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Advice for Colombia from countries that have sought peace – and sometimes found it

An October 2016 peace rally in Bogota, just before the final accords were signed with the FARC guerillas. John Vizcaino/Reuters

Advice for Colombia from countries that have sought peace – and sometimes found it

An October 2016 peace rally in Bogota, just before the final accords were signed with the FARC guerillas. John Vizcaino/Reuters

After 55 years of civil conflict that killed some 220,000 citizens, Colombia is indubitably on the path to peace.

Juan Manuel Santos’s government has signed a peace agreement with the FARC rebels and launched negotiations with the ELN, the country’s second-largest guerrilla group, which is still armed and active.

But accords are only the first step toward ending war. Afterwards come disarmament, reintegration, reparations, justice – all the hard work of making peace stick in a traumatised and deeply polarised nation.

At this fragile crossroads, The Conversation Global invited scholars to reflect on recent peace processes from around the globe. The question: what lessons could Colombia take away from other nations’ transitions from civil war to peace?


Northern Ireland: Transition is rarely clear-cut

Hearses carry the coffins of IRA guerillas in Belfast, 1988. Nick Didlick/Reuters

All peace agreements have common features, regardless of the specific conflicts involved. They are an ending and a beginning, and the transition is rarely clear-cut. Peace settlements bring their own problems, because they represent compromises in which parties abandon their top choice (victory) for a mutually agreed-upon settlement. So invariably some opponents remain loyal to their first preference, forming a constituency automatically opposed to the peace deal.

Unlike the original Colombian accord, Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement passed its referendum. But enthusiasm soon dwindled and, as in Colombia, anti-agreement forces tried to deconstruct and renegotiate the deal – sometimes by returning to use of violence, and often by politicising victim issues and the past more generally. So the period of euphoric grace that accompanies peace settlements can be short.

I would also remind Colombia that peace agreements do not suddenly beget political agreement. If effective, they institutionalise peace by establishing political structures through which continued disagreement should be pursued. The Northern Irish continue to disagree over the border, social exclusion, and economic decline, issues that are now overlaid by the legacies of the peace deal itself, including reckoning with the past, victim recompense, and how to handle former combatants.

Protesters at a Northern Irish peace rally, 1993. Andrew Wong/Reuters

Colombia has significant socio-political and economic disagreements to manage, including poverty, land reform, drug cartels and indigenous democratic particiption. These will not disappear with a signed accord.

The Colombian President has remarked how inspirational he found Northern Ireland’s peace process. And people from all sides in the North were deeply involved in the Colombian negotiations.

But we can also learn from Colombia’s agreement, which has a few key advantages over Northern Ireland. Crucially, it makes provisions for a thorough process of demilitarisation and demobilisation of armed groups and includes a formal process of truth recovery, overseen by third-party international agencies.

The truth can be troublesome – but countries seeking lasting peace must seek and debate it.

John Brewer, Queen’s University Belfast

Argentina: Real justice requires trade offs

People await a verdict in the 2013 trial of former Argentinean dictator Jorge Videla. Reuters

In transitional justice, preserving democracy may conflict with equal application of criminal law. While it is crucial to deliver the message that nobody is above the law, it is also fundamental to protect people’s freedoms. Doing so may imply making trade-offs that many citizens will find unacceptable.

Raúl Alfonsín faced these moral dilemmas when he took office in 1983 as Argentina’s first elected president after the dictatorships that tormented the country between 1976 and 1983.

Three main convictions drove Alfonsín’s approach.

First, reestablishing the rule of law meant that at the very least those responsible for designing and commanding massive human rights violations should be punished; otherwise, the notion that powerful people could escape justice would erode or even impede new democratic institutions.

Second, to prevent a repeat of past horrors, people must know the entire truth about what happened.

Finally, all this must be done without risking the future peace and freedom of Argentineans, meaning that under no circumstances should the country’s fragile new democracy be exposed to a breakdown.

General Videla on trial, far right. Reuters

Alfonsín’s plan did not please everybody. But despite most forecasts, Argentina was the first country in the world that sought to punish the leaders of one Latin America’s bloodiest dictatorships. We did this just months after they had left power, with our own courts and judges.

President Nestor Kirchner opened or re-opened trials against the rest of the perpetrators 20 years later. This occurred only after years of claims from human rights advocates and, it’s worth noting, in a much less threatening national context.

Colombia is confronting a similarly complex situation, and no single act is sufficient to handle the past. Peace and closure are part of a decades-long process in which society makes and remakes its plans while holding onto its main moral convictions.

Roberto P. Saba, Universidad de Palermo

Bosnia: Don’t politicise victims

People run for cover as they pass an area of heavy Serb sniper fire in the besieged Sarajevo, Bosnia, 1993. Chris Helgren/Reuters

Colombia can learn a few things from Bosnia’s fragile peace processes, which were initiated more than two decades ago. The 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, although not envisaged as a final solution, laid the ground for the constitution of the new Bosnia and Herzegovina after the  three-and-a-half year Bosnian War.

One obvious difference from Colombia is that instead of uniting fighting factions, the peace agreement divided the country into several different administrative units, based on ethnic origin. This arrangement makes it difficult to obtain political agreements on almost anything of concern to the country and has led to ethnicity-based divisions.

In Bosnia, attempts to establish a truth and reconciliation commission failed; there has simply been no political will to establish one. So retributive justice became the government’s only transitional justice mechanism.

In this sense, it is good that Colombia’s initiative is more comprehensive and has emerged from within; peace and reconciliation should never be imposed by third parties.

Bosnians marching for peace in 2015, 20 years after the war’s end. Reuters

Also positive is that the Colombian accords are based on principles of restorative justice, and include a combination of judicial and non-judicial measures, a truth commission and guarantees of non-repetition.

Still, this alone is not enough. Other actors and mechanisms – including civil society groups and various forms of cultural interventions – should not be marginalised.

And though victims’ rights seem to have made their way into Colombia’s peace agreement, victims of the conflict must be included in decision-making and law-making processes.

Critically, this includes taking into account victims’ genders. Bosnia’s Dayton Accords were gender-blind. No women were present during their negotiation or signing, and the accords do not deal with harms suffered by women in war, nor address women’s victims specific needs in its aftermath.

I applaud that Colombia’s accord acknowledges that the future truth and reconciliation commission should pay specific attention to women. But women should not be portrayed solely as “especially vulnerable” victims; they must also be peace-builders and decision-makers, as the United Nations recommends.

Finally, Colombia must not politicise victims or victimhood. Each representative of the Bosnian government glorifies victimhood of its own people to sustain an atmosphere of fear, power and control, while the victimhood and suffering of others has hardly been recognised. Colombia would be wise to avoid creating hierarchies of crimes, as that is not a recipe for reconciliation.

Twenty years down the road Colombia should, hopefully, not have only peace accords (as Bosnia does), but peace.

Olivera Simic, Griffith University

Democratic Republic of the Congo: A lesson in what not to do

Rwandan soldiers departing the Democratic Republic of the Congo after peace accords were signed, 2002. Reuters

The Democratic Republic of the Congo started a decade-long disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) package, funded mainly through the World Bank, after the Second Congo War (1998-2003) had killed an estimated 3.9 million people. In terms of peace processes, it is a lesson in what not to do.

Though relatively successful in disarming and registering combatants, the Congo’s DDR largely failed to deliver peace, security or socio-economic development to ex-combatants, their families or to the Congolese people.

Today, the Congo’s economy is in shambles, it has a rogue president and civilian deaths and armed conflict are resurgent.

The underlying problem was that the peace process was externally driven. In addition to the World Bank, both the UN and International Organisation of Migration ran parallel and competing missions.

Three other challenges could be illustrative for Colombia.

First, the Congo’s DDR lacked consistent or widespread grassroots consultations with war victims and ex-combatants. As a result, the programme seemed disconnected from the needs of many communities.

DRC’s President Kabila at peace talks, 2001. Mike Hutchings/Reuters

Victims weren’t given psychological support, and job training for ex-combatants was mediocre and often inappropriate: most former soldiers had personal aspirations – from finishing their education to running a business or learning computer-programming skills – but these options weren’t open to them.

Second, funding – especially in the final, reintegration phase – arrived late or dried up, meaning that follow-up was poor. With no one to check in on and help ex-combatants succeed in civilian life, my research shows that many DRC ex-combatants rejoined active armed groups.

Finally, top commanders were awarded prestigious government positions. This may have helped avoid spoiler behaviour, but it provided little justice for the millions of ordinary Congolese who had suffered for decades.

So, for Colombia, I would emphasise that the reintegration process must be adequately budgeted through all phases, from training to follow-up. The government must also continue to give both ex-combatants and communities space to voice their concerns and expectations.

In the end, for the World Bank, UN and IOM, the Congo’s DDR programme was more a technical exercise than a matter of justice or healing. Beneficiary communities and combatants were more statistics than human beings. These international organisations were mostly ignorant of the Congo’s long history of violence, which originated in colonial times and involved numerous local and international actors (including local and proxy militias, former dictator Mobutu’s cronies, the United States, Belgium, the UN, Uganda and Rwanda).

You can’t succeed in the ambitious endeavour of peace without understanding local historic and social dynamics. Colombia’s peace process has been driven domestically, by its president, and is heavily rooted in the country’s national context. That’s a good sign.

Stephanie Perazzone, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies