Colombia-FARC peace accord: A new model for ending conflict?

When Colombia began talks with leftist FARC rebels nearly four years ago, it looked to countries like South Africa for guidance. Now it's rewritten the roadmap for peace.

AP/Felipe Caicedo
President Juan Manuel Santos is moving fast to hold a national referendum on a peace deal meant to end a half-century conflict with leftist FARC rebels, delivering the final text of the deal on Thursday Aug. 25, 2016 to Congress and declaring a definitive ceasefire against the guerrillas.

From the start of peace talks between The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the government of Juan Manuel Santos in 2012, negotiators looked to the experiences of Northern Ireland and South Africa for inspiration.

But now, with the successful conclusion of four years of negotiations, Colombia will serve as a model for future peace negotiations around the world, analysts say.

Few countries have been at war as long as Colombia. The FARC took up arms against the state in 1964, and more than 50 years later, on Wednesday night, they agreed to lay them down. But it wasn’t easy.

The talks went beyond historic trends of granting blanket amnesty to rebels and confining participants to only the government and guerrilla forces. And though some moves are deemed controversial and the ultimate declaration of peace hinges on a public vote slated for Oct. 2, the process here has created a new road map for reaching peace.

"Colombia has contributed with significant innovation to the field of peacebuilding," says Kristian Herbolzheimer, a conflict resolution expert with Conciliation Resources, a UK-based peace consultancy.

'A deeper commitment'

The Colombian negotiations were the first in the world to include a formal role for victims of the conflict in the process itself, with individuals who suffered at the hands of different armed groups meeting directly with negotiators. 

"I don't think there's ever been negotiations where victims were speaking face to face with perpetrators," Mr. Herbolzheimer says.

The inclusion of victims in the negotiations transformed the peace process itself, says Virginia Bouvier, senior advisor for peace processes with the US Institute of Peace. "It created a deeper commitment on the part of the negotiators," she says.

Part of the reason for incorporating the victims directly into the process is because this deal was among the first in the world to be negotiated under the obligations of members of the International Criminal Court. The ICC prohibits granting amnesty for war crimes, which has historically been a common element of peace deals around the world.

"The standards of what's acceptable and what's not acceptable in a peace agreement have changed dramatically in the past several years," says Herbolzheimer, referring to changes in guidance from the ICC. 

This posed a particularly complicated problem for negotiators. Previous peace deals with smaller guerrilla groups in Colombia included blanket amnesties.

"The [FARC] guerrillas don't want to be the first in the history of Colombia to lay down their weapons to go to jail," President Santos said last year before negotiators came up with a creative approach to keeping rebels out of prison, while still ensuring their prosecution.

Under the agreement, members of the FARC who committed and confess to war crimes – including kidnapping, recruitment of minors, and indiscriminate attacks on civilians – will be sentenced to up to eight years of "effective restriction of movement." What that means exactly will be left up to a special tribunal to decide, but could include community service.

Not everyone is pleased with the solution, even if the terms of the punishments appear to adhere to ICC obligations. Human Rights Watch said the decision fails to fulfill the rights of victims.

"As it stands, the victims’ agreement ensures that those most responsible for ... atrocities will escape genuine justice by allowing people who confess their crimes to avoid any remotely serious form of punishment," the organization said in a statement this week.

'As creative ... as it is controversial'

Another innovation in Colombia's process was the integration of gender issues into the peacebuilding processes. Although criticized for initially having no women on the negotiating teams, the peace talks later incorporated a gender subcommittee to make sure each aspect of the accord had a focus on women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights.

The inclusion of gender concerns in the accord “will give women the tools to demand implementation," Ms. Bouvier says.

To protect the contents of the peace pact and shield them from modification by congress or future governments, negotiators came up with a strategy to ensure the deal's implementation and preservation under international law.

"The solution devised by negotiators in Havana is as creative and elegant as it is controversial," Gustavo Alvira, a Colombian human rights lawyer wrote in a column for the policy site Latin America Goes Global.

The accord will be treated as a “Special Humanitarian Agreement” under the Geneva Conventions regulating wars, giving it international status.

"The strategy is an extraordinary measure to achieve an extraordinary objective," wrote Mr. Alvira." The final accord will become permanently binding on the state under international law."

It took perseverance, patience, and creativity to reach the comprehensive accord this week, and many believe the process and outcome can serve as inspiration in seeking a negotiated solution to other conflicts around the world.

But it can also serve the Colombians themselves, analysts say – particularly in talks with the country's other rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), if and when they decide to follow the FARC in ending their war.

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