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Negotiating inclusive peace in Colombia

Introducing the Colombia study in this publication, Herbolzheimer provides a succinct summary of the peace process, explaining how it has developed new mechanisms for participation. He describes how the conflict parties drew an explicit distinction between initial peace negotiations between themselves, with a limited agenda aimed primarily at ending the violence; and a broader social and political peace process, which would take place following the signing of a peace agreement ‘with the participation of each and every one’. Herbolzheimer identifies specific inclusion innovations in the process: inviting the private and security sectors into the government’s negotiating panel; public conferences and consultations prior to the formal peace talks, convened jointly by the UN and the National University; inviting victims to the peace talks; and responding to the demands of ethnic minorities. He explores the unexpected setback from the national referendum and some of the current challenges with agreement implementation and public participation.

Innovations around participation and inclusion

The peace process in Colombia is widely understood as a process to strengthen democracy. It is a process where the peace negotiations were designed to put an end to the armed conflict and produce the conditions for a substantive transformation of the power dynamics in the country. Throughout four years of negotiations, the government and FARC were able to craft an agreement that responded to both the revolutionary claims of the guerrillas and the modernising vision of a government that saw violence as an impediment to economic development. For different reasons, both sides identified political marginalisation and lack of rural development as the core drivers of conflict that needed to be addressed.

Learning lessons from shortcomings in previous negotiations in Colombia and elsewhere, both sides understood that deep political and cultural change would not trickle down from the negotiating table. They thus agreed on the need to design a process that paid attention to the views and groups who were affected by the conflict but were not party to the negotiations.

At the same time, civil society organisations have long been advocating for their right to participate in the design of public policy. Their practical experience and perseverance in lobbying contributed to a more inclusive peace process. And, finally, the ELN has framed its own negotiating agenda with the government around the issue of public participation. As a result of these multiple factors, the Colombian peace process has developed remarkable mechanisms for participation, some of them truly innovative in international peacebuilding.

Conflict termination to enable conflict transformation: The Framework Agreement between Government and the FARC of August 2012 that mandated the peace talks made a fundamental conceptual distinction between the peace negotiations – which would take place in Cuba between only the government and FARC, with a limited agenda and the aim of ‘putting an end to the armed conflict’ – and a broader peace process that would take place in Colombia after the signing of a peace agreement, ‘with the participation of each and every one’.

Inviting the private and security sectors into the negotiations: The government´s Peace Panel for the negotiations with FARC included one prominent business leader, one retired general from the armed forces and one from the police. This was the first time in four decades of peace negotiations that the military and the police had played an active role in the negotiations.

Consultations: The peace negotiations between the government and FARC followed an incremental approach to address each of the five items on the agenda: rural development, political participation, illicit crops, victims and conflict termination. Discussions in Havana on these items were preceded by conferences in Colombia convened jointly by the UN and the National University to listen to the needs, concerns and suggestions of the wider public. These inputs then informed the peace negotiations in Havana.

Inviting victims to the peace talks: Between August and December 2014, five groups of 12 victims, carefully chosen by the UN to represent diverse forms of victimhood, travelled to Havana and met with the Peace Panels. These were tough sessions, with victims meeting face to face with some of the perpetrators of crimes against them. The impact of these visits was huge for both the negotiating teams and the victims themselves.

Inviting women’s and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) organisations to the peace talks: Following significant pressure from women’s organisations, on September 2014 the Colombian government and FARC agreed to create a gender sub-commission tasked with reviewing all documents issued as part of the peace process and ensuring that they contained gender-sensitive language and provisions. Between December 2014 and March 2015 the sub-commission invited three delegations from civil society organisations (comprising 18 in total) working on gender issues, including LGBTI organisations, to present their insights regarding the gender approach in the peace negotiations and agreements.

Responding to the demands of ethnic minorities: Colombia has a small, diverse and very active population of indigenous people. It also has a significant number of ‘Afro-descendants’. These two sectors were successful in forming a joint lobby to ensure the peace agreement would respond to their specific rights and requests, which resulted in an ‘ethnic chapter’ of the peace agreement (seethe conversation with Sergio Jaramillo in thsi publication). These sectors continue to struggle for their agency by developing innovative initiatives such as a National Coordination of Indigenous Women (CONAMIC – see conversation in this publication ).

Agreement implementation: The government and FARC have set up a number of new bodies and designed multiple mechanisms to ensure public participation. The most significant are related to rural development and are part of a bottom-up process to identify needs and draft the related development plans. These processes are designed as mini-peace negotiations in themselves, as they bring together stakeholders from all sectors of society and government.

Truth Commission: Created in 2018, the commission will open 20 offices throughout the country’s most conflict-affected regions to promote public participation. It will pay unprecedented attention to the needs of the Colombian diaspora in the Americas and in Europe.

ELN peace process: Despite the above-mentioned developments, the ELN remains critical of the FARC peace process which it considers too elitist and not transformative enough. They have articulated a vision of a bottom-up peace process where the negotiating agenda and the negotiations themselves are framed by civil society, notably the more marginalised sectors. The vision has yet to materialise in more specific suggestions, but the ELN is determined to take participation further than FARC.

On top of these major initiatives, other actors in civil society, government and the private sectors have long been promoting difficult dialogue between sectors of society with divergent perspectives and between civil society and the security sector, as well as with armed groups at the local level.

Unexpected setback

The government was very confident they were on the right side of history when completing the negotiations with FARC – to the point that they called for a plebiscite on the peace agreement without a well thought-out communications strategy.

At the time it was indeed difficult to believe that anyone would seriously campaign for a NO vote. But former President Álvaro Uribe did. And his predecessor also did. And others joined. In the end, NO polled 60,000 votes more than YES, leaving the peace supporters in Colombia – and in the international community – stunned and speechless. The government’s peace policy was further punished in legislative and presidential elections in 2018, which brought the political opposition to power. What went wrong? Why was one of the most innovative and inclusive peace processes unable to bring on board broader public and political support? Was there a problem with process design?

The results of the plebiscite and the elections take us back to the paradoxes described at the beginning of this piece. What was designed with the best of intentions to ensure a broad sense of ownership of the peace agreement instead ended up exposing a society deeply polarised by mistrust, fear and divergent expectations and worldviews. The people most affected by the conflict voted largely in favour of the agreement. The people less exposed to war voted against it. Despite all the innovations in public participation, large sectors of society remained unconvinced. The United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump as US President – two other polls that left society deeply divided – took place around those same dates. Readers can draw their own conclusions.

Looking forward

The war with FARC is over. The implementation of the revised peace agreement has witnessed unprecedented speed in decommissioning of FARC’s arms, on the one hand, and in establishing new legislation and executive orders on the other. And society is showing signs of change that will be difficult to reverse, ranging from women’s empowerment to increased protest against nepotism and corruption. The new government has also softened the anti-peace rhetoric of its electoral campaign.

But the state is slow and inefficient in turning laws into practice. FARC was unprepared to lead its own transition into civilian and political life. Social leaders who challenge power are being killed at a rate comparable to the worst years of the armed conflict. Political violence has reduced but still persists. Drug trade and criminal violence thrive in a power vacuum that everyone saw coming but no one was able to prevent. The question remains: is the current social and political turmoil an unavoidable symptom of the power struggle inherent to any process that tries to address situations of exclusion and marginalisation?

No one has a definite answer. Time will tell. Transitions to peace are always slower than predicted, and never work as they were planned.

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.