Peace in Colombia? Proceed with Caution

After more than 50 years of armed conflict, the Government of Colombia and the country’s most notorious guerilla movement, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP) have concluded negotiations on a peace agreement.

Five years of talks between the government and the rebel group in Havana, Cuba, have led to a framework for peace that covers a series of tenuous issues, including land reform, drug trafficking, victims’ rights and transitional justice, disarmament and political inclusion (of FARC-EP soldiers.) Cuba and Norway are serving as guarantors of the peace agreement – an agreement which is yet to be endorsed by the people of Colombia, via a national plebiscite.

Many are heralding this as an historic moment for the South American nation, host to more than seven million of its own displaced citizens, making it the second-largest internal displacement crisis in the world after Syria. If and when the Colombian people vote “yes” on peace, Colombia’s humanitarian stakeholders should not let their enthusiasm obscure the continued challenges the country will face challenges that could imperil the peace agreement’s viability at any time.  

If and when the Colombian people vote “yes” on peace, Colombia’s humanitarian stakeholders should not let their enthusiasm obscure the continued challenges the country will face – challenges that could imperil the peace agreement’s viability at any time.

First, a peace accord between the Colombian government and FARC-EP does not translate to the cessation of either armed conflict or internal displacement in Colombia. Other active armed group, such as the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional), EPL (Ejército Popular de Liberación) and demobilized paramilitaries-turned criminal gangs continue to wage war against the state and amongst each other over territory control, drug trafficking and illegal mining, among other illicit activities. Civilians will continue to face the humanitarian consequences of ongoing conflict as various armed actors compete for control of territories and resources. Once the peace agreement is signed, FARC-EP will concentrate its troops and disarm in twenty-three sites (zonas veredales), a process that will be monitored by a new UN political mission, in accordance with Security Council resolution 2261. If Colombia’s armed forces do not take swift control of the territories FARC-EP vacates, multiple armed groups are prepared to fill that vacuum of power. Colombia observers and humanitarians alike worry their violent activities will increase in the wake of a final agreement, resulting in an uptick in internal displacement.

Second, those most-affected by the conflict, Colombia’s marginalized indigenous and Afro-Colombians, are at a breaking point. While accounting for 1.5 percent and 17 percent of the national population respectively, they constitute 73 percent of those affected by mass displacement. Decades of multiple displacements have taken an unimaginable toll, despite long-standing humanitarian interventions. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Colombia warns that in some communities, displaced persons still have no access to formal registration for state assistance, oftentimes due to pressure, threats, and social control by armed groups. This is one of the contributing factors for civil strife. The western department of Chocó, for example, has been the stage for multiple strikes of civilians demanding that the state assume its responsibilities and address insecurity, corruption, and poverty.

To ensure a lasting peace, Colombia and its partners must fully address women and girls’ rights and needs. Their protection, access to services, and continued voice in the peace process must be protected and respected.  

Third, and of vital importance, a key to lasting peace lies with Colombia’s women and girls. The country’s grassroots women’s movement has tirelessly worked to demand the respect of their rights, reparations for violations committed against them, and a seat at the negotiation table; all this within a context of intimidation and continued targeted killing of human rights defenders. Colombia’s humanitarian stakeholders cannot lose sight of their experience and humanitarian needs. Despite a robust legal framework to respond to gender-based violence amongst the displaced, humanitarian assessments reveal that Colombia’s displaced women and girls are still not aware of existing services, laws, and referral pathways to address their needs. Meanwhile, thousands of women and girls have been subject to sexual violence, including rape, sexual slavery, forced abortions, and sexual exploitation. Those who have escaped the clutches of armed actors find themselves displaced multiple times, with little access to meaningful livelihood opportunities, often forcing them into transactional sex.  

To ensure a lasting peace, Colombia and its partners must fully address women and girls’ rights and needs. Their protection, access to services, and continued voice in the peace process must be protected and respected.  

To better understand what is at stake for Colombia’s displaced persons, and in particular Afro-Colombian and indigenous women and girls, RI is traveling to some of the country’s most-affected areas, where the stakes of a true and lasting peace are most critical. RI will meet with government actors, donors, UN agencies, NGOs, civil society, and most importantly displaced persons, to learn what challenges they face as the peace process moves forward, and how we can best serve them through our advocacy.