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The FARC – Columbia truce :- Is it a Big Deal?

And the Nobel Peace Prize for the year 2016 goes to …… His Excellency Juan Manuel Santos, the President of Columbia! The prize is awarded “for his resolute efforts to bring the country’s more than 50-year-long civil war to an end”.

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For all its excellent travel opportunities, then is no denying that Colombia is a country with a turbulent past. The violent conflict which has blighted the country over the past five decades has undoubtedly left its mark on the culture and outlook of its inhabitants. Understanding something about the country’s history will not only help us gain a valuable insight into the local mindset, it also enables us to appreciate how far the country has come from the depths of its conflict two decades ago. The country’s political history is complex, with different actors rising and falling, and alliances forming and breaking, over the years. Here is a guide to understanding all these twists and turns over the past decades:

Before we dwell into the discussion of the FARC-Columbia Peace Deal, we need to understand what this 50 year-long civil war is all about. A history of poverty, inequality, insecurity and a lack of state presence, especially in rural areas, feature highly among the long-term causes of the country’s problems with violence. However the most important factor for the emergence of the Columbian conflict began a long time ago in the mid-1960s , when the United States installed a puppet government in Columbia, in order to crush the popular communist movement in Columbian villages. The crushing of the movement essentially triggered the reorganisation of liberal and communist militants into the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC). The FARC soon clashed with the Columbian Armed Forces, triggering the infamous 50-year-old civil war.

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This long drawn out conflict has been highly messy and confusing, with over 1,200 different groups fighting on more than 250 different fronts and cities. Contrary to popular belief, the FARC is not a single rebel organisation, but a loose union of about 125 different militant groups, often having conflicting interests. The conflict has been declared as an ” International migraine” by the UN Secretary General, Ban ki- Moon. In the past, reconciliation with the FARC and its diverse regional groups seemed impossible. Meanwhile violence raged on, with property loss amounting to over $35 billion. One particularly significant incident in the Civil War is the Medellin crisis involving Pablo Escobar, a highly influential drug dealer.

One of the key figures in the cocaine trade from the late 1970s was Pablo Escobar. Together with several associates, Escobar formed the infamous Medellin Cartel which, at its height, was estimated to be making around USD 60m a day from cocaine exports to the United States. Escobar, who aspired to be accepted by the country’s political class, spent large sums on public works for the poor and campaigned for a congressional seat, which he won in the early 1980s. However, his election brought him into the spotlight and eventually encouraged Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla to initiate an investigation into the source of his wealth. After investigators conclusively confirmed Escobar’s involvement in illicit activities, the drug boss lost his congressional seat and was permanently ejected from Colombia’s political establishment.

Seeking revenge for this humiliation, Escobar ordered Minister Lara assassinated. The brazen killing of a serving government minister prompted the first serious state clampdown on the Medellin Cartel. Escobar declared himself to be at war with the state and in the space of less than three months in 1989 his associates staged over 100 bomb attacks on government buildings and public spaces in Colombia. He ordered the assassination of Luis Carlos Galán, a popular and charismatic presidential candidate, and subsequently tried to kill his successor Cesar Gaviria by bombing a public airliner. This terrible attack killed 107 civilians. These and countless other incidents of terrorist violence were all designed to force the state to end extradition to the US for anyone arrested on drugs offences.

Then came the incumbency of Juan Manuel Santos in 2010 as the President of Columbia.Santos surprised many by adopting a different approach to the country’s political challenges. Though he has continued to apply military pressure to insurgents, his principal priority has been to achieve a negotiated solution to the armed conflict. Despite some hiccups, the current round of peace talks with the FARC were the most hopeful of the past five decades. The FARC which was tired after decades of turmoil and violence readily agreed. The negotiations started in 2012, and it took nearly 4 years for both the parties to arrive at a mutual understanding to end the conflict.

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The talks went beyond historic trends of granting blanket amnesty to rebels and confining participants to only the government and guerrilla forces. And though some moves are deemed controversial the process has created a new road map for achieving peace. Experts consider the Columbian-FARC deal to me a gold standard because this deal is the first one in the world, to include a formal role for victims of the conflict in the process itself, with individuals who suffered at the hands of different armed groups meeting directly with negotiators. The inclusion of victims in the negotiations transformed the peace process itself and created a deeper commitment on the part of the negotiators to strike a deal.

One of the most challenging tasks to strike the deal was to make sure that the rebels did not end up in prison, while ensuring at the same time that the rebels are persecuted appropriately. Thus the negotiators had to come up with a creative approach to solve this issue. Under the agreement, members of the FARC who committed and confess to war crimes – including kidnapping, recruitment of minors, and indiscriminate attacks on civilians – will be sentenced to up to eight years of “effective restriction of movement.” What that means exactly will be left up to a special tribunal to decide, but could include community service.

Even though experts say that this is the best deal that could be struck under the circumstances, Not everyone is pleased with the solution, even if the terms of the punishments appear to adhere to ICC obligations. Human Rights Watch said the decision fails to fulfill the rights of victims. “As it stands, the victims’ agreement ensures that those most responsible for … atrocities will escape genuine justice by allowing people who confess their crimes to avoid any remotely serious form of punishment,” the organization said in a statement this week.

So all in all, the FARC-Columbia Peace Deal is the best deal which could be adopted in light of the present circumstances.  No doubt, there will be plenty of problems in implementing the agreement, but the signing of the peace deal would be hugely positive development for the prospects of permanent peace in Columbia.

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Note:- All the opinions stated in the above article are the author’s own.

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