by Emanuel Hernandez
Despite significant advancements toward a new social order in Colombia, there are three issues that threaten to derail Colombia’s efforts for a stable, lasting peace: a weak foundation of post-conflict institutions, the lack of security guarantees for former combatants and community leaders, and the possible divisive rhetoric of this year’s presidential elections.
On November 24, 2016, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as FARC, ratified a peace agreement to put an end to the country’s devastating internal conflict, a 52-year war that resulted in more than 1 million homicides and 7 million internally displaced people.
In the short-run, the agreement has produced clear, measurable benefits: 12,848 members of FARC have voluntarily demobilized since the agreement took effect, the UN political mission in Colombia received more than 7,000 arms that will no longer be used on the battlefield, several government agencies have been created to accelerate progress in the implementation of the accord, and more than 3,000 people are alive today that otherwise might have died if it were not for the peace agreement.
In the long-run, the outlook for Colombia might not be so rosy. An analysis of weak institutions, lack of security guarantees, and the upcoming presidential election illustrate the risks to the post-conflict social order. But, importantly, an analysis isn’t enough, we must offer solutions to what can be done to address these threats.
A Weak Institutional Framework
First, the foundation of the institutional framework that is in charge of the implementation of the agreement is immensely weak. Before the peace agreement was ratified, the government asked the Colombian population to endorse or reject it, and 50.2% voted against it, dealing a serious blow to the agreements democratic legitimacy. Many Colombians believed that the peace accord was essentially letting murderers go free, despite special courts created to try them for crimes committed during the conflict.
With the exception of Bogota, the areas that voted “no” in the referendum were those that were the least affected by the conflict, showing a strong urban-rural divide in Colombia. In Medellin, the second biggest urban center in the country, 62% of voters rejected the proposal of the peace agreement, whereas people in the country’s peripheries torn by war predominantly voted in favor of the deal.
There is also very little trust in Colombian institutions to begin with. According to Transparency International, Colombian citizens have an extremely negative perception of public sector corruption, with a perceived score of 37 on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). In fact, the country ranked 96th out of 180 countries for the level of transparency displayed by their government.
Without public support for the institutions created to implement the agreement, it is unclear how successful the agreement could be in the long-run. If the Colombian government wants to strengthen post-conflict institutions and gain popular support, they will have to engage in a massive anti-corruption campaign, as well as convince those Colombians that have not been affected by the conflict that the agreement is the right path for peace.
Lack Of Security Guarantees
Second, there is a clear lack of security guarantees for those that were previously affected by the conflict. Former combatants and community leaders have been victims of targeted assassinations. Seventy-seven community leaders and 38 former combatants have been assassinated since the implementation of the agreement.
These targeted killings take away trust from the peace agreement and its implementation. This is particularly worrying because the Colombian government has yet to sign a peace agreement with the National Liberation Army, also known as the ELN. If there are no security guarantees to go back to society, why would fighters voluntarily leave the battlefield? Other armed groups will not join the peace agreements if they perceive that they cannot reintegrate back into society. Without security guarantees, peace in Colombia will be neither stable nor lasting.
The government has already vowed to protect former combatants and community leaders, so why are these targeted killings still taking place? The main challenge is that many of the people at risk are located in remote areas, and a massive deployment to protect every single community leader or former combatant is not technically feasible.
Then, how can the Colombian government avoid these killings? As suggested by David Cortright, Director of the Peace Accords Matrix at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, the answer to this problem might be simply greater citizen participation. The establishment of a civil police force or an early warning system could ensure the protection of community leaders and former combatants in places where the government cannot be permanently present.
Upcoming Presidential Elections
Third, the candidates’ stance over the implementation of the agreement is likely to shape the next presidential elections on May 27th. Despite provisions to ensure that the post-conflict social order remains regardless of who is in power, it is unclear whether the accord would survive a president that does not support it.
Presidential candidates might choose to gain more votes by tapping into the population’s discomfort with the agreement and, in a country where over half of voters rejected the peace agreement, this option is particularly attractive.
It is important to note that today presidential candidates seem to be more focused on how the peace agreement should be implemented rather than on whether it should be implemented at all. However, it is still worth noting that candidates might use the peace agreement to polarize the population and gain votes further down the road.
Unless presidential hopefuls want to go back to zero, they should understand that it is in their best interests to form a coalition for peace. If they choose to put politics before peace, post-conflict institutions are likely to lose the legitimacy that they need to implement the agreement, and Colombia’s stability will suffer.
In the long-term, the vision of a peaceful Colombia is cloudy. The agreement has made considerable improvements in the last 15 months, but it will take much more than what is being done today to develop a stable, lasting peace. The Colombian government should try to increase public support, fight corruption, ensure implementation through citizens’ participation, and pressure presidential candidates to put peace before politics.
Emanuel Hernandez is an Associate Editor for the Journal of Diplomacy and a graduate student at Seton Hall University. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Diplomacy and International Relations and a Master of Science in Business Administration.