The cost of backtracking: delays in Colombia’s peace process risk a return to violence

In November 2016 a revised peace agreement was signed between the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia–Army of the People (FARC-EP). The deal was considered a big win by many, bringing an end to a conflict which spanned over five decades and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

This celebration has been considered both “justified and premature.” In the following years parts of Colombia have enjoyed a somewhat fragile peace, but recent developments have raised concerns that this peace could shatter altogether.

Government foot-dragging

Particularly concerning is the current government’s approach to the 2016 agreement. Since his election in June 2018, the President Iván Duque Márquez-led administration has consistently slowed down the process of implementation.

In March 2019, President Duque voted against legislation establishing Colombia’s transitional justice system, known as the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which was created to investigate human rights violations and war crimes perpetrated during Colombia’s long conflict. Duque proposed several changes which affect several of the provisions of the original agreement, including an amendment which enables harsher sentences for war crimes to be passed down than those initially agreed under the peace agreement. This risks deterring perpetrators of violence from participating in the JEP at all.

This was not the first time that the government has made changes that risk undermining the 2016 agreement. In June 2018 Congress approved the rules of procedure for the JEP, including an amendment that created an option for members of the security forces such as the military and the police to have their cases put on hold until special chambers, known as salas especiales, are established to deal with their cases. This directly contradicts the 2016 promise that all actors would be judged under equal conditions.

The fact that the government has been able to slow the implementation of the peace agreement may be in part a result of a lack of popular support for the deal among the Colombian public. The agreement was rejected by the Colombian population, who unexpectedly voted against it by a narrow majority of 50.24%. Even after Congress approved the peace deal, many Colombians have remained distrustful of it, as they feel the agreement was too lenient on the FARC-EP.

That being said, many Colombians still want peace. Following Duque’s move to veto parts of the JEP legislation, thousands took to the streets of Bogotá with the message “Give peace a chance.” It is also interesting to note that statistics revealed opposition to the peace agreement was strongest in urban areas, where people were less directly affected by the conflict, whereas support for the agreement was overwhelming in more heavily impacted zones, including those in which churches and pastors were directly targeted by the FARC.

How Colombia voted on the peace agreement by department

Source:  Registraduría Nacional del Estado Civil, Map provided by (

A return to violence

Consistent delays to the implementation of the agreement are already having highly concerning effects in Colombia. In May 2019 The New York Times reported that top military officials in the country had signed a written agreement to drastically increase the number of criminals and members of militias that they kill, capture or force to surrender.

This has worrying echoes of a similar strategy employed by the military in the mid-2000s, which resulted in the widespread murder of innocent civilians as soldiers attempted to meet their quotas.

On 24 May President Duque announced the creation of a commission to scrutinise army orders and operations in an effort to ensure that the military shows full respect to international human rights laws and norms, but his administration must do much more if it wants to avoid a return to the days of bloody civil war.

There is also a genuine concern that some ex-members of the FARC-EP may take up arms once again if they believe that the government is not fulfilling its side of the agreement. If this were to take place it would be disastrous for Colombia, as the FARC-EP were directly responsible for hundreds of attacks and tens of thousands of deaths during the country’s almost 50 year-long conflict.

Of course, the FARC-EP were just one of many groups involved in Colombia’s 52 year conflict; numerous other far-left and far-right illegal armed groups took part in the violence, including the National Liberation Army (ELN), who killed tens of thousands of people in the violence. Once again, the government’s failure to abide by its commitments to the peace agreement with FARC-EP could discourage other illegal armed groups, such as the ELN, from pursuing their own agreements.

The ELN began participating in a peace dialogue with the government in February 2017 but negotiations have stalled on several occasions. The government suspended talks following a series of bombings attributed to the ELN in January 2018. Talks were eventually re-launched, but President Duque suspended them once more in September 2018, one month after his inauguration. Duque cited the ELN’s continued involvement in kidnappings and refusal to release hostages as reasons for this.

For some, the violence has never stopped. According to Frontline Defenders, violence against human rights defenders (HRDs) actually increased after the signing of the peace agreement, with 121 HRDs reported killed in 2017, compared to 80 in 2016.

Religious leaders are also regularly targeted with threats and violence, such as Pastor Leida Molina, who was shot and killed at his church in Antioquia by members of an armed group in February 2019. According to the 2018 US State Department report on Colombia published last month, numerous religious groups have conducted programs focused on peace and reconciliation, but the continued violence and hostility leaders of such initiatives have faced demonstrates the need for the government to do much more to uphold peace in the country.

Colombia is in a difficult position; how can the country achieve a peace which satisfies all parties to the conflict, while also ensuring that justice has been served in the eyes of its citizens and especially for victims?

By Ellis Heasley, CSW’s Public Affairs Officer