Colombia: Peace for the Never Ending War?

(160623) — HAVANA, June 23, 2016 (Xinhua) — Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (L) and Timoleon Jimenez (R), the top leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), exchange pacts while Cuban President Raul Castro witnesses in Havana, capital of Cuba, June 23, 2016. The Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group signed a pact on a definitive bilateral ceasefire, marking a major step towards ending a half-century conflict. Colombia’s conflict has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced millions since 1964. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon along with Cuban President Raul Castro witnessed the signing of the agreement. (Xinhua/Liu Bin)

Colombia has endured one of the longest running conflicts in the world. Tens of thousands have been killed and millions have been displaced, tearing the fabric of civil society and scarring generations of Colombians. Previous attempts to re-sew the social fabric have been arbitrary and inadequate instilling distrust between the government and rebel groups and between the government and the civilian population. This blog seeks to briefly analyses the development challenges facing Colombia in the 21st Century and to what degree such challenges are avenues for peace or causes for future tensions. The development challenges facing Colombia today are complex and deeply entrenched arising from centuries of violent conflict and political tensions. However, in spite of the significant challenges, the conditions from peace have appeared to emerge and the possibility for peace is greater than at any other stage in the country’s history.

Brief History of Colombia

The political milieu of Colombia is defined by a bifurcated party system consisting of the Conservatives and Liberals that were established in 1849 after the end of the Republic of Gran Colombia. From 1861 to 1885, the Liberals held power then in 1885 the Conservatives entered for a 45-year governance. There was immense strain between these two political parties and civilian discontent with the system, which erupted into a civil war ‘The War of the Thousand Days’ in 1899,[1] then again in 1946, the country descended into civil war, La Violencia, resulting in the death of approximately 300,000. At the conclusion of La Violencia, the Nation Front was formed banning all political parties other than the Conservatives and Liberals in an agreement that they would share the power. This further entrenched the narrow polity held by the Colombian oligarchy and political uprisings began. Many left-wing and communist rebel groups were established – one of these was the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).

FARC is infamously known for its guerrilla warfare, control of the cocaine trade, extortion schemes and ongoing politically motivated violence. The government’s hostility to civilians’ right to self-defence and its obvious inability to provide protection from insurgent groups led to a loss of State control and in the ear 2000 Colombia was considered a failed State.[2] On the 23 September 2015, Colombian President Juan Manueal Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño pledged to end the country’s internal conflict by 26 March 2016.[3] While now after that deadline, the negotiations are not complete; they are not behind deadline without overwhelming, and quite surprising, success.

Political Obstacles

The most striking theme that runs through the discussion of liberal democracy in Colombia, is that its ‘constitution and basic traditions of governance are democratic in nature, but that the substantial presence of armed groups hampers the State’s ability quite considerably in terms of guaranteeing citizens the enjoyment of their rights and liberties’.[4] The government is presented with two major political challenges to ensure citizens are guaranteed the full enjoyment of their civil and political rights.

One of the greatest hurdles to be overcome at the conclusion of the 50 years war with FARC and other rebel groups is the transition from violent guerrilla group to their participation in domestic politics. Colombia’s democracy is widely considered well established and strong but limited by violence, lack of political variety,[5] and the narrow polity established by elite pacts.[6] The matter of FARC’s political participation remains one of the major agenda items left to be negotiated in Havana. It undoubtedly presents an overwhelming challenge for both parties and in any event of an agreement it remains contingent on right-wing paramilitary groups that are opposed to FARC’s political participation and those who do not wish to relinquish control from the controlled two party political system as it stands.

The importance of administering justice to the victims of this conflict was acknowledged by both parties in placing it as a distinct agenda item in the current peace negotiations.[7] Both FARC and the Government have admitted responsibility for the atrocities they respectively committed over the course of the conflict and an independent truth commission has been established in an attempt to determine the liability of both parties for harm caused to victims. Further, the parties agreed to establish the Tribunal for Peace to oversee the prosecution of war criminals and the administration of reparations for victims which will be overseen by the International Criminal Court.[8] Despite these successes, justice in its totality must address punishment of acts against domestic and international laws; as well as the eradication of social inequalities, privilege and discrimination.[9] The latter is far more challenging for the Government. While attempts have been made, the reconciliation and transitional justice process will take more than legislation and procedures, it demands a paradigm shift towards acknowledgment, confession and resolution.

Economic Difficulties

Colombia has one of the highest income inequalities in the world, despite antithetically remaining in the middle-income range economy for the past 60 years and its economic growth outpacing its regional peers.[10] In 2012, the ratio of the average income for the top 10% and bottom 10% was 37:1.[11] In conjunction with the social inequality, almost 34% of the population live below the national poverty line and 8.2% live on less than US$1.25/day.[12] The ongoing armed conflict, disjointed urban and rural contexts and limitations in subnational administrative capacity has generated stark inequality among regions.[13] Taking steps towards inclusive growth is vital to successfully eradicate poverty, provide opportunities for the growing middle class and solidify progress towards lasting peace. The vast majority of those living in poverty are farmers and peasants from rural Colombia who depend upon the agricultural sector for employment.[14] In order to combat the vast economic inequality in Colombia, there must be investment in regional areas, in the agricultural sector and a stronger land access framework.

The conflict has stunted technological development in the area leaving the sector without the necessary infrastructure and transport links to keep up with neighbouring States.[15] Guerrilla groups have also accumulated large portions of land for cocoa cultivation in remote areas.[16] To add to the modern challenges, more than 40% of land ownership is informal,[17] which presents an ongoing issue that has been the cause of much tension between landowners and local peasants. Land access reform was the first agenda item to be negotiated between FARC and the Government and both parties reached an agreement in 2013 that the chief Government negotiator said would radically transform rural Colombia, go beyond the traditional view of agrarian reform and was aimed at closing the gap between rural and urban Colombia.[18]

It remains to be seen how effectively the measures negotiation by the joint communiqué are implemented and whether government and private investment can follow to support the sector. However, this initial agreement is an enormous step in the negotiations to take united action for inclusive growth of all socio-economic groups of Colombia and equally distribute the benefits of increase agricultural prosperity.

DDR Challenges

The ‘end of conflict’ brings with it a myriad of challenges that threatened to de-stabilise peace agreements and, as history has shown, return the parties to conflict. Military challenges present some of the most contentious and fragile short-term issues for Colombia including the need for a bilateral ceasefire, the conditions of ‘leaving behind weapons’ (dehación de armas) and the ‘reincorporation, or reintegration’ of FARC members – commonly discussed under the umbrella of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR).[19] While the language DDR has been deliberately omitted from the Havana agenda, as FARC rejects the term as appearing tantamount to military defeat,[20] it sets the framework for three significant hurdles that must be overcome in a peace agreement.

First, disarmament is a primary goal in the early transition phase, the most vulnerable phase of implementing a peace agreement, and must be executed under a realistic and comprehensive agreement carried out by highly credible agents with the resources and skills to monitor the parties’ disarmament.[21] The Government’s priorities in this phase should include the passing of laws to implement specific provisions in the agreement, as this is crucial to allay FARC’s concerns about compliance and foster confidence in the process.[22]

The parties to the Havana negotiations have already addressed this issue by outlining the political participation agreement which establishes a ‘comprehensive security system’ to protect the ‘rights and liberties’ of all democratic political actors.[23] While such an agreement is promising, the practicalities of disarmament remain precarious as political violence is still prevalent and many groups and civilians harbor deep resentment towards FARC members. While security strategies can be put in place to protect ex-combatants, it comes with the greater issue of transitioning them into ordinary civilian life.

Demobilisation then focuses on processing and discharging individual combatants from armed forces or other armed groups, and the reintegration to transition ex-combatants into society by which they acquire civilian status and gain sustainable employment and income.[24] The major difficulty in the demobilisation and reintegration process arises in transitioning from state based support frameworks to ex-combatants autonomously gaining sustainable employment. It is evident that hiring former combatants and seeking to turn them into law-abiding workers can be a complex task for employers.[25] Given the difficulties ex-combatants face integrating into civil society, many revert to criminal activities or new illegal armed groups. Any government’s ability to deal with these issues is limited, however, through establishing strong DDR frameworks and gaining the support and willingness of ex-combatants to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate ex-combatants can be successful reconnected with civil society over time.

Strategic Outlook for Peace

The bounding optimism that was initially aroused by the eventual announcement of negotiations has been tempered by slow and fragile negotiations with deadlines repeatedly postponed and growing discontent with the Government’s concessions to the widely despised FARC. Despite the public’s discontent with the nuances of the negotiations, the general consensus remains that the country is tired of conflict and that a resolution must be met. Another round of failed negotiations seems unpalatable to both the Santos administration and the FARC leadership, who can expect political defeat and a very real risk of death on the battlefield respectively.[26]

Given the current success in the negotiation of the set agenda, it does appear that an agreement of peace will be complete in the next few months. The difficulty remains whether that agreement will gain traction, flow into government policy and by a convergence of contingent factors Colombia will see a revolution for peace.


To conclude, the development challenges that face Colombia in the 21st Century are deeply entrenched and multifaceted issues. All parties involved in the current peace process, whether directly or to facilitate the negotiations, must focus their attention on maintaining the current trajectory of success while never forgetting the fragility of the situation to bring to a close the longest running armed conflict in the western hemisphere. As Cuba President RaĂșl Castro articulated, ‘peace in Colombia is not only possible by indispensable’.[27]


[1] Insight on Conflict, Colombia Conflict Timeline (2011) Peace Direct <>.

[2] Michael Radu, Latin America Challenges: The Perilous Appeasement of Guerrillas (Orbis, 2000).

[3] Nelson Acosta and Daniel Trotta, ‘Colombia, FARC rebels vow to end 50-year war within six months’, Reuters (Havana) 23 September 2015.

[4] Steven Taylor, Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia (Northeastern University Press, 2009) 20.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Eva Tuff, Democracy and Violence: The Colombian Paradox (Chr. Michelsen Institute, Norway, 1997) 1.

[7] Juan Forero and JosĂ© de CĂłrboda, ‘Colombia, FARC Rebel Group Reach Breakthrough Agreement in Peace Talks’, (23 September 2015) The Wall Street Journal <;.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Hedley Bull, ‘Order vs Justice in International Society’ (1971) 19(3) Political Studies 269, 267.

[10] International Monetary Fund, ‘Colombia: Selected Issues Paper’ (Country Report No 15/143, IMF, June 2015) 11.

[11] Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, ‘Colombia Policy Priorities For Inclusive Development’ (Better Policies Series, January 2015) 3.

[12] The World Bank, ‘Colombia – Country Datea’ (2016) <;.

[13] Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, ‘Colombia Policy Priorities For Inclusive Development’ (Better Policies Series, January 2015) 3.

[14] Chloe Stirk, Colombia Resources for Humanitarian Response and Poverty Reduction (Global Humanitarian Assistance, April 2013).

[15] International Monetary Fund, ‘Colombia: Selected Issues Paper’ (Country Report No 15/143, IMF, June 2015) 39.

[16] William AvilĂ©s, ‘Institutions, Military Policy and Human Rights in Colombia’ (2001) 28(1) Latin American Perspectives 31, 36.

[17] Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, ‘Colombia Policy Priorities For Inclusive Development’ (Better Policies Series, January 2015) 13.

[18] Patricia Grogg and Constanza Vieira, ‘Key Land Reform Accord in Colombia’s Peace Talks’ Inter-Press Service News Agency (Havana) 27 May 2013.

[19] International Crisis Group, ‘The Day After Tomorrow: Colombia’s FARC and the End of the Conflict’ (Crisis Group Latin America Report No 53, International Crisis Group, 11 December 2014) 1.

[20] Alfonso Cano, “Guidelines for negotiation with the government of Juan Manuel Santos”, in FARC (ed), FARC: Why do we rebel against the Colombian State? (Bogotá, 2013) 51.

[21] International Crisis Group, ‘The Day After Tomorrow: Colombia’s FARC and the End of the Conflict’ (Crisis Group Latin America Report No 53, International Crisis Group, 11 December 2014) 25.

[22] International Crisis Group, ‘The Day After Tomorrow: Colombia’s FARC and the End of the Conflict’ (Crisis Group Latin America Report No 53, International Crisis Group, 11 December 2014) 25.

[23] International Crisis Group, ‘The Day After Tomorrow: Colombia’s FARC and the End of the Conflict’ (Crisis Group Latin America Report No 53, International Crisis Group, 11 December 2014) 25.

[24] United Nations Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Resource Centre, Integrated Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Standards (United Nations, 2006) Module 4.30.

[25] Angelika Rettberg, The private sector, peacebuilding, and economic recovery: A challenge for the UNPBA (Working Paper, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, University of Ottawa, 2010).

[26] Kyle Johnson & Michael Jonsson, ‘Colombia: Ending the Forever War’ (2013) 55(1) Survival 67, 81.

[27] Juan Forero and JosĂ© de CĂłrboda, ‘Colombia, FARC Rebel Group Reach Breakthrough Agreement in Peace Talks’, (23 September 2015) The Wall Street Journal <;.



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