The end of the armed conflict and endless social conflicts in Colombia
Centre for Criminology (University of Oxford)
National Centre for Historical Memory (Colombia)
Sussex Centre for Conflict and Security Research (University of Sussex)
Consultant in Conflict, Peace and Security
Member of BACUP & ReD
On 30 July 2013, I wrote a Spanish version of this article, which aims is to explain why after nine months of negotiations between the government of President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2014) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to end the half-century-long armed conflict, I believe peace is near in Colombia. This does not mean that I think that Colombian society will live without without conflict. On the contrary, Colombia will continue to experience serious social conflict, and perhaps more tensions will arise. Therefore, Colombians and friends of Colombia might have to join forces to seek structural solutions to economic inequality, political polarization, social exclusion and the transformation of cultural patterns that favour self-interest, unbridled consumerism and the pursuit of easy money.
The first reason for my optimism is based on the report of the National Centre of Historical Memory (CNMH) Basta Ya! published on 24 July 2013. There are many studies of the armed conflict in Colombia. Without being exhaustive, two studies that sought to make a diagnosis of the conflict at crucial moments in the history of Colombia come to mind. First, The Study on La Violencia by Guzmán, Fals Borda and Umana was published in 1962 when no one wanted to talk about the killing of more than 200,000 people between 1948 and 1953. Second, the book Colombia: Violence and Democracy, edited by Gonzalo Sanchez as part of the Commission for the Study of Violence in Colombia, published in 1987, came out after the breakdown of the first negotiation attempt with FARC, but was written amidst the optimism of the Betancur-FARC peace process.
The difference between past efforts and the recent report of CNMH, a product of a six-year investigation led by Gonzalo Sánchez and stating that in Colombia there are 220,000 victims of armed conflict, is that the latter has an explicit recommendation to the President of Colombia: to recognize on behalf of the state that its agents have been responsible for serious human rights violations. As a response to this recommendation, for the first time a Colombian President has recognized, on behalf of the state, the responsibility of its agents in gross human rights violations and in crimes against international humanitarian Law. President Santos did it, not only upon receiving the CNMH report, but also during the public hearing convened by the Constitutional Court on 25 July 2013 to discuss the Legal Framework for Peace. Such recognition is a sign that a sector of the Colombian establishment is committed to the success of the peace talks. This is my first reason for optimism.
However, for peace to be achieved, the other party is needed. In this case the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Therefore, the second reason for my optimism is based on the performance of FARC in the current negotiations. For further illustration, it is necessary to make a quick reference to two previous peace processes. First, during the peace process with Belisario Betancur and Virgilio Barco (1984-1987), the fragmentation of the Colombian establishment and the geopolitical context allowed the onset of the genocide of the Unión Patriótica (UP). The destruction of the political platform launched by the FARC in 1985 sparked the FARC’s radicalization, hence the focus on a military strategy to take over power.. Second, during the peace process with Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002), both the establishment and FARC took advantage to gain political and military power and renounced the goal of achieving negotiated peace. FARC made clear from the beginning of the negotiations that they were not to carry out open political activism; thus, they created the Clandestine Communist Party (PC4) and the Bolivarian Movement for the New Colombia (MBNC). Pastrana, meanwhile, sided with Washington to design Plan Colombia (which conceived of a radical modernisation of the Armed Forces to merge counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations), while paramilitary groups continued to mushroom throughout Colombian territory. In this context both sides opted for total war.
After eight years of war, the preliminary talks between Santos and FARC started. In 2012, in contrast with previous peace processes, FARC began formal negotiations militarily weakened, but politically strengthened. Few are willing to accept, but the FARC for at least the last 15 years have been building their own political networks through the work of the PC4 and the MBNC. As Eduardo Pizarro argues, since the 1980s FARC transformed themselves into an insurgency with a party. Today, based on this transformation, some FARC commanders see that it is more likely to change Colombian society without arms. Ivan Marquez’s interview with Maria Jimena Duzán, published in Revista Semana on 23 February 2013, reveals that FARC members want to openly participate in legal politics and recognize they hold similar views about ending of the armed conflict with Army General Jorge E. Mora. The attitude of FARC negotiators in Havana and FARC’s invisible political consolidation in some regions is the second reason for my optimism and it is linked with the third reason to which I turn next.
There is broad recognition by various sectors of Colombian society that to resolve social conflicts one must begin to address the abuses of the past. It is not enough to recognise the abuses or that the parties show willingness to build an inclusive and participatory political system. Concrete actions are needed to unleash dynamics in the present to allow the revival of past processes. The decision of the Administrative Supreme Court to restore the legal status of the UP, which was withdrawn in 2002 by a ruling of the Electoral Council based on the lack of support in the polls, is in my view an important step in this direction. The decision is important, not because the FARC will demobilize and automatically join the UP –to assume this is to ignore the complexity of the history of the UP – but because it shows that sectors within the judiciary are willing to contribute to open a space for victims to be protagonists in the reconstruction of Colombia’s social tissue through the rebirth of their initiatives.
Reactions to the decision of the Court, which complements several rulings related to the genocide of the UP – for example, the case of former Liberal MP César Pérez and paramilitary leader Hector Veloza (HH), show the challenges that lie ahead. For example, according to El Espectador, some Court magistrates are seeking to reverse the ruling, while amongst UP members there is not unity about who should lead the project. The foregoing shows that the space for the political participation of the UP will have to continue to be negotiated at different levels. In addition, victims’ organizations will have to reinvent politics in the present to survive in the future, hence avoiding condemning this historic victory to failure by being tied to the disputes of the past. The third reason for my optimism is that these processes are taking place.
In the current international context, peace negotiations are processes to repair the harm done to victims and to reintegrate into a model of society those who have traditionally felt excluded economically, politically, culturally and socially. I am optimistic that negotiations in Havana have been accompanied by major changes in the attitude of the state, the FARC and sectors of Colombian society. I want to believe that Colombia is moving toward the end of the armed conflict. However, other conflicts will not be resolved in the short term. Indeed, we may have new conflicts. This is not bad in itself. Conflicts and tensions are part of life itself, and are the constant materialisation of a changing world. What is important is to seek to resolve such conflicts dialectically and not unilaterally by resorting to the power of weapons.
 Spanish version of the report available at: http://www.centrodememoriahistorica.gov.co/micrositios/informeGeneral/ (29 July 2013)
 Eduardo Pizarro (2012) Las FARC (1949-2011) de guerrilla campesina a máquina de Guerra. Bogotá: Norma.
 For Cesar Perez ruling see: http://www.verdadabierta.com/component/content/article/63-nacional/4589-la-mala-hora-del-cacique-liberal-cesar-perez-garcia; for HH ruling see: http://m.eltiempo.com/justicia/condena-a-primer-exjefe-para-por-genocidio-de-la-up/12456636 (29 July 2013)