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Inclusion and the Colombia peace process: conversation with Sergio Jaramillo

Former High Commissioner for Peace in Colombia, Sergio Jaramillo, describes how peace is ‚Äėall about inclusion‚Äô in Colombia. He says a peace process seeks to transform the logic of confrontation into one of collaboration, working under the assumption that there can be win-win solutions, where winning does not mean defeating your adversary. He introduces their idea of di√°logos improbables (improbable dialogues) that bring together people who had been deeply affected by conflict in very different ways. Jaramillo explores several of the more innovative mechanisms of inclusion in the talks and the current implementation process, including the concept of paz territorial (territorial peace), which refers to the ambitious rural development programmes that are based on very detailed participatory planning processes.

Inclusion and peace negotiations

In Colombia, peace is all about inclusion. And I would like to think our process has been as inclusive as it can get.

During the negotiation phase we set up several mechanisms for public participation (see Kristian Herbolzheimer’s article introducing this section). Each of the five agenda items [rural reform, political participation, illicit drugs, victims, and ending the conflict] were discussed in national conferences, and we would literally get a pile of about eight or ten volumes with recommendations sent to us in Havana. These played a much larger role than people are aware. For the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia], for instance, the proposals that came from organisations to which they felt sympathy became the meat on the bones of their own proposals at the negotiations.

The most important moment of inclusion is, of course, after signing the peace agreement. We conceptualised the idea of diálogos improbables (improbable dialogues) that bring together people who have lived through and been affected by conflict in very different ways; and paz territorial (territorial peace), which refers to the ambitious rural development programmes that are based on very detailed participatory planning processes. In fact, we created a new model of agreement implementation based on citizen participation. It is one thing to end the armed conflict and another to build peace, which needs the participation of the whole of society.

Relations with the FARC during the negotiations

During our first informal contacts with the guerrillas we insisted on holding secret talks and reaching a framework agreement before launching a public peace process. This allowed both sides to talk seriously and test each other out without the pressure of public opinion. The fact that neither side leaked word of the secret talks in a country as media-mad as Colombia was an early and telling sign that both sides were serious.

The secret talks further conferred the necessary dignity on the negotiations. We treated each other as interlocutors at the negotiating table and spoke to each other with respect, and generally with cordiality. That is something that to this day some people in Colombia do not accept; they claim that the government consented to make itself equal to the FARC. They miss the point: in a negotiation, you need to abide by the same rules and procedures, because it is those rules and procedures that allow you to get to agreements, and they confer the necessary dignity on the other side. Without dignity no negotiation is possible.

Importance of inclusion

Inclusion is important for a number of reasons. In those areas where violence has reigned for a long time or people have really lived with the conflict, you have a fundamental problem of lack of trust in state institutions. It’s one thing for us peace negotiators to talk about the peace process, but the communities on the ground have seen processes like this before and they just don’t trust them. If you want to change this, people need to see that their voice not only counts but that they actually are able to shape their own future.

The more there is a response and the more people see that their voice is taken into account, the more you get a virtuous cycle going, of institutions being able to channel social demands and emerging conflicts in a way that prevents them from turning violent. Which is what I think in the end is your only guarantee of sustainable peace.

So inclusion is not only about stopping the war and building roads and setting up programmes of rural development, it’s about empowering people to feel they’re a part of the same country. I think this activation of political rights is a critical component.

But because Colombia is varied and diverse with such a¬†difficult geography, there‚Äôs no way any of this is going to happen unless society in the regions also takes the reins of its own future. You want to involve the regions‚Äô universities, authorities, businesses, but also representatives of the victims of the violence and get them to think about ‚Äėwhat does peace mean for my own region‚Äô? For example, in 2016 we [the Office of the High Commissioner of the Peace Process] started an experiment in one of the areas of the country hardest hit by the conflict, to get prominent members of society¬†‚Äď cattle ranchers, trade unionists, teachers, local media¬†‚Äď to sit around a¬†table and to discuss their own future. This same model is being reproduced in other places. When you sit down with a¬†diverse group of people and they realise they all have a¬†shared problem and they can build a¬†shared vision despite their differences, you have hope.

Inclusion and the referendum on the peace agreement

We knew in Havana that we had a¬†political problem. The referendum wasn‚Äôt just about legitimising the agreement. It was also an issue of how to make people have a¬†sense of ownership, especially considering the scepticism with which many Colombians viewed the peace negotiations. So, we rather naively thought that through the referendum we would awaken this sense of ownership. This actually happened, but only for half of the country. The other half was mobilised against what were fundamentally political and ‚ÄėBrexit-like‚Äô objections. We lost by 0.3 per¬†cent¬†‚Äď by¬†60,000 votes out of 3.5 million.

It was then very important that the president as well as the FARC acknowledged that we had lost, and that modifications were to be made to the agreement. The government sat down with the leaders of the NO campaign, which included elected members of parliament as well as prominent politicians from the opposition, for a month of very intense discussions around some 60 issues. After settling all of these issues we then flew back to Havana to renegotiate them with the FARC, which then largely accepted our renegotiated text. In retrospect, it’s probably true to say that we should have done more outreach during the negotiations.

Political opposition and the peace process

When a¬†conflict goes on for half a¬†century, as happened in Colombia, it is also because there are interests and practices that militate against any attempt at resolution. With the peace process we were seeking to transform the logic of confrontation into one of collaboration. We worked under the assumption that there could be win-win solutions, so that ‚Äėwinning‚Äô does not mean so much defeating your adversary as, in Thomas Schelling¬īs wonderful phrase, ‚Äėgaining relative to our own value system‚Äô.

This assumption is not shared by everybody. The evident ambition of former President √Ālvaro Uribe to use the plebiscite as a¬†platform for the 2018 presidential campaign, and his insistent denial of the existence of an armed conflict in Colombia, and therefore of the basic conditions of a¬†peace negotiation, made reaching consensus with him and his allies impossible.

I am afraid there is an extraordinary difficulty, paradoxically, in reaching a peace agreement and building peace in a democracy. Contemporary democracies have increasingly become spaces of competition for parties or movements that seem dedicated solely to the achievement of power, without any consideration other than its own interest. And the hunger for power trumps by far the interest in peace. In fact, the very positions on peace held by different political sectors define the identities and loyalties of their constituencies, and the politicians themselves therefore end up trapped in what is in effect a vicious cycle of intransigence and radicalism. Those conditions do not favour the creation of consensuses and close the doors to the opportunities for transformation and reconciliation which a peace process permits and requires.

Text box: Spontaneous participation - the 'ethnic chapter'

We had an extraordinary moment when we were finishing the negotiations in August 2016. In Colombia, the indigenous communities and Afro-Colombian communities have very strong constitutional rights ‚Äď the most advanced in the American continent. We always thought that because the mechanisms for participation that were in the agreement were so robust, there was to be ample space for the particularities of these communities to be taken into account. But they decided it wasn‚Äôt enough.

On the very last day of the negotiations a delegation ofvindigenous people turned up in Havana and said, ‚ÄėYou aren‚Äôt finishing this without us‚Äô! So, I went into a room full of people who represented various organisations and I said to them, ‚ÄėOkay, you‚Äôve got four hours to come up with an ethnic chapter, because we have to finish today.‚Äô They sat down together with my team, who did a fabulous job, and hammered out what was the ethnic chapter of the agreement.

Role of the international community

Here we learned from our past mistakes. In previous processes the government ended up inviting almost two-dozen countries to participate, without really knowing what for. So, we went to the other extreme, to a minimalist strategy or a needs-based approach: you bring different countries in at the right moment and ask them to play a very specific role.

During secret talks we only needed to have two countries, Cuba and Norway. Indeed, even among two you already have problems with coordination. Cuba gave the FARC the necessary security guarantees, offered us a¬†place to conduct negotiations far from the media, and provided us with all the resources to make the negotiations a¬†success. Norway, for its part, brought all its quiet professionalism to bear and provided critical help with some of the thorniest issues¬†‚Äď for example, by bringing transitional justice experts to talk to the FARC.

Once the talks became public, we involved two more countries, Chile and Venezuela, but at a different level: not as guarantors that were present all the time, but in an accompanying role, to come and find out what we were doing and tell other countries, especially in the region, what was going on.

Then, after signing the agreement, you need much more support. Before we signed the agreement the European Union had already appointed a Special Envoy, Eamon Gilmore, to start talking to us in Havana, which worked extremely well in planning for agreement implementation, thanks to his experience in Northern Ireland.

The role of the UN is a¬†whole different chapter, because the FARC did originally not trust them. The previous failed peace negotiations [1999‚Äď2002] had left a¬†bitter taste. It was always clear to us that the FARC were never going to hand over their weapons to the Colombian state. So, we knew we would eventually need the UN. I¬†myself went to New York just as the secret talks ended in December 2012 to discuss what a¬†UN mission might look like. The UN resident Coordinator in Colombia and several other key people in the UN system quietly built relations with the FARC by supporting the participation of civil society and by providing expertise, advice and institutional support to the peace process. Three years later, when we had to agree on the verification mechanism, the FARC had completely changed their attitude towards the UN and agreed to the tripartite approach (government, the FARC and UN). The Security Council also played an extraordinary role by approving two resolutions unanimously in 2016¬†‚Äď a time when, according to the UN, they otherwise couldn‚Äôt agree on anything. This support contributed to setting up a¬†very robust and credible system which I¬†think worked extremely well.

The US was also very supportive. By the end of 2014 we told them it was the right time for them to send somebody to Havana so they get a better idea of what’s going on to get a sense of the FARC’s views. They sent an excellent diplomat who helped the FARC to understand Washington’s point of view, and vice versa. Sadly, with the change of government in the US came a corresponding change of attitude, which shows that one cannot let windows of opportunity pass by.

Innovations of the Colombian peace process

We put the victims of the conflict at the centre of the process, which has never happened before in any previous negotiation. Virtually every Colombian knows someone who has suffered. If you speak to a young member of the FARC, or his equivalent in the former paramilitary militias, more often than not you will find that they joined because their family had been the victim of one group or the other. So if you want to break the cycles of violence and do justice to so many who were wronged, you need to bring the victims’ rights and needs to the fore.

We decided to listen to the victims directly. We invited 60 victims to Havana, who came in five separate delegations composed of 12 members each. They were selected by the Church, the UN and the National University. The fact that both the government and the FARC were often unhappy with the choice was probably a sign that they were doing a good job. We heard, one after another and during entire mornings, testimonies of atrocities and examples of extraordinary courage, which reminded all of us why we were sitting at the negotiation table.

Including victims’ rights was also fundamental in helping us navigate the tensions between peace and human rights. The people sitting across the table with whom you are negotiating are also those who, according to contemporary theories of criminal responsibility, are most responsible for the crimes committed by their group. How do you square that circle and guarantee 21st century standards of accountability?

Putting the focus on all the victims, and not just victims of the FARC, made it possible for the guerrillas to accept things no other guerrillas have accepted in a¬†negotiation, precisely because we agreed that in order to close the historic conflict and guarantee equal conditions to all victims, we had to address the rights of all victims, not just the victims of the FARC (something that our own institutions to this day have not understood well). No guerrilla group has ever before accepted that international crimes¬†‚Äď war crimes, crimes against humanity¬†‚Äď cannot be amnestied, that they have to be accountable before a¬†tribunal for those crimes, and that they have to serve sentences and make reparations to their victims with their own assets. They only accepted this because they would not stand alone on the stage of justice.

Status of the peace process

I think the whole thing will take much longer than one would like. A lot depends on what the new government is going to do. But I’m convinced that those who most suffered violence in the regions really do cherish 1) the fact of peace and 2) the concrete measures that are contained in the agreement that suggest that finally, the absolutely minimal investments will be made in those regions, so that people have a decent life and are treated like any normal Colombian citizen should be. My main source of optimism in these uncertain times is that I don’t think that those communities will allow the peace agreement and the peace process to be taken away from them so easily.

The sequence of the peace process is very important. The first foundation is to stop killing each other, to get the weapons out of the way, out of people’s lives in the countryside and out of politics. That we achieved. Although we negotiated without a ceasefire, the peace talks led to a reduction of armed confrontations and, after we signed the peace agreement, the decommissioning of the FARC combatants and weapons followed swiftly.

Is that peace? Well, it’s certainly the beginning of peace and it’s paradoxical because on the one hand, one should not underestimate the huge importance of having achieved this. On the other hand, there is the risk of thinking that is the whole story, which it isn’t. The peace process is much more than that, and it’s a big challenge to get people to understand that it is something that takes at least a decade.

Why? Because fundamentally you have a¬†problem of coexistence. You have to introduce serious and deep cultural changes, where people relate to each other in a¬†different way, and where they acknowledge that they don‚Äôt have to agree on everything but they can treat each other with respect, and that there are rules that we all abide by and there‚Äôs also a¬†disposition¬†‚Äď this is very important¬†‚Äď not to ignore what happened, but to acknowledge what happened.

There will always be social conflicts and some violence in societies. Certainly, you always have to have a vision, you have to have a dream. But you also need a plan to create the conditions to make change happen. History is full of ripe moments for change which slipped away because a solution was not yet forged.

Issue editor

Andy Carl


Andy Carl is an experienced peacebuilding practitioner with a career of leadership in the NGO sector. Andy currently works as an independent writer and advisor to individuals, groups and organisations engaged in working on peace, justice and social change processes. He helped establish International Alert in 1989 and in 1994 he co-founded Conciliation Resources where he was Executive Director for 22 years.