The war is over, but has peace broken out yet? How Colombia is trying to break the vicious cycle of violence
On paper, the conflict in Colombia is over, but there still remains the difficult task of realising peace in the country’s day-to-day life. In an interview, GIZ Peace Advisor Anja Heuft explains how she and her team are supporting the peace process.
Although most Colombians rejected the deal between the government and the guerrilla organisation FARC in a referendum in October 2016, both parties made peace shortly afterwards. We’re looking back over the development of the peace process since the referendum and asking GIZ advisor Anja Heuft how the residents of what used to be one of the most violent cities in Colombia, can now be celebrating festivals once again.
Key facts about the Colombian peace process
Referendum – October 2016: Supporters of the peace deal between the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or in English: Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the Colombian government are in complete shock. In a referendum on 2 October 2016, the majority of Colombians vote against the peace deal. Opponents of the agreement make up 50.23 per cent and therefore win by the thinnest of margins.
Now it’s renegotiation time. At the end of November 2016, the FARC and the Colombian government finally agree on a new peace deal. They do not hold another referendum. In the same year, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his dedication to the cause.
Peace agreement – December 2016: The 52-year-long intrastate conflict, which is believed to have claimed more than 220,000 lives, is history. The peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC comes into force on 1 December 2016. Among other things, the agreement stipulates that the FARC is to completely disarm and displaced farmers are to get their land back. There are plans to set up a Truth Commission and a Special Jurisdiction for the peace process in order to come to terms with the past, as well as a special unit tasked with searching for missing persons.
Disarmament – June 2017: The UN now believes that all former FARC fighters have disarmed. The organisation states that 6,800 rebels have handed over all 7,132 registered weapons, which are to be melted down and made into monuments to peace.
Amnesty – July 2017: Colombia grants amnesty to 3,252 former FARC fighters for their political crimes. Those who committed more serious offences, such as genocide, war crimes or rape, are not eligible for amnesty, however.
Founding the new party – September 2017: Back in June, FARC commander Mauricio Jaramillo said in reference to the disarmament of his fighters: “Today we are making political decisions and we no longer need weapons.” A short time later, in September, the FARC sets up its own party: the Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común (also abbreviated to FARC, and in English: the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force). The law guarantees this new party five seats in the Senate and the House of Representatives for both of the forthcoming legislative periods.
One year on from the peace agreement: Even as the peace process makes steady progress on a political level, there are many in Colombia who are critical of it. Some former rebels have gone into hiding and joined criminal gangs. Paramilitary groups, traditionally supported by right-leaning and far-right political forces, are advancing into areas that were formerly under FARC influence and threatening the lives of peace activists.
Anja Heuft has been running the ProPaz peace programme, which was started up by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, for over two years. Her team helps politicians as well as NGOs and former victims to advance the peace process. In Ocaña, for example: for a long time, part of this city was a “no-go area” until politicians and citizens sat round a table and worked together to find ways out of the violence.
Ms Heuft, the FARC and the Colombian government signed a peace agreement in November 2016. Does peace now reign in Colombia?
Anja Heuft: That’s not such an easy question to answer. On the one hand, a lot has improved. The ceasefire between the FARC and the Colombian government in August 2016 had already reduced the level of violence in large parts of the country, and living conditions have vastly improved for many people. But the same can’t be said for every part of the country. Since handing their weapons over, the FARC no longer controls any territory. This has led to other armed groups fighting to take over areas where the FARC used to be in charge. And so, unfortunately, little has changed yet for the people living in these areas. In fact, violence has actually increased in some places, and many activists campaigning for peace are being threatened or even killed.
I am impressed that the FARC fighters were demobilised and disarmed relatively smoothly. Within six months the guerrillas had gathered in 27 “transition zones” and handed their weapons over to a UN mission. It was really difficult to get these fighters, some of whom had been members of the guerrilla organisation for 20 to 30 years, to suddenly hand over their weapons now. The FARC, as well as the Colombian government, deserve recognition for this.
Anja Heuft has been project manager of the GIZ’s ProPaz project in Colombia since 2015. Before she started promoting sustainable peacekeeping in the South American country, she worked for GIZ in Cameroon, where she ran a community development programme and was actively involved in increasing the professionalism of local authorities and strengthening civic participation within communities, among other things. Anja Heuft is a trained economist and has over 20 years’ experience of conflict and crisis contexts. Before she started working for GIZ, she spent several years in Mexico and Nepal working on behalf of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
One example of positive development is Ocaña, a medium-sized town in the north of the country. GIZ operates there with ProPaz, the peace programme that it runs. How has the area changed recently?
Anja Heuft: Some time ago, the mayor of Ocaña asked us to provide support for “violence prevention”. Now, you need to know that this area is one of the most fiercely fought over parts of Colombia where all the many varied strands of the conflict collide. There are eight armed groups operating in the region. The town is a refuge for both those displaced within Colombia and those fleeing from Venezuela. Some of these people live in very precarious conditions, and the potential for violence is especially high here.
One part of town, Santa Cruz, was hit particularly hard by the violence. For years, the level of danger made the area practically inaccessible for local politicians and staff of civil society organisations. With the support of ProPaz, the mayor, regional and local politicians and citizens from the district all sat round a table and discussed together how they could bring an end to the violence. The result of this meeting was a joint plan with clear steps for improving the situation.
Finally, the residents of Santa Cruz organised a community festival three months ago as an anti-violence gesture. About 700 people from other parts of the town joined in the celebrations. Among the festival-goers was the mayor, who had not set foot in the area for 20 years.
What exactly has helped this district to become more peaceful?
Anja Heuft: We’ve all worked together to analyse where the risks and potential for violence lie. We’ve had a look at the street lighting, for example, and improved it. As well as that, we’ve started up various projects with young people. Through sport especially, we’ve tried to promote values like respect and togetherness and put peaceful methods of conflict resolution into practice. This has created a dynamic that I personally find fascinating: The police are out on the beat again, and more and more residents are actively engaging in preventing violence. They’ve organised football matches, for example, and put up lamp posts. Many believe that, for the first time in years, people feel like they are being taken seriously again.
They are mediating between people who regard each other with mistrust and even hostility. What attributes do you think you need to have to be able to assist in peace processes?
Anja Heuft: We view ourselves as peace advisors who help to facilitate peaceful and respectful communication. But the real drive towards peace comes from the people we’re advising. So we don’t come in with our own ideas, but instead we try to assist with ongoing processes and adapt to the specific requirements.
It’s important to be approachable, treat people with openness and honesty, come equipped with a sensitivity towards group dynamics and also be in a position to take a step back from things. Dictating from above doesn’t help at all. It’s far better to moderate and advance the process by asking critical questions.
After decades of conflict, countries torn apart by civil war often face a long road to peace. How can you reach a compromise while taking into account the interests of different social groups? What do you think is more important for the parties involved – atonement and understanding or punishment? Do you know of any peace initiatives that have successfully resolved armed conflicts? Tell us all about it in the Community group “Sustainability”!