Communities across Colombia will vote in a referendum on a peace deal next month. Image credit: Pedro Szekely

The Colombian government and FARC guerilla group are on the brink of signing a peace agreement
Almost four years after peace talks formally began in Havana, Cuba in October 2012, the Colombian government and FARC guerilla group are on the brink of officially signing a peace agreement. The 6-points of the peace agenda were conclusively agreed this week (land reform, political participation, end of conflict, illicit drugs, victims and transitional justice, and implementation and verification); the protocols and annexes for the agreement on the bilateral ceasefire and laying down of arms were released in a government-FARC communiqué last week; the new UN political mission to Colombia is in practical preparations  for its eight operational bases across the country; the mission’s unique, tripartite - government, UN, FARC - monitoring and verification mechanism (MVM) is currently concluding assessment visits to each of the 35 disarmament and demobilisation cantonment sites;  the official signing of the peace agreement – “D-Day” - will take place on 23 September; and intense debate is swaying the country regarding the referendum (“plebiscite”) and whether or not the accords will be endorsed by the population through a “yes” vote on 2 October.

In Northern Ireland, the referendum which followed the Good Friday Agreement, signed 10 April 1998, passed with an overwhelming “yes”, both North and South of the border. A peace process viewed globally as resulting in a model outcome to years of formal and informal negotiations between the British government and Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries, it has been drawn on as a notable point of reference in Colombia. Much has been written about the 3 visits (November 2012, May 2013, March 2016) to Havana between representatives of the parties to the Northern Ireland conflict with the actors in the Colombian negotiations: the Northern Ireland delegation included members of the Good Friday Agreement negotiating teams, former British army soldiers and IRA ex-combatants, and was the first international delegation to meet directly with the FARC since the talks began. However, although both conflicts and peace processes are different in almost every way, there are a number of reflections that can be drawn at this critical juncture in Colombia.

Disarmament and dissidents

A critical aspect at this juncture in Colombia is whether popular support will endorse the peace agreement
Much of the early discussion between the Northern Irish and Colombian parties focused on the issue of disarmament and demobilisation, with the FARC emphatically suggesting that Colombia follow the “Irish model”. The FARC share the IRA’s view that disarmament – in the traditional sense of “surrendering arms” – symbolises defeat; and that, as political actors and voices of the people, they have no need to “reintegrate back” into a society they were never separate from. Language in the Colombian process has therefore played an important role, resultant that the FARC have agreed to “lay down arms” and “reincorporate into” civilian life.

In practical terms of implementation, FARC disarmament and demobilisation will not follow that of the IRA’s, a process that ultimately took 7 years – 3 more than planned – and was shrouded in high levels of secrecy which prohibited public ceremonies or information. IRA disarmament was verified by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) and church; yet, as there were neither inventories nor photos, the final report remains dogged with scepticism by opposition groups that all arms stockpiles were in fact handed over, registered and destroyed.

As with the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, the FARC have refused to demobilise during political talks in a “twin-track approach,” and will only do so once the agreement has been signed and legal provisions for their amnesty are in place. Displacement towards the cantonment sites for disarmament and demobilisation will begin on “D+5” (five days after the official signing), and implementation will follow a strict schedule of procedures, include public weapons monuments and tripartite verification, and terminate 6 months later. In this way, it is hoped that allegations such as those which have continued to bubble below the surface in Northern Ireland can be avoided.

Connected to both IRA and FARC disarmament processes is the issue of dissidents. Following the initial ceasefire and signing of the Good Friday Agreement by the Provisional IRA, the group split into dissident factions still active today; these include the Real IRA (RIRA), the Continuity IRA, the Irish Republican Liberation Army (IRLA), and Óglaigh na hÉireann. Although dissident acts of violence across Northern Ireland are relatively low-level, the recent announcement by FARC’s Armando Rios First Front - that it will not lay down its arms or demobilise - is a cause for concern at this stage in the negotiations. Although the FARC leadership has denounced this unit as unrepresentative of the movement, the Armando Rios is calling on other units to join against demobilisation – a trend that both national and international experiences predict as likely. It is therefore important that analysis on the reasons and consequences of dissidences are explored in more depth with reference to the current Colombian context. 

Divisions or support

Colombia may not be divided along religious lines, but it has many other equally prominent divisions
A critical aspect at this juncture in Colombia is whether popular support will endorse the peace agreement in a plebiscite vote of “yes”. Although the Good Friday Agreement was approved by a majority referendum vote, it did not include specifics for how the roots of the conflict itself would be addressed. Community Relations Councils (CRC) programmes were established by local government yet these were criticised for being “top-down” and doing little to further genuine reconciliation between the communities. Eighteen years later there remain religious divisions within society; from churches, schools and housing neighbourhoods, to bars, parks, recreational centres, and cultural spaces. 

Colombia may not be divided along religious lines, but it has many other equally prominent divisions. The peace agenda has attempted to address a number of the most salient drivers of conflict and societal divisions, such as access and concentration of land or political participation.  Nevertheless, with the continued existence of armed groups, lucrative nature of illegal drugs, and entrenched local power dynamics, it remains to be seen how effective this can really be. What is clear, however, is that it needs the opportunity to engage in this – and for that to happen, both civilian and combatant support is paramount. During these next weeks the FARC will hold its final national conference in which it will clarify the peace accords to its combatants, whilst the current pedagogical process explaining the benefits to the population will undoubtedly increase momentum.

In the words of the Colombian government delegation’s lead negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, in Havana during the closing of the accords on 24 August, it is not a perfect agreement, but the best possible; and that the real outcome of four years of peace talks will depend on the verdict of the people.