As the United Nations mobilizes to help Colombia end the hemisphere’s oldest armed conflict, much attention is inevitably focused on the role to be played by the United Nations Mission in Colombia, an observer corps deployed this year with the critically important task of verifying the cease-fire and laying down of arms agreement between the Government and the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia–People’s Army (FARC-EP). But the UN’s contribution to efforts to bring peace to Colombia goes back many years and involves different parts of the world organization.
After the Security Council authorized the United Nations Mission in Colombia in January, the cover page of the prestigious Colombian weekly, Semana, featured a UN flag under the headline, “Llegó la ONU” (“The UN has arrived”). The weekly suggested that, with the UN involved, there was no going back on efforts to end a war which has raged for over fifty years.
This was a testament to the hope placed in the UN’s global mandate and experience in peace operations. But it also obscured the painstaking peacebuilding work done by the United Nations inside Colombia for many years, even during times when there was no hope at all of a formal peace process. And it neglected the important contribution that will be expected of the United Nations system in the period ahead as Colombia seeks not only to consolidate a cease-fire and the laying down of arms, but to move into the medium and longer-term challenges of implementing a comprehensive peace agreement that seeks to ensure the successful social and political reintegration of combatants and to bring development to impoverished regions where the conflict has persisted.
Addressing Root Causes
It is fair to say that much of what the UN system has done in Colombia for over a decade has been closely tied to the plight of millions of Colombians living the consequences of armed conflict and its related violence: from documenting the egregious human rights violations committed by a variety of actors, to providing protection and humanitarian assistance to the country’s more than 7 million internally displaced, to calculating the devastating economic and social costs of war paid by a country otherwise blessed by natural resources, unparalleled environmental diversity and hardworking and industrious people.
In 2004, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) issued a ground-breaking Human Development Report Callejon con Salida (Exiting a Dead End) documenting in full detail the root causes of the conflict and the need to address exclusion and inequity. In 2011 another report, “Colombia Rural: Razones para la esperanza” (Rural Colombia: reasons for hope) stressed why most of the transformations needed to happen in rural areas. Both shaped the national debate about peace and continue to be basic reference texts for peacemakers in Colombia. Meanwhile, a multi-donor programme named Reconciliation and Development (REDES) opened local offices in the areas hardest hit by conflict to support local communities trying to build new livelihoods. The UN system operated on a simple premise: that peace can be built locally even in the most violent scenarios, if emphasis is placed on addressing the political, social, economic and racial causes of conflict. As a result, local authorities and hundreds of civil society organizations (including women’s organizations) strengthened their abilities to design social policies and advocate for their communities. These local peace actors are now an invaluable asset throughout the country.
Once the Government of President Juan Manuel Santos announced peace talks with the FARC-EP in 2012, the UN system on the ground further consolidated its peace-building work. Hand in hand with the Parliamentary Peace Commissions and the National University, the UN system organized some 40 regional events throughout Colombia that mirrored the items on the peace agenda (such as land, political participation, the drug issue, victims’ rights). In this context, some 12,000 Colombians from all walks of life came together to provide their own views on what the parties should be discussing at the negotiating table. Neither the Government nor the FARC sponsored the meetings at the start. But the parties soon acknowledged that such broad-based discussions provided legitimacy and useful inputs to the peace process and then asked for additional UN-organized nation-wide summits to be held in Bogota. From this point onward, the UN and its partners were regularly invited to the negotiating table in Havana to present the results of the civil society meetings.
Peace Process Picks Up Steam
An emotional watershed in the process was the visits to Havana, during the second half of 2014, of five delegations of victims of the armed conflict, for face-to-face encounters with representatives of the Colombian state and the FARC-EP. The victims were selected from all regions and walks of life by the United Nations, the National University and the Catholic Church, which accompanied them to Havana. They told their stories and in some cases received apologies and requests for forgiveness, first steps in a necessary process of acknowledgment of responsibilities and reconciliation. Selecting a representative group of victims was extraordinarily complex. But the effort was possible, on the UN side, thanks to the work of agencies including UNDP, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UNICEF and UN Women, drawing from their extensive work with conflict victims over the years.
Over more than four years of negotiations in Havana, a range of UN agencies, offices and Special Representatives responded to invitations by the parties to provide advice and support on the crafting of their agreements and the design of mechanisms to implement them. The UN also devised innovative communications campaigns to help convey the benefits of peace to a sceptical public.
Building the Peace Beyond an Agreement
The peace process appeared to suffer a setback when a slim majority of Colombians voted “No” in the 2 October plebiscite that was to set to give the final seal of approval to the agreements between the Government and FARC-EP. The parties subsequently returned to Havana to discuss adjustments to the agreements taking into account the concerns of the “No” camp. The outcome of the vote, while not expected, has provided an opportunity to craft an agreement that enjoys broader support in the country. A modified agreement has now been signed by the parties and should be submitted to the legislature for approval. Meanwhile, UN observers remain on the ground to help consolidate a cease-fire and the UN system continues its preparations to support Colombia in carrying out agreements whose subject matter ranges from immediate issues such as the reintegration of combatants and humanitarian de-mining, to medium and long-term investments in rural development, political inclusion, fighting illicit drugs and transitional justice. UN entities on the ground in Colombia will also remain vigilant to the human rights and humanitarian challenges that will remain of concern even after the end of the conflict with the FARC.
In short, the United Nations has been in Colombia for years, supporting the search for peace, and is prepared to remain there for as long as it takes, working by Colombia’s side as it embarks on a challenge not only to end a war but to transform the realities that kept it burning for so long.
Top picture: Preliminary Conclusion of Colombia Peace Agreement, Havana, Cuba, June 2016. UN Photo
*This article was co-written by Denise Cook, currently the UN Resident Coordinator in Uruguay, and Jared Kotler, Team Leader for Colombia in the Department of Political Affairs. Both served previously in Bogota as Peace and Development Advisers to the UN system. From 2006 through 2016, DPA –- first on its own, and then in partnership with UNDP -- deployed Peace and Development Advisors to Colombia to help create the link between prospects for “big picture” peace processes and local peacebuilding activities of the UN system.