Publication date: 
Dec 2012

Kristian Herbolzheimer is Colombia Programme Director at Conciliation Resources. The Spanish version of this article originally appeared in El Tiempo


The Government and FARC have launched a new attempt to put an end to the conflict

The peace process put forward by the Colombian government and FARC is innovative and well-conceived: with a clearly defined agenda and timescale, discretion and the “nothing is agreed unless everything is agreed” principle.

The design also suggests an innovative vision of the spaces and actors in the peace process: in Havana, the conflict actors are discussing how to put an end to the war. In Colombia, the whole of civil society is invited to participate in harmonising the political and economic changes that will enable “a stable and durable peace”. The parties seem to have learnt lessons from past mistakes, whilst developing a more realistic and human vision of the limitations of war.

However, concerns and questions remain as to the parties’ sincerity, capacity and legitimacy, as well as regarding the timeliness, timescale, actors and reach of the process.

The likelihood is that nobody has conclusive answers, starting with the negotiations’ key actors themselves.

In the end, a peace process is a journey with a clear objective – to leave behind armed confrontation and build a fairer scenario for more people – but with an unclear path.

There are no roadmaps for such a journey. Accumulated experience and international examples are only references. Each new negotiation attempt must draw up its own route plan.

When the parties decide to undertake a negotiation process, they take serious risks and are bringing their political future into play.

If they reach their objectives, they will be hailed as heroes and the country will enjoy renewed optimism. Should they fail, however, it will mean the closing of a window of opportunity, perhaps the last one.

A broad-based commitment

Thus the government and the FARC (and the NLA, should it join) share a huge responsibility. But the country cannot ignore the challenge of putting an end to the most protracted conflict in the Americas. Peace does not come along with the signature of a document; it happens through national mobilisation and commitment. Peacebuilding cannot be delegated.

The many peace initiatives that have seen the light over the last few months are essential. Driven by negotiations, social movements, NGOs, universities, mayors and governors, the Congress’s peace commissions, etc., they have all strived to debate and propose changes for a better country. On this occasion, the United Nations play a more discrete role than during the Caguán process, offering technical support at the request of national initiatives.

As such, the process responds to a global trend to reduce the political weight of international actors and increase the role – and with it the responsibility – of local actors.

This renewed activism for peace can sometimes seem erratic, chaotic, devoid of any obvious aim. This is unavoidable. The path to peace is not defined; it will be the result of a collective building effort and of the resulting struggle between proposals which won’t always complement each other.

The physical distance gives us external observers a privileged perspective: we see a whole landscape rather than the immediate apparent obstacles. What we can see, for now, is heartening.

A peace process can also be compared to the collective creation of a work of art: a painting with different layers (of conflicts), colours (actors) and patterns (for moving forward).

They are all needed to complete a unique and exceptional project which cannot be appreciated in its entirety before its conclusion.

Imagining a new future

I feel that few people are able to imagine today what it would be like to be free of war. The majority of the Colombian population have always lived under the effects of the armed conflict. Millions of people have been its direct victims. The whole country has had to adjust its life – its habits, its aspirations – to a reality which seems an inescapable fate. The end of the conflict would open up a new, unknown, horizon, a scenario of freedom. A scenario which seems so remote that most people certainly consider it to be utopic.

Starting a war is easy. It is much harder to end it. The world is explained in a simplified manner, through binary views: good-evil, democrats-terrorists, oligarchs-oppressed, my people-others. Peace requires an effort to recognise the complexity of social relations, as well as the specific misfortunes and successes of those who are in the opposite camp.

It is not as obvious as it seems. In fact, the social and political processes fighting for social justice often fall into the exclusive and sectarian practices that they question so forcefully.

A peace process leads to a paradigm shift. In negotiations, enemies fight with words, not bullets. They look at each other in the eye, not from a distance. They wear civilian clothes, not camouflage gear. They start off having a coffee together and, if they make good progress, they sit down for shared meals. As time goes by, they start to recognise the faces that hide behind the masks. They start to distinguish themselves as human beings. They end up deconstructing the image of the enemy.

That is the moment when the process reaches one of its most critical points – because not everyone understands and shares the decision to break from the narrative of the past and to proceed to develop a new story, one that is free of resentment. As Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams (Northern Ireland) recalls : “It can be more complex to negotiate with your own side than with the enemy”.

From the abyss to hope

A peace agreement is not going to solve the country’s structural problems. Indeed, violence might still continue, as has happened elsewhere in Central America. But it would definitely create the conditions to meet collective challenges with a new impetus, from the basis of collective hope in an inclusive future.

The primary responsibility during the voyage to peace lies with the government and the rebels. But a peace process is much more than a negotiation process, and it hinges on trade-offs, generosity and the country’s collective responsibility. The future is uncertain. It is yet to be built.

If the war continues, the degradation will be unstoppable. An agreement should be reached with the rebels whilst they maintain a modicum of internal discipline. Colombia is at a crossroads of “old” conflicts, motivated by ideology, and what Mary Kaldor calls “new wars”, in which greed and robberies are predominant.

In the military sphere, the guerrillas are running out of time. As far as democracy is concerned, everyone is running out of time.


Bogotá, Oslo and Havana

On 4 September 2012, president Juan Manuel Santos announced to the country that he was initiating a peace process with the Farc guerrilla. On 18 October, in Oslo (Norway), the negotiators from both sides launched the process officially.

On 19 November, discussions began in Havana with land, the first point on the agenda, as the starting topic; other agenda items include political participation, drug trafficking, weapon decommissioning and redress for the victims.