Inclusive Peace & Transition Initiative
IPTI Peace and Transition Observatory

Signature of the bilateral ceasefire agreement in Bogota, © Agencia Prensa Rural

The signature of the final agreement between the Government of Colombia and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), places Colombia at a historical crossroads between war and peace. Though the peace process is still fragile and has many challenges to overcome, after 50 years of war, it is the closest Colombia has come to burying the most protracted armed conflict in the region. The final agreement consists of six items and has the potential to not only lay the foundations for a more just and peaceful society, but also serve as a benchmark for the upcoming peace negotiations with the ELN, the second largest armed group in the country..


The negotiation phase is now complete, but before the Havana agreements achieve their goal of a durable end to the conflict, they must first be ratified and then be implemented. This is essential in order to convert the components of the agreements into concrete political and social changes. The negotiation process in Havana has achieved what multiple processes in the past five decades could not: it has brought a bitter armed conflict to the point of a peace deal. The FARC has already begun concretely to disarm.

However, the process still has committed antagonists and faces many challenges. Alongside the many technical implementation challenges which remain, evidence from around the world shows that the essential make or break of peace processes depends on continuous political and public support. For Colombia, these immediate political challenges include: getting a YES-vote in the upcoming plebiscite; maintaining the support of the Colombian people throughout the process; mitigating the resistance of powerful political elites who oppose the process; as well as managing the transformation of the FARC from an armed group to a political party. This observatory piece addresses these challenges by providing the reader with comparative experiences from other peace processes.


The October plebiscite: a critical threshold for public support

The Havana peace process requires gaining and maintaining a level of public support sufficient to clear the hurdle of the ratification of the agreements, through a plebiscite scheduled for October 2, 2016.

Among the elements that can influence public support, the antipathy of Colombia’s major opposition party and its supporters constitutes a significant headwind to move on to the next phase. In the worst case scenario, lack of public support could hinder the ratification of the peace agreements. Even though a defeat of the plebiscite would not formally or legally end the process, a negative result would be hard to overcome. It would invariably destroy the legitimacy of the negotiated agreements. International examples show that in the case of failed votes on a peace process, an entirely new peace deal typically has to be negotiated. For example, after the United Nations-mediated peace plan for Cyprus (known as the Annan Plan) was narrowly defeated by voters in the Republic of Cyprus at a referendum in 2004, the hard-won compromises of the negotiation process were put on hold for more than a decade.

On the other hand, in Northern Ireland, the referendum over the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, negotiated to end the armed conflict, illustrates that public support can be increased even after a negotiation process has ended. While the Good Friday Agreement had a much greater degree of public support than the Havana agreements, the threshold for approval was far higher (Northern Ireland required 70 percent of participating voters in favor, as opposed to Colombia that requires 13 percent, or approximately 4.5 million, of the Colombians registered in the electoral census to vote in favor). In order to guarantee broad-based support, the YES-campaign in Northern Ireland used a wide range of strategies. Its success benefited from a combination of approaches and actors engaged: civil society was strategically organized around the YES-campaign, and engaged celebrities, as well as prominent and respected individuals representing both sides of the conflict. An international campaigning firm was engaged and helped to ensure that a YES-vote was equated with “moving forward”, whereas “no” came to signify a “dead end”. The campaign was able to present the agreement as a fair political compromise between unionists and nationalists, especially targeting those most likely to tip the balance between success and failure – Belfast unionists and first-time voters. This was possible through targeted public opinion polls. To this end, the handshake between the leaders of the two conflict parties, David Trimble and John Hume, at a concert of the most popular Northern Irish rock band, U2, proved particularly effective to win over young voters.

If and when the Havana agreements are approved through the plebiscite, the parties will be faced with the technical and political challenges of actually implementing the agreements. Chief among the challenges associated with the implementation phase will be managing the transformation of the FARC from an armed guerilla group into a broad-based-political party, as well as successfully implementing the agreement in the regions. These factors will be essential to secure the agreement’s sustainability in the long term.


Participation of the Colombian people in the implementation of the peace deal

The agreements so far signed between the FARC and the Government of Colombia specify an extensive role for public participation in the implementation of the agreement. This is an important element of the process, as international experience confirms participation is essential for sustainable implementation. However, a crucial lesson from other implementation processes is that the effectiveness of citizen participation will significantly influence the success or failure of implementation. This means citizen participation alone will not be sufficient; however, the quality of the participation will be decisive. Quality participation requires the representation of all relevant groups, including those historically excluded from political participation in Colombia, as well as a mixture of participation modalities.

Colombia can actually be perceived as a champion of citizen participation: from sector reform processes to peace processes, successive governments have repeatedly installed participation forums to secure public support for political change. However, most of the past and current participation spaces in the country have been consultative forums or citizen monitoring initiatives that have not been effective in terms of meaningful participation and results.

The Havana peace agreements have foreseen a great number of new participation spaces during the implementation phase. From comparative experiences, we know that harnessing the benefits of meaningful participation requires that these spaces be given real influence. When participation takes place away from the main formal institutions of the peace process, for example in the case of consultations, there must also be a way to transfer and communicate the results of this participation towards decision makers. Without clear and transparent mechanisms to transform the results of participation into concrete decisions and actions, participation spaces can easily become tokenistic and thereby lose the support of people. After the peace deal in Nepal in 2008, consultations took place in order to seek public opinion to draft a new constitution. Similar to existing consultation spaces in Colombia, a bottom-up approach was applied, which allowed all citizens, political parties, and civil society to submit their views. The Nepali constitutional consultations were recognised for their broad inclusiveness. However, they lacked a formal mechanism to communicate the inputs collected to the constitution-drafting committees. There were also no clear specifications of how the input provided by the population was to be included or considered in the drafts. This lack of accountability allowed the political elite to make all key decisions outside of the formal structures, which were recognised by the populations included in the consultations, at the cost of the support of these populations. This resulted in a political blockage of the constitution reform process for almost a decade.

Second, participatory implementation mechanisms are more effective when they are protected from politics. For example, in 2003, the Government of the Solomon Islands replaced the formal Peace Monitoring Council involved in the monitoring and implementation of the Solomon Islands Townsville Peace Agreement with an externally-funded, independent body, the National Peace Council. This reflected awareness on behalf of the Government that the Peace Monitoring Council needed to be more independent in order to operate effectively.

Third, the inclusion of civil society organizations in implementation of peace agreements should be commensurate with the capacities of these organizations, particularly where this has been demonstrated through prior engagement with the peace process (e.g. during the negotiation phase). The involvement of Acehnese local civil society organizations in the monitoring of the 2001 Humanitarian Pause in Aceh, Indonesia illustrates the risks of overextending civil society. These inexperienced local civil society organizations were vulnerable to manipulation by the conflict parties, which polarised and politicized their involvement. The politicization of civil society’s role also exposed civil society members to the risk of violence, including targeted killings.

Civil society involvement in monitoring and verification mechanisms can improve the quality of the implementation process. Monitoring and verification bring clarity and accountability to the implementation. The Havana agreement specifies monitoring and verification mechanisms in particular for the ceasefire and disarmament provisions, which will be assisted by the presence of an unarmed UN observer mission. However, aside from the ceasefire, very few of the monitoring and verification provisions are spelled out in detail. Some provisions will be monitored by specially created commissions and mechanisms, others by existing commissions or government bodies. The role of civil society in these commissions is as yet unspecified. One of the most prominent examples of civil society monitoring is the Bantay Ceasefire in Mindanao, Philippines. After the Second Tripoli Agreement in 2001, a broad-based coalition of NGOs and other civil society organizations created a grassroots mechanism, known as the Bantay Ceasefire, for monitoring and reporting ceasefire violations, separate from the implementation structure of the agreement. The Bantay Ceasefire’s approach has developed from ceasefire monitoring, to an assessment of broader social and economic development needs, documentation of local peacekeeping efforts, and reporting and investigating alleged human rights violations. The Bantay Ceasefire has received support from all sides of the conflict to enter territory and conduct monitoring; moreover, it has been recognized and commended for its impartiality by the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities, which includes representatives of the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).


Elite resistance to peace agreement implementation

Lack of public support for the implementation of the Havana agreements could result in an anti-peace agreement coalition winning the 2018 elections and putting the entire peace process in jeopardy. Although the Havana agreements guarantee a minimum representation of five senators and five representatives in the Congress for the FARC for the next two years, in 2018 the FARC will need to earn its political representation in national elections. Both, the FARC and the Government of President Santos will be judged on the success of the implementation of the Havana agreements. From comparative evidence, we know that such support is not only influenced by the real level of successful implementation, but also by managing the opposition of powerful ‘spoilers’ to the process.

However, ‘spoilers’ do not always win: After the Burnham and Lincoln Peace Agreements were signed in 2001, ending the armed conflict in Bougainville, a political faction of the guerilla Bougainville Revolutionary Army known as the Me’ekamui movement remained opposed to the process. It judged that with its opposition the Burnham peace process would fail and that by refusing to participate it would gain public support. However, the success of the agreement rendered this a strategic miscalculation, and marginalized that group’s subsequent influence on political life in Bougainville.


Successful transformation of armed groups into political parties

The successful transformation of the FARC from an armed group to a political party will greatly depend on the organization’s experience of the 2018 elections. A positive experience could help convince a former armed group that non-violent political competition is a viable strategy. In the case of El Salvador, for example, the Chapultepec agreement guaranteed the shifting of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) from a guerrilla to a political party. In 1994, the UN-sponsored national elections were perceived as free and fair, and in an important historical precedent for El Salvador, they included the left-wing FMLN. Currently, the FMLN is one of the two major political parties in the country and the armed conflict in El Salvador has not recurred for more than two decades since the end of the war.

Despite historic progress towards reaching a final agreement, the Havana peace process may be entering its most difficult phase. Many peace agreements fail to deliver on their promised reforms, as setbacks or a lack of progress on implementation undermines the commitment and investment of the conflict parties, the public, or both. Both the FARC and the Santos Government will require the support and assistance of the Colombian population in order to see the program of implementation through. Finally, there are also other potential challenges that need to be addressed concerning ceasefire monitoring, disarmament of the FARC, dealing with transitional justice issues, as well as, most significantly, violent confrontations over the drug cultivation and trafficking networks currently led by the FARC.

Written by Thania Paffenholz, Estefania Charvet, Nicholas Ross, Inclusive Peace and Transition Initiative, Geneva