Prospects of the peace process in Colombia

image:  “No + Farc” by Camilo Rueda López

angela-100x100by Angela Muñoz Aroca

The FARC and the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, are about to sign an agreement that will put an end to the lengthiest conflict in the Western hemisphere, which has been fueled for more than 50 years, and that has cost the lives of more than 200,000 people and the displacement of millions. The negotiations, which are taking place since November 2012 in Cuba between the armed group and the government, concluded with the announcement that the final agreement would be signed the 23rd March. Nevertheless, the President has recently declared that the document will be signed later in the year, without specifying the exact date, as he does not want to commit the same mistake of making a deadline difficult to reach. In words of Santos, the negotiations have been postponed due to some difficulties between the FARC and the government which are yet to be solved, such as to decide the areas where the soldiers will be kept together or the conditions for the Disarmament, points that are being dealt in extremis nowadays in extraordinary meetings taking place in La Habana, in order to reach a final agreement as soon as possible.

The secrecy of the conversations, added to the mismanagement of the process that many Colombians consider Santos has had, has ended with a significant decrease on the public support to the president. Accordingly, more than 69% of the interviewees consider the management of the President poor, and more than 52% of the representatives of the public opinion consulted think that the peace process is not getting any closer; as a poll conducted by Gallup shows. Santos has been also criticized by the former President, of whom he was the Defense Minister while being in power, who considers that the amnesty promised to many fighters goes directly against the public interest and the reparation to the victims.

Amongst the different measures included in the negotiation are plans for the development of rural areas, the assignment of land to peasants in need, the transformation of the FARC into a political party, a commitment to fight against the drug market, and a deal to compensate and restitute victims. The points that are yet to be solved are those related to the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration processes (DDR) of the remaining fighters into the civilian life. One of the most polemic points, that nevertheless has permitted the conception of a peace agreement, has been the amnesty that the government has promised to as much as possible FARC soldiers. The extent of the Amnesty Law is yet to be defined but understandably, it will not cover crimes against humanity or war crimes, as well as those related to genocide or torture, due to the commitment of the government and the illegal armed force to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which can convict perpetrators of war crimes even in the case that national authorities are not willing to do so.

Following a model of transitional justice, a court made by national judges and some elected international representatives, will be created to prosecute the FARC members and, as the President has declared, it will be in accordance with the highest standards of international and domestic law. Once the peace agreement is achieved, it is expected that up to 17,000 FARC soldiers will be demobilized and judged. This demobilization will follow the one that took part more than a decade ago, when more than 59,000 fighters of the leftist groups the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the right wing paramilitaries, were demobilized and targeted of several measures in the realm of the DDR processes, by which they were beneficiaries of educational and vocational training programs.

Nevertheless, and as it has been already mentioned, adding to the already problematic point of holding abusers accountable for their actions but not imposing measures too strict that will destroy the prospects for peace, it is the fact that people will need to decide in a referendum if they back the process. The prospects for a positive vote remain uncertain, despite the president confidence, due to the costly measures it would include, which would affect the country economy. Amongst them are the reintegration of thousands of ex-combatants, who will need to be targeted of several social measures and psychological support for several years; or the land reform. In the context of a widespread poverty, it is understandable that many people would not agree to divert funds to support ex-soldiers instead of other families in need.

Thus, a crucial task in this step of the negotiations, is to engage people in the process. By people we mean the victims, the gross of the Colombian society, but also the fighters, different target groups with different needs. In this sense, and regardless of what could be thought, the President assures that the direct victims, at least those that were invited to the peace talks in La Habana, have been the most willing part to forgive and look forward. This was one of the hardest points of the agreement, which after tough negotiations was successfully reached. The victims, through the commitment of the fighters to the truth, reparation and guarantees of no repetition, have received public expressions of forgiveness and have agreed to settle a mechanism of transitional justice to deal with the responsible of the crimes.

Besides the victims, and here is where the problem starts, a rather less willing group to cooperate are thought to be the civil society, who feel they have been left aside of the Santos conflict management. It could be argued that people disengagement with the peace process is related to the lack of inclusion of measures based on local ideas and participation, what would explain the mistrust people have around an agreement on which they have not had much to say about. The agreement is understood by many as disconnected to many peoples’ concerns, but are them, at the end of the day, who will decide the faith of their country for the years to come and who will make the prospects for a perdurable peace in Colombia possible.

Having said that, I would like to make a special mention to a group that could be divided amongst the two mentioned above, as well as in the one of perpetrators, and that has not been properly addressed in the process, the group made by children. This group is heterogeneous in terms of their ages but also their conflict experiences. Accordingly, since the beginning of the peace talks between the armed group and the government, up to 230,000 children have been internally displaced, around 250 have been harmed or killed, 180 have been sexually assaulted, and around 1,000 have been active players in the conflict as soldiers, as a recent report of UNICEF shows. More importantly is that to date, there are still hundreds of children amongst the FARC fighters who, despite commitments to the opposite, have not yet been released by the group. If these children decide to scape and they are re-captured, they can be killed for treason. Despite the heterogeneity of this sector of the society, children have all something in common, and is that they have all grown in a conflict atmosphere and due to their short age have known nothing else than war.

Despite the number is much more reduced nowadays, is understood than more than 8,900 children have been recruited while under the age during the conflict in Colombia, but a clear status for their situation or an effective end to their recruitment have yet to be taken. In this sense, despite there are measures in place to protect and compensate their war experiences, they have not been sufficient and, ironically, less extensive than those received by their adult counterparts. The special legal situations and crime that supposes to recruit children, have made the armed groups to deny their existence and to liberate them through unofficial channels, leaving many children out of the educational, psychological and vocational training programs in place for them; while the government has failed to reverse this situation.

I had the opportunity to get in contact with members of an organization which defends the rights of child soldiers in the country, who related me how some war affected groups, such as internally displaced people or women victims of sexual crimes, were properly represented within the Victims Law and had their concerns taken into account in the peace process; while the situation of ex-child soldiers was less defined. Children cannot talk on their own names, and they have always their worries represented by expert adults, which give a more institutionalized vision of their situation, making children subject of protection but not necessarily of rights and obligations. Ironically, the special protection children have in all the Humanitarian and Human Rights conventions makes them vulnerable of being removed from negotiations for the goods of a quicker and less traumatic peace agreement.

Amongst other risks of letting this happen is the fact that despite the peace agreement with the FARC will come soon, other armed groups such as the ELN and the Bacrim (criminal groups) are still operating and recruiting fighters, and refusing to deliver justice to all these children, may mean making them easy targets to continue the fight through different means. These victims may have different concerns and conceptions of peace, and certainly a different vision of their needs than adults, maybe not as focus on justice, a rather abstract word, but on more tangible things such as opportunities for the long future they have in front of them.

In sum, the benefits that the peace agreement with the FARC will bring to the Colombian society are undeniable, not solely at the national, but also at the regional and international level, being Colombia a country of huge dimensions, a driver of economy and stability in the region, and in an unsurpassable geostrategic situations. The elimination of this conflict would also have the symbolic mean of ending the wave of revolutionary conflicts that have harmed Latin America during the last century and it would also imply a greater position of the country at the international level, enhancing its commercial and diplomatic relations with several countries around the world. Thus, it could be argued that there are more than social reasons to back the process, and that the money invested on it would certainly come back in a way of increased benefits, but nothing of this will mean anything if is not the population who adopt this process as theirs, as a necessary step to leave the bloody past behind and to look with confidence to the future.

As no one under 50 has lived free of war in Colombia, it would certainly take a long time until the population gets used to live freely. But for this to happen, justice has to be made and all the actors involved have to be included in the process, not solely adults, but also children, and it is now the moment to decide where the basis for a strengthen democracy are to be settled. Accordingly, despite children have irreparably suffered during the conflict, they are also the best positioned to become the spokespersons of peace and who will be in charge to construct a new Colombia, so they need to be present at all steps of the negotiations, not later when everything has been decided, but now that the final word is yet to be said.

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