Peace beyond a peace deal

by Katrin Planta and Barbara Unger

Against the background of advancing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Ivan Briscoe and Timo Peeters discuss various scenarios for the post-agreement development of this five decade old guerrilla organization and its estimated 10.000 combatants. Outlining two extreme and seemingly antithetic patterns of evolution: integration into democratic (party) politics or irrevocable merger with common crime, they conclude that FARC is most likely to take a third path bringing them back to their origins as “social bandits”.

As social processes cannot be programmed, such scenario development is always tainted with speculation. However, it is still a highly valuable and necessary exercise: the faster talks advance, the more Colombian actors need to consider and prepare for post-agreement challenges. With this in mind, would like to comment on three important aspects. Firstly, we believe that nuances do matter. Any consideration of FARC's post-agreement development must distinguish between the trajectory of ex-combatants' individual futures and that of FARC as a collective entity. Secondly, FARC's evolution will not occur in a bell jar: It will not only depend on the groups' own characteristics and nature, but to a great extent on contextual factors. Finally, in a country suffering from rampant social inequality and marginalization, massive social violence, blatant human rights abuses, and general insecurity well beyond the long-standing armed conflict, it would be erroneous to assume that an eventual agreement with FARC and a subsequent demobilization of its militants represents the main key to “genuine peace and security”.

With regards to our first point, Colombia has a rich experience of demobilization and reintegration of guerrilla and paramilitary groups resulting both from peace negotiations and desertion. Variation in individual post-militancy trajectories ranges from a “simple” return to home communities vs. large-scale migration to urban centers, and from the generation of stable income in the legal economy or establishment in the political arena, to (re)recruitment into armed groups and criminal activities. Hence it is not contradictory to presume that out of a single armed organization there might emerge both dedicated politicians and criminals. And while some FARC commanders might manage to maintain their leadership within a particular region, be it as local leader within the institutional framework or as de facto leader , it seems far-fetched to assume that there is a way back “to the roots” for FARC, as if Colombia and its armed conflicts, had not changed in the last five decades.

Beyond individual trajectories, the evolution of FARC as a collective is difficult to predict. Even though the organisation has proven to be more coherent than expected, it is not a monolithic entity. Some frentes are strongly involved in – and thus prone to stick to – criminal activities including the drug economy, smuggling, arms trade, extortion or the illicit exploitation of natural resources. On the other hand, nothing promises an easy path for those segments within the organisation that strive to participate in democratic politics. In the last three years, FARC and sectors close to it have demonstrated their ability to mobilize masses through the Marcha Patriótica. However, threats and persecution towards social leaders, left-wing politicians and civil society organisations, and the nature of the Colombian party system, particularly its fragmented left, make it difficult to foresee how FARC could position itself in the short and long-run.

This leads to our second point: war-to-peace transitions of armed actors do not only depend on internal factors, but also on wider framework conditions. While the future evolution of FARC cannot be programmed, it can be influenced on various levels. Astute combinations of incentives and disincentives can help securing viable livelihood options for individual rank-and-file combatants and their families in the different regions. Here, Colombia should build on its decade-long experience with its national reintegration programme, adjusting it to the needs of its future participants. The creation of (temporary) ex-combatants' associations based on the examples of the peace processes in the 1990's could help keep former militants connected to the demobilization process, enhance their ownership over reintegration and help manage unrealistic expectations. On a macro level, security guarantees for those willing to engage in the democratic arena, whether as activists or politicians at the local, regional or national level, are fundamental. Therefore, the state must engage on various fronts: enhance its capacity and willingness to investigate violence against social leaders, be more effective in prosecuting violence, contain armed gangs with roots in the former paramilitaries (BACRIMs), and engage with remaining guerrilla groups such as the National Liberation Army.

Finally, and most importantly, any real transformation of the country needs to go well beyond the transformation of a single armed actor but must be directed towards all Colombians, with particular emphasis on war-affected and traditionally marginalised sectors. These include not only the estimated four million internally displaced people, indigenous and afro-Colombian communities, but also Colombia's rural population. Hence, conflict transformation attempts should not focus solely on designing effective demobilization strategies for former combatants, but rather on creating inclusive approaches and effective public policies for the country as a whole. Should the Colombian state fail to do so, nothing precludes the emergence of new groups claiming to defend their constituencies through armed struggle.

While there is no doubt that effective demobilization and reincorporation of FARC's militants is an important step towards peace, it is only one piece of the puzzle. Building positive peace in Colombia will above all mean tackling the political and socio-economic incentives for employing violence and securing the participation of all Colombians in the construction of their (post-war) nation. While a peace process can provide important momentum for peacebuilding, long-term transformation requires more. It will not be sufficient for Colombians to agree to a peace deal established from the top but bottom-up deliberation and dialogue processes are needed to shape structural reforms and societal transformation.

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This essay is part of the sixth DAG-3QD Peace and Justice Symposium. See other entries and details, and leave comments here.