For 50 long years, insurgent groups have embroiled Colombia in conflict. During the most intense period from 1990 to 2004—when, according to international standards, it reached the level of a “major armed conflict”—it affected practically the entire country. The consequences for the civilian population have been enormous: more than 230,000 people killed and more than 7 million others forcefully displaced by the violence. The rural, aboriginal and Afro-Colombian populations have suffered disproportionately.
In response to the intensity of the conflict, there have been numerous, serious attempts to construct peace. Such attempts have combined strategies of peace that have been employed in other countries with “protracted armed conflicts.” Depending on the circumstances, locations and affected populations, different combinations of “peacekeeping,” “peacemaking” and “peacebuilding” have been applied.
First of all, it is necessary to contain the devastating consequences of a conflict on the civilian population. In Colombia, this has implied strategies of “civilian peacekeeping,” which involves maintaining a national or international presence to discourage armed actors from targeting the population. It also involves forms of civil resistance, such as demarcating communities and territories of peace where people oppose the use of violence.
Secondly, “peacemaking” is required, that is, negotiating peace agreements with armed groups. Since 1989 several rounds of negotiation have taken place in Colombia. Recently, during the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos, negotiations over a four-year period (2012–2016) with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) came to a successful conclusion. This year, negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN) have begun.
Thirdly, once peace agreements with distinct armed groups have been signed, many “peacebuilding” initiatives are needed. In Colombia, these have included not only processes of demobilization, disarmament and the reintegration of combatants, but also concrete plans for the economic, political and cultural wellbeing of the victims of conflict. Much is required to promote reconciliation in a society that has suffered deep wounds and divisions due to war and violence.
It is important in the interests of peace not to give up when there are setbacks or when a particular peace initiative appears to be collapsing. In Colombia, the peace agreement with the FARC has had its fair share of obstacles with regard to its acceptance, political endorsement and implementation. The agreement that was signed in August of 2016 contained articles on: integrated rural reform; political participation; a solution to the scourge of illicit drugs; support for the victims of the conflict; transitional justice; guarantees of security, ceasefire and the termination of hostilities; and the disarmament of the guerrillas. Nevertheless, in the national referendum of 2 October, the agreement was voted down by a margin of less than 55,000 votes out of a total of 12,800,000. As a result, several points had to be renegotiated to incorporate conditions set by those who opposed the agreement.
On 14 November 2016 a new agreement was signed and endorsed by the Congress, which is slowly approving the necessary laws for its implementation. When the ceasefire came into effect, there was a significant reduction in the level of violence. Since then there has also been progress in the demobilization and disarmament of the guerrillas, which should draw to a close in 2017. Due to deep polarization in the country with respect to the war and peace process, the implementation of the latter has met with difficulties. There still exists the real risk that the agreement could end up shipwrecked in the current, stormy, pre-electoral context.
The people of Colombia look with hope and expectation at the advances already achieved in the implementation of the peace agreement. All the same, the challenges to the distribution of the benefits that it promises are significant. On the one hand, the persistence of some armed groups poses a threat for the rural populations located in zones where there are illegal activities. On the other hand, there is a lot of uncertainty about the implementation of the many complex promised mechanisms for rural development, political participation and transitional justice, which guarantees access to the truth and compensation for victims, including the restitution of their land.
Within this context, Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) is working to accompany the communities that are in vulnerable situations, under threat of being displaced, so that they are more resilient and able to remain in their territory. Likewise, JRS helps victims who are already internally displaced to understand and get access to their legal rights, so that they can fully integrate. We walk with our people, so that they are empowered and become agents of peace and reconciliation in their own context. And this is something that can be effective, not only in Colombia, but in the many other places where peace is lacking and where conflict threatens to destroy people’s lives and communities.
This article first appeared in the 2017 Spring & Summer issue of Mission News.