The Colombian Peace Accord: Food for Thought

Policy Brief

On 24 August, Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) have reached a comprehensive peace agreement. It is an achievement to celebrate without any doubt, but it is too early to celebrate the end of the long-lasting war. Hopefully, it ends its destructive phase and brings all efforts to start a new, constructive phase of rebuilding the Colombian society and polity.

At this point, we can already reflect on some insights provided by the course of the conflict and the negotiation process and its outcome and, looking forward, try to anticipate what kind of insights and lessons we have yet to learn from the Colombian experience—and eventually get better prepared to face the challenges; and there are many of them.



The war in Colombia has lasted for 52 years thus far and has claimed lives of 220 thousand individuals, with tens of thousands subjected to kidnapping, mistreatment, torture, and sexual abuse; and estimated 6.9 million people (that is 14.4 percent of population) being forced to leave their permanent places of residence within the country (the largest number of Internally Displaced Persons in the world).

Going through numerous ups and downs in intensity, prevalence of sides, and physical and psychological damage caused, and with two failed previous attempts at negotiating peace, the war has divided the country between the rebel-controlled territories (which do not represent a solid piece of land but pockets scattered across predominantly rural areas) and those under the government rule.

FARC is the largest among Colombia’s rebel groups, with estimated 10,000 soldiers and thousands of active supporters, largely drawn from Colombia’s rural areas. There are other groups which did not join the negotiations (that lasted for four years) and remain committed to the cause and critical of FARC. On the other hand, political opposition to President Juan Manuel Santos led by former president Álvaro Uribe is unhappy with the deal’s terms assessing them as too soft and beneficial to rebels. Therefore, the peace accord being a (long-awaited) landmark in the conflict’s history is far from welcome by everyone and thus all-encompassing.

The Colombian peace agreement rests on a number of fundamental pillars:

  • Comprehensive land reform to enable equal access to resources and development opportunities;
  • Guaranteed (non-discriminatory) and government supported reincorporation of FARC into politics;
  • Facilitated integration into society of former combatants and their supporters;
  • Reform of drug policy and coca substitution;
  • Reconciliation though a parallel justice system (concerning guerrillas and other combatants but also security forces).

Quite an agenda, considering that each of these pillars represents a complex system in its own right, with various stakeholders, beneficiaries, and their aspirations and concerns, let alone ‘technical’ (and not so technical) policy instruments and implementation details. Very ambitious plan but perhaps it was not possible to achieve a comprehensive peace deal without addressing all core issues which have been the conflict drivers for over half-a-century.

Before entering into force, the agreement (which has been already delivered to legislators) has to pass a referendum (already scheduled for 2 October). This would be the first test of it outside the negotiation chambers. Some observers have questioned the choice of President Santos, the main proponent of the agreement, who has decided to risk the hard-earned deal’s fate in the plebiscite while there were other, less contentious legal ways to ratify the accord. The answer is in the question itself.

First, from practical point of view, the agreement’s implementation will overwhelmingly depend on the popular support and commitment. Therefore, testing the ground from the outset may save millions of wasted money, unmet expectations, and the image of politicians and the rebels involved in concluding the deal. Whatever euphoria is out there, the country must be prepared to take on this gargantuan task, and if appears that it is not ready, then better go back to renegotiation (if of course, the rebels don’t resort to violence and old ways, in desperation).

Second, being a skillful politician Mr. Santos shares responsibility for the deal with entire country, his political rivals and fellow citizens. He has already risked a lot (in terms of political image; and the polls point that his popularity is at its lowest, mostly for economic performance but also due to handling the FARC negotiation process: his urban approval rating has gradually plummeted through the years, from 75 percent rating at the time of his election in 2010 to 13 percent in the spring this year) and now it is time for everyone to subscribe to the endeavour (the outcome of which is subject to many-many uneasy questions).

And the third, he has opted for referendum to buy the citizens in the peace-building and reconciliation process right away (especially considering that the talks have been held behind the closed doors). The government has even committed to launch a civic education campaign to explain to citizens basic clauses of the deal and their implications, so that they are aware of the agreement and come better informed to the ballot, in terms of what they can expect from it and what they cannot.

[*This is a commendable initiative, especially for such a game changing event as referendum. I had suggested the same to be done in the UK several months before the British EU referendum, but my voice was not heard. Alas.]


At this stage of Colombian peace process (the accords being a landmark but whatever significant, by no means an end to the conflict) it is possible to draw certain conclusions which might offer valuable insights into the conflict theory and more practically, to other conflict situations, especially those with similar features (Afghanistan comes to mind, with full appreciation of its own specific circumstances).

So, what are those insights?

– Each conflict has its own internal dynamics (which are shaped and fed by local political institutions—established values and behaviours rooted in culture, historic memory and tradition—and present political, social, ideological and economic contexts creating a distinct mix of societal relationships). Any conflict therefore may take as long as its internal logic dictates—may be for decades and may shape into various forms at different stages, and most probably will be iterative, with many failed attempts to establish peace (each being a learning exercise of its own).

– Whatever externalities (regional and global trends and influences) they will have an effect on the conflict as long as its contextual fabric absorbs and localises them. This makes any given conflict unique, and therefore no imported solutions will work without being first adapted to and ‘digested’ by local contexts. The same goes for ‘lessons learned’—they may provide more conceptual, philosophical insight rather than offer an effective toolkit for fixing problems elsewhere.

– Interventions of external actors (whatever well-intended, well-informed and executed and whether in support of government or to back the rebels, and whether by military or any other means) have a potential to only complicate the situation and make the conflict’s natural maturation process confused. Its internal political mix will anyways dominate and drive the conflict through maturity to decay, with many temporary and an eventual resolution. Active interventions (except for humanitarian aid and facilitation of peace talks) complicate the conflict for many reasons; they shall be avoided by all individual parties and instead allowed only to specialised, specifically mandated international and/or intergovernmental bodies.

– Military interventions must be avoided at all cost. With all the criticism raised about the UN’s blue helmets handling ceasefire and peacekeeping processes, they and/or (only upon the host government’s request or the UN Security Council resolution) NATO, EU or African Union or similar led stabilisation forces can enter the country and with only one mandated task—that is, to ensure the cessation of hostilities, not to take sides and participate in combat (whatever rightful thing it might seem, or be presented to public as such, at the given moment).

– Also, no conflict in this small interconnected world attracts only sympathies and support of everyone—there are always different perceptions but also interests and competing actors or groups of actors (which, for broadly varying reasons at times might be very distant from the conflict itself) who would be eager to take advantage of it to launch proxy wars with their rivals. As practice has shown, these interventions also create a fertile ground for international criminal organisations dealing with drugs, human trafficking, arms and other lootable goods trade to profit enormously from the mess created.

– And the last but not the least with regards to bilateral military intervention: governments intervening into internal conflicts of other nations spend money, and quite considerable amounts, taken from the public purse. It would do be better preserving those funds for peace-building and rehabilitation when they will be most needed, instead of wasting them on costly military campaigns. This would also help reduce (if not avoid) controversies at home where taxpayers rightfully question the purpose of those spendings and develop somewhat negative perception of recipient countries and their people. [*Well, at least one reason of this disparity between military and diplomatic/civilian assistance is obvious: it is much easier for decision-makers to explain the funding of overseas operations as aimed at reducing national security risks, while spending for reconstruction and development does not necessarily evoke similar emotions and in any case does not get such a unanimous support from citizens. Politicisation of security is a given fact.]

– Another conclusion is that for a comprehensive peace deal conditions must be ripe, first of all the goodwill of both sides (and their supporters in society) along with their readiness to make (as practice has shown, significant) concessions. Not an easy task considering that there is never full agreement in either camp, given that opposition to the peace deal will always be there (for fundamental/ideological or merely narrow political interests and rent reasons). Ensuring coherence and full cooperation within the group is always a challenge and all sides (including international mediators) shall demonstrate understanding and patience.

– And finally, it also takes a leader (ideally the head of state) who is brave enough and ready to put his/her political career at risk of concluding the deal—which is always subject to imperfection, scrutiny, disbelief, and controversy, and won’t be met by all people positively, neither appreciated by everyone on both sides directly involved. Charisma—yes; legitimacy and credibility—yes; but at the top of it is resolve, one that drives them whatever the outcome threatens to undermine them personally as political figure. People with such mindset are rarity, including among politicians. This point shall be understood as not an isolated fact but as a product of the environment—leaders are not born out of vacuum, after all and as famously observed by Tolstoy, ‘we need only penetrate to the essence of any historic event – which lies in the activity of the general mass of men who take part in it – to be convinced that the will of the historic hero does not control the actions of the mass but is itself continually controlled.’


There are questions, obviously. Many questions and many concerns. Not many answers. Quite understandably—only practice will provide them (and even then, these would not be timeless truth). What we can elaborate at this point follows below.

Does the peace agreement mean an end to hostilities between the Colombian security and all rebels?

Not yet. Other, smaller rebel groups are not part of the peace deal and some will seek strengthen their ranks at the account of FARC members who disagree with disarmament or who would become quickly disillusioned when their integration into society won’t go as they expected. There are however, parallel attempts undertaken by the government. For example, talks are planned with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the second-largest guerrilla group.

Then does the agreement end the war between FARC and the government?

Yes, it does. About 600 top FARC commanders are planning to gather one final time in mid-September to ratify the deal. In the meantime, the peace accord is already working. Following the conclusion of the agreement, FARC’s Commander Rodrigo Londono (also known as Timochenko) announced on Sunday that his fighters will permanently cease hostilities with the government. The government in turn made similar announcement. Bilateral permanent ceasefire became effective as of Monday, 29 August.

As soon as ratified, the sustainable peace would be conditioned upon the agreement’s effective implementation:

– how all the agreed reforms and reintegration points are delivered to former guerrillas and their supporters, by the government;

– how effective transitional justice works, to all sides, and whatever painful it might be;

– how society accepts the ex-combatants and their supporters;

– how population of formerly FARC controlled areas accepts the government’s legitimacy (especially considering that FARC has been de facto performing the role of the state, including delivery of primary services); and above all

– whether FARC members are ready to go through reintegration into society, which is not going to be an easy process.

What are challenges faced by the Colombian government?

Those most immediate are:

– political opposition undermining the process;

– population not happy with special treatment offered to ex-combatants;

– population not happy with softness of measures against crimes committed or the scale of justice measures;

– financial problems with regards to investing into reintegration of people, providing public services and rebuilding infrastructure, revitalising underdeveloped rural areas;

– issues related to legitimacy and credibility in the former FARC areas.

What kind of dilemmas will FARC face?

They have to be understood along the functions of use of force in the conflict that have been driving FARC’s motivation and activities:

– politically: accept that they have to become part of a system they have rejected and fought against for ideological reasons; and that they do not command people and territories anymore;

– economically: make transition to licit income generation, given that drugs and other sources of illegal income not available anymore; learn new skills (especially if the only thing you know is fighting);

– psychologically: overcome the feeling of being lost or frustrated of not being welcome; self-aggrandisement issues after years of being in high respect in controlled areas, even greeted as heroes; and limited excitement of ordinary life;

– socially: many guerrillas having deep rooted connections in rural areas where they were located—how their families, children will be adapting to new places if relocated; what a role they would accept in their communities now, when having no formal power.

What are the issues for citizens to overcome?

We must accept that in real life there is no such thing as population (meaning one homogeneous mass of people) or ‘average citizen’ of this or that country—these are statistical constructs for the sake of computation. Each of us as an individual, each group of us, small and big, have different views on thousands of big and small issues. Moreover, those views are not set in stone; they are continuously and dynamically changing in response to life experiences and environment. Therefore we cannot expect that the reaction of people will be the same, neither initially nor when the peace implementation will begin unfolding. This is well understood. The war has been the central issue in the country for far too long—generations have grown with it as part of their life. And too divisive and painful, for people—to everyone, in fact (it is assumed that there is no single family in Colombia who has not been affected by the war).

I will apply the question posed in sub-heading to each group of societal stakeholders to peace and reconciliation, without much specifying their aspirations and concerns. They will have to cope with numerous dilemmas:

– people from the areas formerly controlled by FARC (this is not only change of allegiance but also the lifestyle);

– people in localities where some ex-combatants will be (re)settling (accepting them as equal community members, whatever past experiences and grievances); moreover, there is already an issue of potential tension—as the government decided to pay allowance to former FARC members to smooth their reinsertion (which is usually an initial phase of reintegration, aimed at addressing the most urgent needs);

– returnee populations (repossession of property and land, reintegration, overcoming mistrust);

– domiciles of places where the returnees will be coming (suspicion and mistrust, but also envy as the returnees will receive support from the government—this is quite a contentious issue, as practice in other places has shown);

– victims of FARC atrocities and their families (the same as the entire country, but they specifically will have to face the tough question of ‘how and when and if to reconcile’ and to decide whether ‘forgive and forget’, ‘forgive and not forget’, or ‘forgive not and forget not’ (coined as ‘torturer problem’ by Samuel Huntington) and how to live with it further, in a changed society;

– as noted above, families and relatives of former guerrillas (independently, but differently, whether they stay where they are or change the place of residence);

– former guerrillas, especially those in middle ranks who will be facing prosecution (even if the measures envisaged are mostly community works, not imprisonment);

– people in other parts of the country, especially in remote and underdeveloped rural localities who would not receive any additional funding or investment in infrastructure or job creation but witness this happening to former rebel areas.

What are some tough tests before the international community?

There will be at least two challenges, neither of them new to international affairs:

First is political and diplomatic. So far taking part of the Colombian government seemed to be the right thing to do and the job was quite straightforward. Not so from now on, when a very fragile balance shall be maintained for prolonged period, for cohabitation become normal part of life before giving way to true integration (no doubt, a generational change process) and lasting stability.

Moreover, FARC (and hopefully soon other rebel groups too) will gradually become part of political system. At this initial stage they have been guaranteed limited places (civilian non-voting representatives in the Senate and the House). In addition to this and to help maintain the legitimacy of FARC in formerly controlled communities of supporters, sixteen lower house seats will be created for grassroots activists in rural areas while other political parties won’t be allowed to run their candidates there. Both arrangements are transitional–they will end in 2026, when FARC (under its new name as a registered political movement) would have to participate in congressional elections on equal basis with other political parties.

This is a process which no one can predict, but I would dare to suggest that over time it may change the government priorities (including those foreign policy related), domestic social and economic policies, and strategic approaches (but not necessarily changes to political system itself)—through democratic contestation this time. Marxist-socialists in the Congress and in the government—this is something that may not make some Western politicians and interest groups particularly happy. However, this is where the respect for democratic values and the people’s choice should prevail. Any move to the contrary risks triggering at best resistance and even the return to violent conflict.

[*In some other countries these developments have taken quite interesting turns. For example, after a decade of non-violent confrontation, the Polish underground movement Solidarity concluded the talks in historic ‘round-table negotiations’ with Communist party leadership, became part of political system, and already in next elections their leader Lech Walesa became the elected president. However, he lost in next elections to the Communist party candidate.]

Another issue is coordination between donors, implementing organisations and various projects. Unlike ‘technical assistance’ dealing with capacity building where frequent overlap (and duplication at times) do not bring much harm except for confusion and waste of funds, the work to be assisted in Colombia is political. All three components of the process ahead—disarmament, demobilisation, reintegration—are political. Reconciliation is inherently political process. It should be well understood by development agencies that contradicting strategic approaches, diverging and incompatible methodologies, and ill thought out interventions may do harm. This must be avoided at all costs, perhaps by giving a special mandate to UN Mission and the role to effectively coordinate the assistance coming from various sources.

What are challenges to international development experts deployed to Colombia to support the process?

Those working in the field (and this is where the real work is done) will be under pressure of all sorts—life conditions in remote rural areas, security, and above all unpredictability of developments (which will take at times very quick turns and escalate beyond control). Decisions often-time shall be taken spontaneously, urgently and with limited prior knowledge. Exhibiting highest levels of political and cultural sensitivity to navigate through at times turbulent local waters while keeping the delivery of assistance at expected professional standard is not an easy job.

Most important is to remain impartial, positively and constructively charged at all times and in any circumstances—in the environment filled with mistrust and suspicion bordering with animosity and the burden of decades-long grievances (in spite of being rather low-intensity conflict in terms of annual casualties, there have been numerous crimes committed on daily basis which have left deep scars in people’s hearts). To perform at their best, the international development specialists shall be allowed by project owners more independence in decision making, thoughtful experimentation, and flexible forms of planning, delivery and monitoring—adapted to local circumstances. There is long way to go for Colombia in terms of peace-building, and for all those who want to make violent conflict there and elsewhere on the face of the Earth part of history, not future.


About the author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. Most recently, he has worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms. Before that, he helped building local governance structures and capacity through community-based initiatives in rural Afghanistan. In the course of eight years he has worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he held various positions in the field (starting as head of field office in Srebrenica) and headquarters; have designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of strategies and demand-driven local and nation-wide initiatives; and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military groups, political coordination boards at all levels.

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