There has been an armed conflict in Colombia for over 50 years between the Colombian State and left-wing guerrilla groups, the larger FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the smaller ELN (National Liberation Army). The conflict has not been confined to the battlefield; hundreds of thousands of civilian lives have been lost as a result of the conflict, and millions more have been devastated. Whilst previous attempts have been made at peace talks, for the last 10 years the Colombian State has pursued a wholly militaristic approach, with previous President Uribe claiming that he would defeat the FARC in 6 months back in 2002.
Trade unions, human rights groups and the political opposition have for many years been campaigning for a peace process which resolves the root causes of the conflict. They say that inequality and a lack of democracy lie at the heart of the conflict. The vast majority of land is concentrated in the hands of few, and according to a recent survey, Colombia ranks as having the 3rd highest inequality in the world, and being the most unequal country in Latin America. The humanitarian cost of the war has been devastating - with an estimated 5 million people internally displaced, 50,000 people forcibly disappeared, thousands of trade union and political activists assassinated and imprisoned, and rural villages constantly caught in the middle of conflict.
Finally after Colombian peace activists worked for several years helping to create the conditions for a possible peace process; peace negotiations began between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas in Havana, Cuba, in November 2012. The agenda of the talks covers the following six points: 1) land and rural development; 2) political participation and guarantees for the political opposition; 3)an end to the violence; 4) resolving the problem of drugs; 5)victims and human rights; and 6)implementation.
Justice for Colombia (JFC) is wholeheartedly supporting the peace talks. A new opposition movement grouping trade unions, peasants, indigenous organisations and many others called the Patriotic March has been building support from civil society for the talks, and is mobilising hundreds of thousands of people. But although hugely positive, Colombian civil society organisations have several demands for which we are building support in the UK and Ireland:
- Civil society want to be more included in the process, in order to ensure that it is not just be about ending the armed confrontation but addressing the social justice issues at its core.
- Another key issue is that whilst talks are ongoing, threats against the Patriotic March and other peace and opposition activists have increased. The Colombian Minister of Defence publicly accused the Patriotic March of being funded by the FARC - a dangerous allegation that endangers their lives. They are demanding that the Colombian government guarantee the safety of activists and create a climate of tolerance and democracy.
- Finally, civil society is calling for a ceasefire to be agreed between the parties to the conflict. Whilst the talks are ongoing in Havana, war continues all over Colombia. The lack of a ceasefire not only poses a risk to the talks, abut also means that the humanitarian tragedy continues with soldiers, guerrillas and civilians dying and being injured.
Justice for Colombia is working closely with Colombian civil society in order to build international support for the peace process and give it the spotlight it deserves. As one of the only countries in the world to be providing Colombia with military assistance, the UK has a special responsibility in contributing to the peace effort in Colombia instead of war.
The UK also has an especially relevant role to play, as one of the partners in the internationally respected Good Friday Agreement that ended the conflict in Northern Ireland. JFC has been working hard with partners in Belfast and Dublin to share the fruits of their experience of making peace with all sides of the conflict in Colombia. Last year JFC brought a delegation from Colombians for Peace to London, Belfast and Dublin. In April 2013, JFC hosted a delegation of Patriotic March leaders to the three cities in order to broaden support for civil society and the peace process.
In November 2012 JFC took a cross party delegation of Northern Irish politicians and representatives of civil society to Colombia, who represent every sector of Northern Irish politics and former participants in the Northern Irish peace process. The delegation had a major impact in Colombia, with packed press conferences and well attended meetings. You can read the delegation statement on their time in Colombia here.
The delegation met President Santos and his negotiating team. In May/June of this year, JFC then took a similar cross-party group to Cuba to meet the FARC negotiators, highlighting the importance of treating the parties as equal partners.
Dear Foreign Secretary,
I am writing to express my support for the Colombian peace talks currently underway in Cuba between the Colombian government and representatives of the FARC-EP guerrillas, and to ask for your support for Colombian civil society’s role in the process.
These talks are an enormously positive step towards resolving Colombia’s decades-old civil conflict which has caused the people of Colombia such immense suffering. Colombian civil society organisations such as Colombians for Peace were vital in creating the conditions for peace, and they and others like the mass movement, the Patriotic March are mobilising hundreds of thousands of people to support the talks.
Colombian civil society organisations have indicated several points that need to be addressed to give the talks the best chance of success -- a bilateral ceasefire, the provision of effective guarantees for the political opposition, the involvement of civil society and for the process to tackle the social, political and economic root causes of the conflict. The Patriotic March has already faced several death threats and false accusations and I hope the UK government will speak out in their favour and demand their safety, as well as publicly express its support, not just for the peace process as a whole, but also for the participation of civil society based on the points outlined above.