Oct 2012

Colombian peace talks must involve societies

Leonardo Gonzalez

Inclusive public participation led by Colombian society is vital in the implementation of any peace deals resulting from the current Colombian peace talks, peacebuilding NGO Conciliation Resources says.

The Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) insurgency have acknowledged the importance of the participation of society in the peace process. The peace talks will focus on putting an end to armed conflict, while the issues of structural change to address the multiple layers of conflict need a broader and more participatory process in parallel to the negotiations. Conciliation Resources is encouraging social, political and economic actors to seize this window of opportunity and empower themselves to lead on a National Dialogue to assess the multiple challenges in moving from confrontation to collaboration, and draft a road map to stronger democratic institutions. 

Conciliation Resources' call comes following the commencement of the second phase of peace talks between the Colombian government and FARC in Oslo.

The architecture of the peace negotiations is solid: a limited agenda, good negotiation teams and smart international support. The challenge now is to develop a parallel process that allows for broader participation, ownership and, thereby, legitimacy.

Political parties, indigenous and black communities, civil society, business and media sector all have a role to play in strengthening dialogue and democratic institutions to get rid of political violence forever. Women have to play a leading role in this effort.

Kristian Herbolzheimer, Colombia Programme Director, Conciliation Resources

What is the context of the conflict?

Colombia is the only country in the Western hemisphere suffering a major internal armed conflict and armed groups, especially FARC, have been challenging the Colombian Government for almost 50 years. Right-wing paramilitaries and a number of extremely violent criminal gangs complete a web of illegal armed groups. Drug trafficking has become the financial fuel that keeps this war going. Throughout recent decades the Colombian government’s policy has been shifting back and forth between negotiations and a hard-line approach.
These talks mark the first direct talks between the Colombian government and FARC in a decade, but is the fourth attempt in 45 years to reach a negotiated settlement of the war. 
While the announcement has spurred new hope, it can also lead to further frustration if people’s expectations are not met. Learning from failures in the past, the process needs new and creative thinking.

How can success be secured this time?

One of the reasons for failures in the past was a far too broad agenda. Parties pretended to address all major socio-economic problems of the country at the negotiating table. The fact that the negotiating agenda this time contains essentially only one political topic (land) is a good indicator.
Conflicts are rarely solved at the negotiating table alone, yet more often than not, too much attention and expectations are placed on the negotiations. Internationally, there have been fewer armed conflicts, less casualties and more peace negotiations over the last 20 years. Yet peace negotiations often fail, conflict recurs, and when agreements get to be implemented they never fulfil expectations.
Conciliation Resources believes that for a peace agreement to secure lasting peace, especially in a protracted conflict such as the Colombian one, the negotiating table must be seen as one of many paths to peace. While negotiations mark a vital step towards peace, they need to be integrated with aspects of human rights, political and grassroots participation, structural change at a parliamentary level and cultural evolution away from aggressive values, to have a chance of securing lasting peace. 
Conciliation Resources strongly believes that the very societies suffering from armed conflict are also the ones that will find the appropriate solutions. In Colombia:
  • Women’s organisations have successfully documented the gendered dimension of conflict and the real dimensions of violence against women. They are strongly advocating for their role in any future decision-making. Their analysis and advocacy is suggesting a different approach to the overall goal of eliminating all forms of violence.
  • Indigenous groups have been disproportionately affected by armed conflict and have long been protesting against the violence by all involved in the conflict, including state-sponsored violence. Indigenous groups like the Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca, ACIN, have a strong community organisation that has maintained peaceful mass mobilisations throughout the years and is a source of inspiration for Colombian society at large.
  • Rural communities have established ‘peace zones’ to prevent armed groups from conducting war in their territories. They often are part of innovative municipal assemblies that challenge traditional politics and become a reference for stronger and more responsive democratic institutions.
All these groups (and many others) have concrete suggestions on how to address the conflict and improve human rights and democracy.
Conciliation Resources has been working on the Colombian conflict for more than 12 years. Our focus is on strengthening local capacities by providing practical tools and assistance to help the people affected by conflict move towards a lasting peace. This peacebuilding expertise and the capacities of individuals and organisations in Colombia to carry forward any peace agreements will be crucial in the coming months and years. 
For more information about the Colombian conflict: