Still a long road ahead in Colombia peace process - Gina Romero (RedLad)


CIVICUS speaks to Gina Romero, Executive Director of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy (RedLad), a not-for-profit platform than brings together more than 480 CSOs, networks, activists, academics, social movements, youth and political groups working together for stronger democracies, human rights, sustainable development and social cohesion in the region. RedLad is also a CIVICUS Voting Member organisation. 

1. We are finally able to glimpse the end of a half-century long conflict. What are the prospects for lasting peace in Colombia?

First of all, it should be noted that this process that is coming to an end has been a negotiation with a single guerrilla group, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The FARC are the most significant such group in terms of territorial power and symbolism, but unfortunately they are not the only armed group with the ability to determine the scope of peace. Besides the fact that peace is evidently not something that can be achieved by just defeating an armed group. This is a very important lesson we have learnt from peace processes in other countries, and it also applies here.

The Colombian conflict has had multiple players throughout its history: several guerrillas, paramilitary forces, and also the regular national armed forces. And for many years we have gone through various agreement processes, such as the one that achieved the “demobilisation”, an expression that I use in inverted commas, of Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), the largest military group, which began in 2003 and lasted almost three years.

The present process involves the FARC, which has around 8,000 fighters and between 2,000 and 3,000 collaborators, all of whom are about to re-enter civilian life. On top of this, Colombia has serious problems of violence and urban crime: there are many criminal groups from diverse backgrounds, many of them associated with small-scale drug trafficking or linked to the protection of transit routes for the coca leaf that is still cultivated in the country. These groups play an important role and are responsible for a substantial number of deaths, displacements, and threats.

This means that achieving peace will not only depend on what has been agreed upon in Havana. When the demobilisation process is completed, we will actually have an entire army out of the war. But there are two reasons why this will not fully guarantee peace. First, because there still are other armed actors: there is an impending fight against other forms of crime, as well as a negotiation process with the other guerrilla group still holding their ground, the ELN (National Liberation Army). Although small and weakened, the ELN still causes fear in many communities. And second, because peace is never automatically achieved as weapons are dropped: on the contrary, it needs to include elements of social justice, citizen participation and equitable development. With the Havana peace accord we are taking a big step forward, but as a society we still have a long way to go to achieve lasting peace, which is a long-term goal.

2. What are the chances that other armed actors follow the FARC’s lead and demobilise as well? Is it possible that the empty space left by the demobilised FARC ends up being filled by other armed actors?

Risks are high. As this scenario is different from others we have lived in the past, it is difficult to predict what is going to happen. Even if the FARC demobilise and do a good job in reintegrating into civilian life, or precisely because of this, it is possible for some areas in the country that are located in key drug trafficking corridors to become sort of “orphaned”.  In fact, in recent weeks we have seen the ELN starting to move into areas where they were not so strong before, such as Catatumbo in the northeast of the country or southern Córdoba, and intimidating populations as if sending the message “be careful that while the FARC are leaving we are coming in”.

The ELN was invited to take part in the current peace process, and an additional dialogue and rapprochement process was even tried, but so far they have refused. The agreement with the FARC has great political symbolism and is a way of showing the ELN that there is indeed an alternative path to armed struggle; however, it should be clear that these organisations have become rent-seekers. This is exactly what the ELN is currently doing by entering areas with high rent-seeking potential. And of course there are also criminal gangs. The success, scope and duration of peace will largely depend on the increased capacity of the police and armed forces to control these groups. It is very important for people to understand that gaining ground with the FARC is absolutely essential, but it is not the last step in the peace process.

3. What are the chances that this agreement will strike a good balance between requirements of justice, reparation and truth allowing for lasting peace?

Several myths have arisen regarding this agreement, because the schemes being created are very novel, even at the global level. Many people who have suffered fear and pain expect FARC members to massively go to prison to atone for their crimes. But this has not happened anywhere in the world where this sort of process has taken place. A peace process implies a negotiation between enemies, and concessions from all parties are essential for agreements to be reached. The Colombian government and the FARC have agreed to create a special jurisdiction for peace, which involves the establishment of various courts that will have the task of examining on a case-by-case basis the situation of the people who are demobilising, as well as that of other actors that have been instrumental to prolonging the conflict. The latter point, incidentally, has scared some business people that fuelled the system by yielding to demands of extortion payments in order to stay in business.

Peace courts will impose sanctions aimed at restoration and reparation. There will be prison sentences for those who have committed crimes against humanity, but the rest will not be imprisoned but will rather receive other kinds of sentences restricting their freedom, including movement and residence restrictions lasting between 5 and 20 years depending on the crime. Agreements with the affected communities will be reached regarding the type of restorative action required, that is, the ways in which each person entering the system will be held accountable. This novel approach seeking to reconcile reparation needs with the requirements of justice might be difficult to understand at first glance because our instinctive reaction is to identify prison as the exclusive punishment for crimes. We will only understand that this process is not granting immunity to the extent that we adopt alternative concepts of punishment. We will then see that this is an actual process of reparation: former combatants will take part in commemorations recognising their responsibility for causing suffering and damage, and will participate in programmes of crop substitution, cleaning and decontamination of minefields, rebuilding infrastructure, reversing environmental damage and recovering the remains of persons who were reported dead or missing, among other tasks.

Uncertainties pile on top of these comprehension difficulties: for instance, it is still not known how the special jurisdiction for peace will be designed, how its members will be selected, or who will be involved in the process. But above all, what is important is that crimes against humanity will not be liable to pardon or amnesty.

Besides justice and reparations, there is also the fundamental issue of truth. The accords have created spaces to ensure that as former combatants transition into civilian life, they also participate in activities aimed at exposing the truth and seeking forgiveness. This is very important, because as we look back into the history of the armed conflict all we see is revenge: for instance, the formation of individual armed groups is too often explained in terms of revenge-seeking for the crimes committed by another group against a family or a community. Forgiveness plays a central role in breaking the logic of revenge.

We have already witnessed some really commendable milestones. While the agreement has not even been ratified, we have already seen instances in which FARC members have apologised, asked for forgiveness for the atrocities they have committed, and shown their willingness to provide the information that is required to enable reparations. Two emblematic cases were those involving the perpetrators of the 2002 Bojayá massacre and the 2007 kidnapping and execution of eleven legislators in Valle del Cauca.

Lastly, the agreement includes a commitment to strengthen the National System of Comprehensive Care and Reparation for Victims (SNARIV), which has been under implementation in the country for more than five years. This implies greater emphasis on collective redress for victims, which is something new, as reparations have so far tended to be of an individual nature. Collective reparations require a territorial approach to reintegration: a collective return of victims to their hometowns, land restitution, psychosocial rehabilitation, and an expansion of opportunities for the participation of communities in tracking and monitoring compliance with the peace agreement.

4. Has civil society played any role in the negotiation of the agreements? Will it play any role in monitoring their implementation?

First of all, it is important to note that the peace agreements and institutional changes that have taken place in the country over the past decades have all been closely linked to demands put forward by civil society, even if this is not immediately apparent. This was the case, for example, with the negotiation process with the M-19 guerrillas, leading to their demobilisation and reintegration into civilian life, as well as to a Constituent Assembly drafting the 1991 Constitution. Initiatives by a social movement led by university and professional groups played a prominent role in this process. Additionally, the dialogue initiated in 1999 between the Pastrana administration and the FARC guerrillas was born out of a citizen mandate for peace.

The current accord, reached through negotiations in Havana, was built on the basis of the lessons learned from previous processes. One of the reasons for the failure of the process that took place in the late 1990s is that everyone could participate in it: citizens, social organisations, journalists and international actors were all able to go into the demilitarised zone and conduct their own talks with various participants; meetings were held right there with the affected communities which were promised heaven and earth… All of this, coupled with lack of enough political will from all parties, prevented progress in the negotiations.

As the current process started, however, the government did something that was at the beginning very difficult to accept for those within civil society who wanted to take part in this process of collective construction: they closed the negotiation site to citizen participation. In the meantime, a lot of work was done to gather inputs from the citizenry through national and regional forums, the conclusions of which were brought to Havana. The only civil society actors who had direct participation in the negotiations were victims’ representatives: throughout the process about sixty of them (more than half of them women) travelled to Havana to talk to the negotiators. In sum, participation was limited to some actors that had been directly affected by the conflict rather than open to the general public.

The negotiating stage will soon end as the accord is endorsed through a plebiscite that will take place on 2 October. The government did not really have any obligation to call for a plebiscite, but they chose to do so in order to allow citizens to express their views. It is a risky but necessary move, as citizens will now be able to say whether they agree or not with the terms of the accord. In the period following the announcement of the plebiscite, civil society has been playing an extraordinary role. I have not seen a movement involving such rapid and coordinated action by civil society since the citizen mobilisations against former President Uribe’s second re-election in 2010. Without exaggeration, there are thousands of citizen groups promoting a YES vote, plus many others that while not endorsing either the YES or NO alternatives they still work on peace education and find innovative ways to invite potential abstainers to think about the country they want and whether the peace agreements are on the right path. It is important to achieve an apotheotic triumph for the YES option, and civil society is playing a vital role towards that.

The role of civil society will also be very important in the process following the ratification of the agreement. On the one hand, leading civil society organisations – longstanding, solid and recognised nationally and internationally – are already working on some of the reforms that were announced in the agreement, such as political reform, opposition statutes, and electoral reform. Although the agreement has not yet been ratified, preliminary versions of reform proposals are already being drafted in committees with civil society participation and inputs. We hope that something similar will happen regarding the design of the special jurisdiction for peace.

On the other hand, civil society action will be indispensable in monitoring the implementation of the agreement, both in each territory and at the national level. In that regard a call has been made to the national government so that the implementation agenda does not die out when President Santos’ term expires, and so the citizenry is summoned to take part in it. Civil society has a key role to play in terms of oversight and social control through participation. While political will is important to open and properly regulate participatory dialogue spaces, it is also key that civil society is willing to take those spaces and strengthen its capacities to play a role in them. This is the only guarantee that the fulfilment of the agreement, the implementation of which is expected to last ten years, will continue as governments change. The Santos administration will end in two years, so two future administrations will be in charge of continuing the implementation. Social monitoring will therefore be crucial.

5. How can external actors, including regional organisations and international solidarity movements, support the peace process and civil society participation in it?

The international community can contribute in at least three ways. First, by helping civil society to strengthen its capacities. The social movement in Colombia is old and very experienced, and has done wonderful work throughout its history, but is now facing new challenges. In response to these new challenges grassroots organisations in each territory will have to play a key role of monitoring and oversight. It is therefore essential to strengthen their capacities.

Second, the international community can contribute to the strengthening of the capacities of the territories themselves. Despite economic growth, Colombia remains a very unequal country, with 80 or 85% of municipalities that have very little management capacity and extremely low resources of their own. It is precisely in those municipalities where most of the implementation of the agreements will take place.

Thirdly, the international community itself could get involved in tracking the most critical issues, especially regarding restorative justice arrangements. Although it goes without saying that the peace process is a step forward that we Colombians are taking by ourselves and that is only for us to take, and that we expect that the respect that other countries have shown regarding the way in which negotiations were held is maintained throughout the period of implementation.

6. A few months ago we spoke with Somos Defensores about the violence faced by Colombian HRDs in a context of internal war. To what extent is it reasonable to expect conditions for the exercise of core civic space freedoms –those of association, expression and peaceful protest- to improve in the near future?

In the last two years of negotiations the number of deaths and disappearances caused by the FARC has been very low. Other actors, such as the ELN, have been the source of threats against human rights defenders. In other words, while the peace agreement effectively guarantees better conditions regarding actions by the parties that have accepted its terms, at the same time it can result in an increase in violence – as it happened during the first couple of years of negotiations – from others actors that are trying to place themselves in a position to replace demobilised groups. This may happen if the security forces do not take appropriate measures. When the ELN implements an “armed strike” in a territory, the freedoms of its inhabitants are suspended.

In recent years there have been major changes in the conditions for the exercise of the freedom of association. During the Uribe administrations (2002-2010) there was a tendency towards identifying civil society as a source of funding and sponsorship for the FARC, and measures were applied against money laundering that greatly weakened civil society’s capacities for action. A tough tax reform that is expected in the near future may also affect civil society’s funding and capacities. 

Lastly, in the Colombian imaginary, protest has long been closely associated to guerrilla movements, which means that it has been historically seen with suspicion. In this sense, it is possible for this process to finally free the symbolic space that the FARC has long occupied as the representatives of the struggle for social equity (a banner that they lost somewhere on their way) and that it ends up vindicating the exercise of the right to protest.


Get in touch with Redlad via their website or Facebook page, or follow them on Twitter @redlatcaribe. Follow Gina Romero @Ginitastar.

This interview was commissioned as part of our voting member profile series.