness to reach an agreement, with all sides apparently aware of their historic responsibility to strike a deal.
Broader conflict dynamics also encourage a political settlement. With neither side likely to win by arms alone, both have a strong incentive to negotiate.
FARC is weakened militarily, and its leaders seem to grasp that they face perhaps their final opportunity to vindicate decades of struggle with a peace deal that responds to at least some of the issues that spawned the insurgency. Their armed struggle currently permits survival but little else, and they need a way out.
The government operates from a position of strength, though its current military advantage is not absolutely decisive. Bogotá understands that military means alone cannot end the conflict. It is a welcome attitude, but the authorities now need to make sure the peace process is not all top-down. The conflict-affected communities need to be part of events, not simply the subject of them.
The broader the civic inclusion in the process, the more likely the outcome will be sustainable. Civil society should inform and feed into all parts of the negotiations, women need to have a substantive role, and the victims need to be taken into account.
Advancing government reforms continues to be critical. Land restitution and other forms of victims’ reparation need to move forward. Peaceful political dissent must be tolerated rather than stigmatized. In time, security sector reform will need to be on the agenda, and we will need to see post-conflict mechanisms for demobilizing security personnel and mechanisms for accountability for serious crimes. All these are essential to laying the ground for lasting peace.
First of all, however, all sides must act with restraint on the battlefield to generate immediate humanitarian improvements. The government, the armed forces and FARC then need to achieve a bilateral ceasefire at the earliest possible phase of negotiations.
One serious obstacle to the talks could be the widespread scepticism towards the guerrillas. There is political opposition to the talks, most vocally and radically articulated by former President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010). So far, a large majority of Colombians backs the peace process, and mainstream political actors have endorsed it, but continuing violence and lack of practical results may erode shaky trust.
Today’s generally positive mood would be reinforced if FARC accepted all international standards on the conduct of conflict, and, for example, released any remaining hostages and ended its use of minors.
The international community — represented during the talks primarily by Norway, Cuba, Venezuela and Chile — will need to stand by Colombia throughout, including as it takes up the challenges of a post-conflict society. Major donors, including the U.S. and European Union, need to enhance and renew political and financial support for initiatives aimed at improving the humanitarian condition of conflict-affected populations.
They should maintain and, if possible, increase levels of funding for human rights defenders and local or regional peace initiatives. Civil society needs their support in critically, autonomously and constructively engaging with the negotiation process and the resulting post-conflict order.
A deal alone will not eliminate violence, and the road ahead will be neither short nor smooth. Still, Colombia cannot afford to fumble this chance for peace.
Louise Arbour is president of the International Crisis Group.