On 6 November, as part of the ongoing peace talks, the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) reached an agreement on “political participation”. This is the first time the FARC has put in writing its commitment to lay down its weapons and the Government has acknowledged the need for increased democratic reforms. In an important step, both parties further agree that any changes made need to be as a result of public debate and democratic decision-making.

Humberto De La Calle, the Government’s Chief Negotiator, hailed the agreement as a “new opening for democracy”. This milestone in the peace process is the second agreement in the 6-point roadmap outlined in a Framework Agreement to end the armed conflict and build a stable and lasting peace. The agreement suggests that government negotiators and FARC rebel leaders have a shared understanding of the need for structural change to improve the quality and credibility of the democratic system in Colombia – an important foundation for the peace process.

Democratising the peace process

The parties are also aware of the challenge in democratising the peace process itself. Peacemaking is traditionally an undemocratic process by which a small number of men discuss and make – behind closed doors – decisions that affect the whole of society. Traditional peace agreements, therefore, suffer from a legitimacy deficit, which makes their implementation ever more challenging. The current process balances two conflicting demands: the need to keep numbers at the negotiating table to a minimum in order to increase the chances of striking a deal on the one hand, with the need to democratise the process to enhance its legitimacy and support among the population, on the other. This challenge is being addressed in innovative ways, from conferences which involve a wide range of stakeholders, to public participation forums which allow for the Colombian diaspora’s participation and enable citizens to present proposals to the negotiating table.

In the current peace negotiations, the issue of public participation is a cross-cutting reference in all documents. Discussions in Havana are focused on what minimum change is needed, but the more in-depth discussions on how to make change happen are left for social and political actors in Colombia to discuss and decide. This opens up the process, making it more democratic and legitimate.

The provisions of the agreement on political participation are essentially a list of steps to improve the democratic space in Colombia, and to promote, as government delegates and the FARC leaders say in a joint statement “a culture of reconciliation, coexistence, tolerance and non-stigmatisation”. The agreement calls upon all social and political actors to make recommendations for Congress to pass new legislation on political participation, and to create mechanisms for public oversight and participation in the design and implementation of development plans. It also announces the establishment of a Commission that will make recommendations for the Government to conduct reforms to the electoral system. All of this is to take place with a gendered perspective, allowing for women’s participation, which should increase democratic space for women. This responds to the key recommendation made at the National Summit of Women for Peace last month. 

Opposition to the agreement

This latest agreement does not come without controversy, with arguably the most controversial element being the announcement of the FARC becoming a political movement at the end of the peace negotiations. Staunch critics like former President Alvaro Uribe are strong advocates for treating the FARC as a terrorist organisation and responding primarily with military action. They complain that the peace process is giving insurgents legitimacy as political adversaries, which they claim they do not have in the eyes of the majority of the Colombian population with many fearing that they may be allowed to transit from the jungles to parliament without accountability for atrocities committed in the past.

The agreement on political participation is indeed paving the way for the FARC to transition from being an armed insurgency to becoming a political actor. But the government understands that a peaceful solution to decades of armed conflict is a necessary condition for social and economic development, and that it is far better to have FARC inside the political system rather than against it. President Juan Manuel Santos has put his political capital at risk in deciding to move ahead with the fourth attempt to find a political settlement to almost five decades of armed conflict.

At the same time, human rights defenders, leaders of social movements, indigenous and black communities continue to suffer from stigmatisation, harassment, forced displacement and also disappearances and assassinations. This is an indicator of the challenges for a state, which claims to be committed to democratic principles.

Many of the agenda items in the framework agreement overlap, which is one of the reasons both parties agreed to the principle that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. However, together with the first agreement on the issue of agrarian reform and rural development (reached in May 2013), the parties have now covered the two core underlying political dimensions of this protracted armed conflict: land reform and political exclusion. Therefore, despite this caveat, there is a long-awaited sense of enthusiasm in the air and fresh hope that the new accord will promote significant political electoral reforms that encourage greater citizen participation, protect the rights to protest and dissent and encourage transparency. 

So for now, the news is good. Parties are agreeing on essential principles and they are opening space for public debate on how to implement them.

The Colombian peace talks are not only moving forward; they are also innovating in democratic peacemaking. 



Kristian Herbolzheimer is Director of the Philippines and Colombia Programmes at Conciliation Resources. This article was first published on huffingtonpost.co.uk