28/09/2015 12:34 BST | Updated 25/09/2016 06:12 BST

Colombia Brings Hope


Credit: Conciliation Resources / Charlotte Melly

With hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war and poverty, the world hardly looks like it's getting a better place to live in. And yet, at a time when war in Syria and Ukraine, militarisation in East Asia, and increasing violence in places like Turkey make the headlines, progress in Colombia's peace process suggests there is a remedy to violence, no matter how deeply rooted.

Over the past five decades Colombia has endured one of the most protracted and violent conflicts in the world. According to a report by Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, some 200,000 deaths, thousands of kidnappings and forced disappearances, and more than five million internally displaced brings the official count of victims to some 7.5 million, about 15 per cent of the population.

Most people in Colombia have never experienced peace. It is therefore unsurprising that public opinion has remained largely sceptical throughout the three years of peace negotiations between the Government and the main guerrilla organisation, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

For one, FARC's legitimacy in the eyes of public opinion lies very low. When the previous attempt for a negotiated solution to the conflict failed, back in 2002, the incumbent President Alvaro Uribe took a hard line approach and promised to wipe the guerrilla out. While he only succeeded partially in the battle field, he managed to mainstream the idea in public opinion that FARC are nothing but a bunch of narco-terrorist criminals. FARC's rejection of international humanitarian law, and its practice of kidnapping and holding hostages captive for years under terrible conditions did not help them improve their image.

But the picture of perpetrators of violence is more complex. Thousands of former right-wing paramilitary forces who allegedly laid down arms in 2005 did not find a way back to normal and peaceful lives and instead swelled the numbers of criminal gangs. At the same time, confessions from former leaders of paramilitary groups have exposed the level of collusion and responsibility of important sectors of the military, the police, the private sector and the politicians with mass killings and other serious crimes.

The challenge to reverse this spiral of violence is therefore daunting. Too many people with economic and political power benefit from the status quo. While also too many people in Colombia have lost their trust in the Government and the guerrillas.

Yet developments at the negotiating table this week suggest a peace agreement is not only possible, but almost around the corner. On Wednesday President Santos traveled to Havana, where peace negotiations take place, to witness the signing of an agreement on justice for the victims of violence. This has been the most difficult agenda item to agree on. (Read the full text of the communiqué in Spanish here)

Human rights and victims' organisations have long been advocating for the right to truth, justice and guarantees of non-recurrence. The International Criminal Court is monitoring peace negotiations closely to ensure international standards of human rights are withheld.

But how to avoid impunity for past crimes and at the same time reach a peace agreement to prevent new crimes from happening? No guerrilla leader in the world would lay down arms voluntarily and go straight to prison for acts committed during the revolutionary struggle.

The parties have agreed that only political crimes will be amnestied. Amnesty will not extend to serious war crimes, hostage taking, torture, forced disappearance, extrajudicial executions or sexual violence. These crimes will be subject to investigation and trial by a Special Jurisdiction for Peace. Those perpetrators who confess their acts will still face restriction of liberties and rights, but with a focus on reparative and restorative functions towards the victims instead of sitting behind bars. Similar to the South African case, those who deny responsibilities but are found guilty will go to prison.

This agreement on justice adds to the previous ones on land reform, illegal drugs and political participation. Only one core topic remains to complete the negotiating agenda: the normalisation process of decommissioning FARC's forces and weapons and ensure their transition into civilian life. President Santos has announced negotiations will be completed within the coming six months.

A peace agreement does not signal the end of all forms of violence, as Colombians have learned from previous peace agreements with other groups. There is a need for multiple paths to peace beyond the negotiating table to ensure change really happens. Colombians are thus innovating in new forms of public participation, with multiple civil society organisations and committed political and economic actors informing the negotiating table about priorities and alternatives. Women are leading on many of these efforts.

Colombia is conducting the most important peace process in the world, which may terminate the last armed conflict in the American continent. If Government and FARC are able to complete negotiations and to deliver on their commitments, Colombia will become a living example that there is a peaceful solution to violent conflict. Colombia is bringing hope to the world, showing that there is no country that is eternally doomed to war.