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  • A man celebrates the signing of a cease-fire deal between the Colombian government and FARC. The sign reads

    A man celebrates the signing of a cease-fire deal between the Colombian government and FARC. The sign reads "RIP the War in Colombia 1964 - 2016." | Photo: Reuters

Published 24 August 2016
The war may be over, but there can be no peace without economic justice and land reform.

There is much cause for rejoicing as the Colombian government and the left-wing FARC guerrillas agreed to a comprehensive peace accord to end the civil war which has raged in that country for over 50 years.

Peace in Colombia

This war has been incredibly destructive, creating over 7 million victims, according to Amnesty International, “including almost 6.6 million victims of forced displacement, more than 45,000 enforced disappearances and around 263,000 conflict-related killings; the vast majority of victims were civilians.” Any prospect for ending such massive suffering has to be welcome and supported by the international community.

Among the chief points agreed to by the parties is an elaborate and innovative transitional justice plan. As London’s Guardian newspaper explained:

"The main document, entitled Special Jurisdiction for Peace, states its aims as to: 'satisfy the victims’ right to justice; obtain truth for Colombian society; contribute to the reparation of the victims; contribute to the fight against impunity; and grant legal security to those who directly or indirectly participated in the armed conflict.'"

The parties have also agreed to release all child soldiers, the recruitment of which has been roundly condemned by human rights organizations over the years.

Colombia's War and Peace Through the Eyes of a Dutch FARC Rebel

An integral part of this transitional justice plan is to guarantee the right of FARC soldiers to be integrated back into Colombian society and to participate in the political process in lieu of continuing the armed struggle. This will be a critical challenge as demonstrated by prior Colombian peace arrangements. Thus, in the 1980s, the FARC agreed to lay down its arms in return for entering the political process in the form of the Patriotic Union Party, known as UP. The result was that at least 3,000 UP members, including two presidential candidates were murdered by right-wing paramilitaries and the Colombian State, thus leading the FARC to take up arms again.

And, the recent surge in the murder of Colombian leftist activists is fueling concerns that this very type of political repression against former combatants will happen again.

This brings us to the chief task at hand for guaranteeing a lasting peace in Colombia—curbing the right-wing paramilitaries who continue to carry out massive crimes against opposition political figures, human rights advocates, trade unionists and civilian populations who live in areas covetted for resource extraction.

As the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, IACHR, has recently explained, the paramilitaries were responsible for 72 percent of the attacks recorded in the first half of 2015. Meanwhile, the Colombian state, along with its U.S. sponsor, insist that the paramilitaries (also known as Autodefensas) no longer exist as a result of a demobilization (largely faked) back in 2003-2006. And, it is this very denial, the IACHR points out, which allows the paramilitaries to carry out their reign of terror with near complete impunity.

And, it is the country’s Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities which are suffering the brunt of this paramilitary violence. As the IACHR explains, these communities are largely “invisible” in Colombian society, “are victims of racial discrimination and disproportionately affected by violence, forced displacement, poverty and social exclusion.” In addition, “the majority of victims of sexual violence in armed conflict are Afro-descendant and Indigenous women.”

Colombia: The Possibilities Opened by the Peace Agreement

As the IACHR points out, large-scale megaprojects—many of them mining projects owned by North American corporations—“have led to the appropriation of Afro-Colombians’ collective territories, and have resulted in “brutal forced displacements, massive violence and selective assassinations.” Meanwhile, the land reform initiated by Colombian President Manuel Santos with the purpose of returning the ancestral lands back to Afro-Colombians and Indigenous has been a failure, with only around 1 percent of the stolen land actually returned to these communities.

All of this underscores the challenges which must be surmounted to guarantee lasting peace with justice in Colombia, even after the final deal is officially signed in September and approved by plebiscite in early October, as expected.

In addition to acknowledging the continuing existence of the paramilitaries and taking affirmative steps to combat and disarm them, Colombia must also engage in true land reform and social redistribution which takes into account the interests of the most needy in Colombian society—namely, Afro-Colombians and Indigenous.

It is for this reason that many have been demanding that Afro-Colombians and Indigenous be given a seat at the peace talks. While there has been some progress on this score, at the time of the writing, the Colombian government is blocking the inclusion of their proposals in the final peace agreement.

We see from countries which have attempted similar peace processes to end internal armed conflict that there can be no true peace unless the inequalities in land and resources which motivated the poor to take arms to begin with are properly addressed. Notable examples are Guatemala and El Salvador which currently suffer from rates of violence rivaling those which prevailed during wartime. Similarly, in South Africa where Nelson Mandela made an explicit deal with the apartheid government to give up the ANC’s long-time aims of social redistribution in return for political power, the society is suffering from high levels of poverty and incredible rates of violent crime.

In short, as the adage goes, there can be no peace without justice. More specifically, there can be no peace without economic justice, and there can be no economic justice in Colombia without land reform and without the eradication of the paramilitaries who are making such land reform impossible.

The international community, and particularly the U.S. which has aggressively defended the interests of Colombia’s elite for over 100 years and which helped create the paramilitaries which continue to haunt Colombia, must give substantial assistance and material support to Colombia to guarantee that a peace with such economic justice is a reality.

Daniel Kovalik teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

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