Colombians have received word of a new peace process with the guerrillas with a mixture of hope and skepticism. This is equally true for foreigners like me, who had the privilege as a Canadian diplomat to witness the unsuccessful peace process of 1998 to 2002 and to come to know government and insurgent negotiators.
We hope, because most of us believe that only negotiation can bring a definitive end to an armed conflict that has caused so much suffering for more than 50 years. We are skeptical, because we have been disappointed before. Might the guerrillas once again use peace talks just to regroup, the better to attack later?
The reality is that Colombia is on the verge of a new peace process because the country has in large part been pacified already. Conflict tragically continues, but no longer dominates the daily life of the vast majority of Colombians as it did in the late 1990s and at the turn of the millenium. Despite a lingering international reputation, violence is ironically now lower in Colombia than in neighbouring Venezuela, a country technically at peace, yet much more dangerous for its citizens, in particular the urban poor.
Colombia has reached a new and more positive phase in its history thanks to great effort to extend state authority over previously lawless regions. Air mobility, intelligence and citizenry support for the state have taken the initiative away from illegal armed groups who grew in strength in the 90s thanks to the riches of cocaine trafficking, kidnapping and extortion. Guerrillas who a decade ago attacked army bases in groups of hundreds are on the run, reduced to planting improvised explosive devices and using snipers. They can no longer kidnap strategic and economically lucrative targets, leaving their finances and morale in tatters.
Events far from Colombia also play a major role in the reduction of conflict. The growth of China has created a resource boom that has helped improve life for Colombia’s poor, making armed conflict more anachronistic.
The Colombian state now has the upper hand, which is why the guerrillas are interested in peace. The government needs to take advantage of this initiative, but not risk it. Backing off militarily during negotiations is unfortunately not an option, as doing so would increase the risk of a new resurgence of violence.
What can be negotiated? I would argue with a heavy heart that a great deal of flexibility must to be shown on the question of justice. Though guerrilla leaders deserve jail, and their victims deserve to see them there, I think it ultimately better to engage in a process of transitional justice that allows radically reduced sentences in exchange for an end to hostilities. Remembering the guerrilla’s crimes is salutary, but seeking appropriate sentences would unfortunately prolong the conflict and lead to greater suffering. The recent demobilization of paramilitary or self-defence groups was far from perfect but led to radically reduced levels of violence. It is unlikely that guerrilla leaders will pay a similar legal price to that paid by paramilitary leaders. They are unlikely to negotiate their way straight into a jail cell.
What role can Canada play? I would argue that we should be strongly supportive of the efforts of the Colombian government. President Santos will undoubtedly face considerable internal opposition to negotiating with terrorists. Support from outsiders can modestly help. President Santos has initiated processes that help victims of conflict get on with their lives after receiving compensation that is insufficient but at least recognizes their suffering. Canada can and should support these efforts, which are an important part of the search for peace. We also should continue to seek opportunities to invest in Colombia’s resource industries and the improvement of its infrastructure. Improving opportunities for Colombia’s poor to join the middle classes is the greatest contribution we can make to breaking the cycle of conflict.