Canadian-supported peace process in Colombia hits road blocks

While Canada has pledged to support projects aimed at maintaining peace, the process has hit major snags barely two months in.   

By: /
February 7, 2017
Soldiers of the Colombian army disembark from a helicopter in a zone previously occupied by FARC rebels, in Saiza, Colombia, February 3, 2017. Picture taken February 3, 2017. REUTERS/Luis Jaime Acosta

December’s peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) — after an October referendum shot down an initial agreement — was celebrated as the end of 52 years of armed conflict in the South American country. Canada is one of several countries to offer support as the process moves forward, but hopes for a permanent peace have already dimmed as a result of delays in implementing the accord.

The agreement, designed to pave the way for a peaceful Colombia, initiated a 180-day process for the FARC to demobilize and disarm. It also calls for the creation of a special tribunal to investigate and prosecute the crimes committed by the FARC and the Colombian military (amnesty would be provided only to those who committed minor crimes).

The agreement was hailed as a major turning point after months of tension within the country over whether the agreement was too lenient on the rebels. But now, nearly 60 days into the process, the two parties have failed to meet two crucial deadlines: the movement of FARC guerillas and militias into designated transition zones by Jan. 1 and the removal of unstable weapons from locations where the FARC had been deployed by Jan. 30.

A lack of basic infrastructure in the designated transition zones, including limited access to water and unsanitary conditions, were blamed for the delay.

Delays in implementing an agreement have allowed for heavy FARC desertion.

I’m barely able to contain my frustration,” Adam Isacson, senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a U.S.-based human rights organization, said in an interview for OpenCanada. “I know the Bogotá government is distracted by the legal battles over the accord and its enabling laws. But if it doesn’t even have the logistical capacity to set up 26 camps — even when the plebiscite result gave it an extra two and a half months to do so — I’m very worried about the Colombian state’s ability to make good on the hundreds of much more complex commitments foreseen in the accord.”  

The conflict between the Colombian government and the FARC has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people and displaced millions over the past half-century. 

After four years of negotiation hosted by Cuba, a ceasefire between the FARC and the Colombian government came into effect at the end of August. Delays in implementing an agreement since then have allowed for heavy FARC desertion, which could lead to recruitment by other militant groups. InSight Crime, an organization that investigates organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, estimates that the dissidence rate may be as high as 40 to 60 percent and includes both FARC militiamen and commanders in eight regions. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Brazil’s largest criminal organization, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital — PCC), has begun recruiting dissident members of the FARC in order to obtain access to their weapons and training.

Delays have also created space for internal fighting between FARC factions who oppose the peace agreement. Two FARC militiamen were recently killed in an internal dispute in the southern department of Caquetá.   

But violence arising from the agreement has not been restricted to the FARC. According to the human rights advocacy group Frontline Defenders, approximately 85 human rights defenders, social leaders and activists were assassinated in Colombia in 2016 — 30 after the declaration of the ceasefire. WOLA reports that many of those killed recently were members of the Marcha Patriótica, “a recently created, largely rural political movement that is widely viewed as a building block for the FARC’s transition to a non-violent political party.” According to Isacson, the Colombian government has put little effort into the investigation of these assassinations, sending a message that “you can’t be protected.” Another 15 assassinations have been reported in 2017. 

Beyond the threats towards activists, Colombians also feared that territory vacated by the FARC under the agreement would quickly be usurped by new violent groups looking to gain access to potentially lucrative trafficking routes. Some of those fears have already been realized. A spokesperson for Peace Brigades International (PBI), an organization that supports the work of local human rights defenders, said there is a “power vacuum” in the former FARC-held territories, particularly in the regions of Antioquia and Tumaco, as neo-paramilitary groups seek to gain control of drug trafficking and other illegal economies in the regions. PBI explained that a lack of government institutions in these areas left communities vulnerable to paramilitary violence, and warned of the possibility of the recruitment of FARC dissidents into these groups. 

While the Colombian government has resisted defining these groups as paramilitaries, the largest known group, the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (referred to as the “Gulf Clan” by the Colombian government), has been linked to violence, murder and threats to indigenous leaders, members of labour unions and other social groups. They have “created a whole new risk factor that requires the immediate attention of the Colombian government,” PBI said.

The Gulf Clan has a long history of violence in Colombia. It has been described as a successor of the infamous AUC paramilitary group — a group previously listed as a terrorist entity by the Canadian government. 

Colombia’s Minister of the Interior Juan Fernando Cristo recently denounced the group and declared the government’s intention to strengthen support for at-risk populations. But PBI said that very little has been done. 

Canada has a vested interest in seeing peace come to the region. In July 2016, the Canadian government pledged $57 million toward Colombia’s peace process for projects focusing on demining, child protection, education for children in conflict zones and rural credit for farmers in conflict-affected regions. In September 2016, then-minister of foreign affairs, Stéphane Dion, announced an additional $21 million in funding over three years to be put towards police reform, landmine clearance, human rights protection for conflict-affected communities, reintegration of former combatants, transitional justice and electoral observation. 

It is unclear how much has already been spent and which projects have been implemented. When asked for further information by OpenCanada, spokesperson for the Department of Global Affairs Austin Jean confirmed that “Canadian officials are working with the Colombian government to identify how to best support their efforts.” However, he was unable to provide specific details on project funding. 

Following a Freedom of Information Request, CBC recently reported that Canada will also be sending 10 police officers to Colombia to assist in the demobilization process. 

Various civil society groups in Colombia have expressed concern about the lack of independent funding and security for organizations that advance human rights and monitor the implementation of the peace process. PBI explained that both economic and political support is needed to “maintain an independent civil society” and safeguard these groups’ ability to assist in the effective implementation of the peace process. This is particularly urgent at a time when the lives of human rights defenders and social leaders in the country are at risk.