The Colombian peace process deadline passes with no accord. What’s next?

After three years of negotiations, Colombia is closer than ever to achieving peace, even as success once again appears to elude the Juan Manuel Santos administration. Delegations representing the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have reached consensus on four of the six official negotiation points, including comprehensive agreements on agrarian reform, political participation, illicit drugs, and victims. However, they appear to have saved the best (or worst) for last, as the final two points—ending the conflict and implementation of the peace accord—have proven to be the most difficult to resolve.

Six months ago, the Colombian government and the FARC released a joint statement establishing an ambitious deadline of March 23, 2016 to reach an accord. As the deadline approached, those expectations were replaced by the hope that at least a bilateral ceasefire could be reached, an important marker on the road to peace. However, despite earlier assertions from President Santos that the government would not continue to negotiate past that date, both sides have quietly allowed negotiations to go on. 

The finish line and beyond

There are three challenges the Colombian leadership needs to consider as peace negotiations go forward:

  1. The problem with deadlines: It is understandable that the Santos administration wants to push forward with the peace negotiations—they have invested massive amounts of time and energy in the pursuit of peace. The political capital invested in the peace negotiation is substantial, compounded by the withering scorn from former President Álvaro Uribe and his supporters along the way. But the decision to move forward also confirms to your counterpart that you value reaching the accord more than you value the alternative. This is information that the FARC will use to extract more concessions through delay tactics. And the main way President Santos has to raise the cost of delay for the FARC—military action—is not exactly compatible with the thrust of the peace process.
  2. Colombia’s poor track record on peace implementation: Colombia has been historically more successful at negotiating peace accords than implementing them. Colombians have frequently come together to negotiate settlements to internal conflicts, most notably in 1957 when the Liberal and Conservative parties agreed to end the decade-long armed conflict among them (sadly but aptly titled “La Violencia”), and in 1989 to 1990 when President Virgilio Barco negotiated with insurgent forces to reincorporate them into legal politics (together they approved a new constitution in 1991). Yet the implementation of the 1957 pact produced an exclusionary democracy in Colombia that contributed to the rise of armed insurgents, including the FARC. After 1991, many demobilized insurgents, progressive politicians, and civil society activists were murdered by right-wing death squads. The specter of past failures of implementation still haunts today’s peace process in Colombia.
  3. Keeping the United States interested once peace is reached: The United States has supported any number of partner countries in the wake of conflicts. Sometimes it is successful, as in Europe and Japan in the wake of World War II. At other times, its track record has been poor, notably in Afghanistan after the end of Soviet occupation and in Central America in the 1990s after the negotiated end of those regional conflicts. Today, as the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan is withdrawn, the negative trends are alarming. By contrast, Colombia is frequently touted as a successful counterexample, evidence that the United States and its partners can work successfully together—but making success last will require sustained U.S. engagement.

Keeping the United States engaged in post-conflict Colombia

The United States has supported Colombia’s efforts to restore peace and rebuild state presence in rebel-held areas through Plan Colombia since 2000. Now, the Obama administration is interested in ensuring that Colombia’s peace process and post-conflict evolution is successful, as President Santos’ high-profile visit to Washington in February signaled. The administration is also well aware of the challenges Colombia faces and that the United States faces in supporting Colombia. In a March 16 discussion at Brookings, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker expressed his confidence that a peace accord will be reached, and he highlighted three things to consider about the future of peace in Colombia:

  • Implementing a peace accord will be very expensive. These costs come at a time when Colombia’s economy is slowing down and its government is under increased financial strain;
  • There are other challenges to implementing an accord: demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration (DDR); transitional justice; and securing public approval of the accord through a plebiscite;
  • The Colombian Ministry of Post Conflict and the Colombian Reintegration Agency are prepared to take on these challenges, but they will need more financial support.

These are real areas for concern. It is estimated that the process will cost Colombians $16.8 billion over 10 years, and there are particular concerns with regards to DDR, a process that Colombia has not handled well in the past.

The United States is already taking steps to assist Colombia in overcoming these challenges. On February 4, President Obama pledged that the United States would be Colombia’s “partner in waging peace” and announced a more than $450 million commitment to support the next phase of Plan Colombia, called Paz Colombia. Ambassador Whitaker noted that President Obama’s request for additional funds is “a very important expression of our commitment.” Additional resources to support post-conflict peace implementation will undoubtedly be helpful, although the vast majority of the money will ultimately be provided by Colombians themselves (as was also the case during Plan Colombia). The recently approved U.N. mission to oversee disarmament brings other helpful actors to the table to provide additional support and capacity to Colombia during implementation of the peace agreement. This offers the hope that Colombia will not repeat past failures to secure the peace once it has been negotiated. 

Ambassador Whitaker also mentioned Congress’ role in developing and supporting Plan Colombia, noting that it bodes well for the prospect of continued U.S. engagement with Colombia: “We have a Congress that feels like this success is their success, and they’re absolutely right. Without their engagement, without their involvement, we wouldn’t be anywhere near the success we’ve had.”

It is, of course, leaders in Colombia—the Santos administration and the FARC—who will determine when a peace deal is reached (and the Colombian people who will decide whether to support the final agreement). Outsiders such as U.S. Special Envoy for the Colombian Peace Process Bernie Aronson should continue to play an important facilitating role, as should the peace talks’ hosts in Havana. Improved U.S.-Cuba relations may also offer unexpected opportunities to nudge negotiations along. But all the best wishes and support by international actors cannot replace the interest of Colombians on both sides of the negotiating table in reaching (and keeping) a peace agreement.