Violence climbs in Colombia as president chips away at landmark peace deal with FARC guerrillas

Thousands of Colombian militants and soldiers will have their day in court.

A panel of judges ruled on May 29 that a special peace tribunal established in Colombia’s landmark 2016 peace deal with the FARC guerrillas must proceed under the agreed-upon terms. It cannot be altered to narrow its scope or make sentencing harsher, as Colombia’s new president, Ivan Duque, had requested.

Colombia’s transitional justice system, which resembles processes used in nations like South Africa and Guatemala, will judge FARC militants and members of the armed forces for crimes perpetrated during Colombia’s 52-year conflict. But the emphasis is on making amends for harm caused to civilians – not on punishing combat-related offenses, such as a guerrilla killing a soldier in combat.

Nearly all of the 6,804 FARC guerrillas who disarmed in 2016 and settled in government-run “reintegration camps” must now surrender themselves to the peace tribunal, swear to testify honestly and be interviewed by Colombia’s new truth commission.

Fighters who are determined not to have committed human rights violations during the conflict, and to have obeyed the law since the peace deal, may leave the reintegration camps to rejoin society. All others will be sentenced to jail or to community service in the areas they once terrorized.

This will happen despite the attitude of Duque, who thinks the transitional justice system is too lenient. It is one of many provisions of the landmark Colombian peace deal he has moved to weaken, or even abandon, since taking office in August 2018.

Colombia’s best chance at peace

Colombia’s painstakingly negotiated peace agreement with the FARC – which won former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize – ended the longest-running armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere. Fighting killed 200,000 people and displaced 7 million between 1964 and 2016.

But the deal was rejected at referendum before being passed by Congress in November 2016, and it remains controversial.

Its goals include exposing and documenting the atrocities of the Colombian conflict, offering reparations to war victims and revitalizing the long-neglected rural areas terrorized by different armed groups. It also aims to turn a Marxist insurgency into a political party and to reconcile Colombians by reintegrating rebel fighters back into society.

Former FARC guerrillas elected to Congress in Colombia celebrate their win, July 20, 2018. AP Photo/Fernando Vergara
Conflict researchers like myself have found that this comprehensive truth and justice process stands a good chance of bringing lasting peace and reconciliation.

At first, it seemed to be working.

Violence dropped markedly in 2017, Colombia’s safest year since 1975. Social movements – long repressed by a state that labeled all dissent as the seeds of insurgent rebellion – blossomed. And a robust public debate began around corruption and public services, both concerns long buried by militant violence.

A directionless peace process

Then Duque took office promising to “correct” Colombia’s peace agreement. As a senator, he helped lead the “Vote No” initiative that narrowly derailed the accord at referendum.

Under Duque’s leadership, the government’s progress on fulfilling its commitments to peace has slowed to nearly a standstill.

Duque has appointed “No” campaign loyalists to lead the agencies that must implement the agreement and left their budgets underfunded. He has voiced opposition to a Santos administration commitment to help farmers who grow illegal coca leaf transition to legal crops like coffee and ignored promises to boost economic investment in rural areas.

And Duque’s conservative Democratic Center party played a central role in vetoing a peace accord agreement that would have given more seats in Congress to remote rural areas of Colombia – places so long neglected by the government that militant groups like the FARC controlled the territory.

The president’s foot-dragging comes after legislative delays and last year’s election had already substantially slowed the peace process. One-third of the peace deal’s 578 provisions have not even begun to be implemented, according to Notre Dame University’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

Few provisions in Colombia’s peace deal have official deadlines or progress markers. That’s common in peace agreements, which after tense negotiations between warring sides tend to capture promises – not establish work plans.