Colombia

Historic accord

Print edition : July 22, 2016

A tearful woman in Bogota, Colombia watches a live broadcast of the signing ceremony of the peace accord in Havana on June 23. Photo: Fernando Vergara/AP

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (left) and FARC Commander Timoleon Jimenez during the signing of the ceasefire in Havana on June 23, in the presence of Cuban President Raul Castro (centre). Photo: Desmond Boylan/AP

Colombians celebrate in downtown Bogota on June 23 after the government and the FARC signed a ceasefire in Havana, ending Latin America's longest civil war. Photo: GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP

Colombia’s long-running war ends after 52 years, and the country’s future now hinges on the government’s promises to enact land reforms and permit rebels to participate in politics.

The signing of a draft peace accord between the government of Colombia and the country’s main rebel grouping, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in Havana on June 23 heralds the end of the longest-running civil war in Latin America. The signing of the agreement to end the 52-year-old war, which has claimed more than 220,000 lives, was witnessed by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londono Echeverri, known by his nom de guerre Commandante Timochenko, and took place in the presence of Cuban President Raul Castro. Millions of Colombians were displaced by the long-running conflict. The accord will be formalised by a ceasefire agreement in July to coincide with the country’s national day.

The final ceasefire accord, according to Santos, will be signed on Colombian soil. FARC fighters will demobilise and be relocated to 23 zones and eight base camps in rural areas. The FARC will surrender its weapons to United Nations monitors and its fighters have been told to disarm within six months after the signing of the peace treaty.

The accord, signed in Havana, will ensure that the FARC is allowed to transition to a legitimate political party by the Colombian government. An attempt by the FARC and other leftist groups in 1985 to enter mainstream politics after an understanding with the government was sabotaged by the Colombian political establishment. Their attempts to participate in the country’s politics by forming a party called the Patriotic Union (U.P.) were successfully foiled by a campaign of violence and assassinations. More than a thousand U.P. members were gunned down.

The current Colombian government has given the assurance that history will not repeat itself. It has said that it will ensure the participation of FARC leaders in the country’s politics with guarantees of protection. The government has also said that it will speedily pass sweeping land reform laws and crack down on drug trafficking.

Both sides had, in earlier negotiations, agreed to the setting up of a tribunal to investigate and prosecute crimes committed by all the parties involved in the long-running conflict. Colombian judges “with limited backing from international legal experts” will decide the cases. The FARC has described the tribunal as a “peace court”.

From available indications, something similar to the South African “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” will be implemented. FARC leaders will most likely not have to go to jail. Those admitting to illegal acts in a timely fashion will have to do “community service” for periods up to seven years. Others who do not will be tried by the tribunal and could be sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Those fighting on the government’s side will also not be exempt from the jurisdiction of the tribunal. During 2002-08, the Colombian military killed 3,000 innocent workers and peasants claiming that they were FARC fighters. Army officers and soldiers were rewarded for exterminating the alleged FARC fighters in what is known as the “False Positive Case” in Colombia.

The Special Jurisdiction for Peace that will be set up after the final peace accord is initialled “requires the participation of all those who directly or indirectly took part in the armed conflict, including agents of the state”. Timochenko said last year that his fighters were willing to take responsibility for their actions “during the period of resistance”. Cuba and Norway are the two guarantors of the peace accord. Also present at the ceremony in Havana were U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. The United States had sent a top State Department official to witness the historic occasion. The peace talks received a fillip after the Obama administration gave its support last year. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with a FARC delegation when he accompanied President Barack Obama on his state visit to Cuba earlier this year. Kerry was quick to issue a statement expressing the American government’s happiness over the agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC.

Thousands of people in the Colombian capital, Bogota, who had assembled on the streets to watch the signing, were seen loudly clapping and cheering the announcement of the ceasefire. “Colombia got used to living in conflict. We don’t have even the slightest memories of what it means to live in peace,” Santos told the media in Havana. He stressed that a “new chapter has opened” for his country, “one that brings peace and gives our children the possibility of not reviving history”.

Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had played a key role in convincing the FARC leadership to start peace talks with the government in 2012. Santos has pledged to hold a national plebiscite on the peace deal. From available indications, the peace deal has met with widespread approval. “We’re getting closer to the end of armed conflict than at any time during the last five decades,” Raul Castro said. “The decision of the two sides represents a decisive step forward. The peace process cannot turn back.”

Left-wing parties and civil society groups have welcomed the imminent dawning of peace in their homeland. Parties like the left-wing Democratic Pole have been vocal supporters of the peace process. There are only a few significant holdouts opposing the peace accord in Colombia. One of them is Santos’ immediate predecessor as President, Alviro Uribe, who now heads a new right-wing party of his own. Uribe had thwarted Chavez’s earlier attempts to broker a peace accord between the government and the two major left-wing guerilla forces, the FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN). During his two terms as President, Uribe used billions of dollars in American military aid to fight the FARC and the ELN, while at the same time propping up rapacious right-wing paramilitary groups.

Santos was the Defence Minister during most of Uribe’s term in office and it was under his stewardship of the Defence Ministry that the Colombian armed forces dealt the FARC some significant blows. American help under “Plan Colombia”, started during the Clinton administration, played a key role in the advances made by the Colombian military. The U.S. has provided more than $10 billion in weapons and military training under this plan. In the 2014 presidential elections, Uribe supported the candidature of Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, whose main plank was that he would discard peace talks and instead opt for an all-out war against the FARC. He was roundly defeated by Santos, who was running for his second and last term in office. Santos had already initiated peace talks with the FARC in his first term. The government has also entered into talks with the ELN, which has around 2,000 fighters.

Many top leaders of the FARC were eliminated in the last decade. Their top commander for many decades, Manuel “Sureshot” Marulanda Velez, died in 2008. The FARC, however, proved to be a resilient force and continued to exert influence over a vast swathe of the country and hold the allegiance of a significant section of the peasantry and the working class. The FARC developed as the armed wing of the Communist Party of Colombia in 1964. The country continues to be under the control of an oligarchic elite which mainly remains unreconciled to agrarian reforms. “As in many Latin American countries, we can find the seeds of present-day social inequality and strife in the concentration of Colombia’s land and resources under the control of a tiny minority, matched by the progressive dispossession of the majority of the people, which originated with colonialism in the 16th century,” explains the historian Jasmin Hristov in Blood and Capital: The Paramilitarization of Colombia.

Dan Kovalik, Professor of International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh, has said that most of the killings in recent years are the work of right-wing paramilitary groups working in cahoots with the government. He notes that human rights groups have consistently concluded that the “lion’s share of human rights violations” during the worst years of violence was the handiwork of these forces. The Colombian state has one of the worst human rights records in Latin America.

Under the terms of the peace accord, the FARC fighters and the armed forces will now have to cooperate to keep the peace. “The Colombian armed forces that grew enormously during the war are now called to play an important role in peace. They were our adversaries, but going forward, they will be our allies,” Timochenko declared in Havana.

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