Challenges for Sustainable Peace in Colombia

20 June 2024

Colombia has been the scene of protracted internal armed conflicts involving the government, guerrillas, paramilitaries, and other illegal armed and criminal groups. Peace negotiations, such as the historic Peace Accord with the FARC in 2016, have attempted to bring an end to decades of violence. However, numerous challenges and problems persist in the peace process, especially with illegal armed groups such as the ELN and EMC, and illegal criminal groups such as the Clan del Golfo. Armed groups are increasing in numbers – in 2023, the ELN, two FARC dissident factions and the Clan de Golfo had a total of 16,770 members between them. This signifies an increase of approximately 11% in foot soldiers compared to 2022. In 2023, the UN Office verified: 98 massacres, in which 320 people were killed; 53 cases of gender-based violence, including sexual violence; and 134 cases of recruitment or use of children by non-state armed actors.

The struggle for control of illicit economies and territory between the illegal armed groups continues to intensify. Whilst the Colombian Government has established unilateral ceasefires with some of the groups, there is no such agreement between the groups. Therefore, armed skirmishes between them result in the civilian population being caught in the middle – suffering displacements, confinements and massacres.

Once an armed group has control of a territory, the number of recorded impacts of this nature on the civilian population reduce. However, this does not mean that there is a peaceful situation in these communities, rather that the control of one illegal armed group has been consolidated. The illegal armed group in control are forcing communities to remain and not displace, controlling their movements, imposing their own rules and regulations and trying to win over communities. This is particularly true in the case of the Clan del Golfo, who are seeking to supplant the state and to be seen as a political group and, as a result, are building roads, bridges, and even electrifying some communities, organising the community, resolving disputes and forcing local authorities such as the Consejos Comunitarios, Indigenous Authorities, and Juntas de Accion Comunal (JACs) to carry out the illegal armed groups orders, undermining their legitimate authority. The group also insists on silence about the situation in the rural regions, prohibiting denouncements and prohibiting the entrance of local CSOs and the Church with humanitarian aid.

Total Peace policy

Total Peace is a multifaceted effort that seeks to minimise violence, protect civilians and dismantle the many armed groups operating in Colombia. This ambitious plan seeks to implement the commitments made in the 2016 Peace Accord with the FARC, and is based on the concept that human security comes about by guaranteeing the right to life, Colombians’ socio-economic well-being and protecting the natural environment.

Negotiations with ELN

Despite several attempts at negotiation, negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN) have been intermittent and have faced multiple obstacles. The ELN has a presence in at least 10 departments and remains a significant threat to peace.

In the most recent round of talks in Caracas in May 2024, an agreement was signed on the first point of the Mexico Agreement regarding the participation of society in peace-building and the formation of the Comite Nacional de Participación (CNP). This Comite is broad-based and inclusive. This is an important step forward, as talks with the ELN have not previously come this far.

Estado Mayor Central (EMC)

The government negotiated a ceasefire with the Estado Mayor Central (EMC), only to suspend this on 20 March 2024 in a decree signed by the Defence Minister that called for “re-starting of military operations” in the provinces of Nariño, Cauca and Valle del Cauca, where it said the EMC had broken the terms of the ceasefire. The EMC fronts in these departments had shown little commitment to peace. Negotiations are continuing now with a fraction of the EMC’s four national blocs made up of 24 fronts. The EMC has significant armed power that allows it to maintain control in different regions. Its criminal portfolio is mainly based on drug trafficking revenues, illegal mining, and extortion.

Segunda Marquetelia

The first cycle of negotiations will take place between 25 and 29 June 2024 to agree the specific topics and the negotiation protocols. The chief negotiator, Armando Novoa announced the desire to conclude these talks before the end of the Petro Government’s term of office. The talks will not include a ceasefire, because the Segunda Marquetalia promised upon its founding not to attack the armed forces or kidnap civilians. The peace process with the Segunda Marquetalia faces legal hurdles because its leaders have returned to the conflict after having signed the 2016 Peace Accord. This potentially makes them eligible to only surrender. But Novoa said he was sure a solution that respects the law is possible.

Criminal Groups

The government has also been pursuing the idea of engaging with other high-impact criminal armed groups, such as the Clan del Golfo. But, as yet, it lacks a legal framework. Nevertheless, this well-armed illegal group is expanding its control and the intensity of its armed combats.

Implementation of the 2016 Peace Accord

The 2016 Peace Accord is a roadmap to address the structural causes of the conflict and ensure non-repetition. It is therefore essential to ensure that the 2016 Peace Accord is fully implemented. The initial years following the signing of the Peace Accord were crucial to ensuring its implementation and consolidating people’s confidence in the peace process. However, four years of the Duque government were marked by a political context hostile to the Peace Accord, resulting in little implementation and a resurgence of conflict. A coordinated approach to ensuring an integrated implementation of the Peace Accord is therefore required. A report by the UN Verification Mission in Colombia in 2023 stated that only 30% of the agreements have been completely fulfilled.

One of President Petro’s declared objectives is to fully implement the 2016 Peace Accord. In March 2023 he announced that his government would establish an office in the Presidency dedicated to advancing implementation of the 2016 Accord. This would raise the profile of the Implementation Unit under the direction of Gloria Cuartas and provide the essential coordination across departments, supporting the leverage of resources to implement in an integrated manner the 2016 Peace Accord. To date this post has not been established.

  • Challenges: Lack of funding, political resistance, and lack of infrastructure in rural regions.
  • Recommendation: establish an office in the Presidency dedicated to advancing implementation of the 2016 Accord

Human Rights Defenders

In 2023, the UN OHCHR verified105 killings of human rights defenders. This is immensely concerning. The government’s policy to dismantle criminal groups and their support networks is a step forward but it will be key to ensure its implementation. The development of the Women Peace and Security National Action plan and the humane security policy are all key in terms of their implementation if levels of violence in the rural areas are to be tackled.

The expansion of illegal armed groups, and their clear intention to dominate territories and populations and control illicit economies, is seriously concerning and puts community leaders at risk of expulsion from the territory or being killed.

Women and Violence

Women’s organisations worked tirelessly to ensure no amnesties for conflict related sexual violence (CRSV) in the 2016 Peace Accord between the government and the FARC. CRSV is an extremely devastating form of violence with lasting and harmful effects. It continues to be used as a tactic of war in Colombia, adversely and profoundly affecting victims’ and survivors’ physical, sexual, reproductive, and mental health. It also destroys the social fabric of society.

The Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), created as a result of the 2016 Peace Accord, has identified at least 35,178 victims of sexual, reproductive and other gender-based violences between 1957-2016. Despite the revictimization and re-traumatisation that may be faced for speaking up about their experiences during the conflict, there are many survivors in Colombia that have courageously dedicated their lives to bringing the issue of CRSV to national and international attention.

In order to effectively eliminate CRSV, patriarchal norms and misogynistic attitudes must be changed. To achieve this, it is critical to tackle impunity so that perpetrators are dissuaded from committing acts of CRSV. Without this dissuasion, a culture of impunity serves to embolden the authors of violence, further fuel violations and creates a permissive environment for others to perpetrate these acts.

The opening of Macrocaso 11 by the JEP in September 2023 was a major step forward for tackling Colombia’s culture of impunity. This national case seeks to investigate crimes of “gender-based violence, sexual violence, reproductive violence, and other crimes committed because of prejudice based on sexual orientation, diverse gender expression and/or gender identity in the …Colombian conflict”. This case also recognises the intersectional violence that the LGBTQI+ community faces, acknowledging that 17% of cases being investigated were committed based on the victim’s sexual orientation, identity or gender expression and with the motivation to silence, eliminate or expel LGBTQI+ victims.

There is considerable evidence that gender equality promotes peace, and that tackling impunity serves to change attitudes facilitating greater equality. For peace to be sustainable in Colombia it is therefore essential that policies promote equal rights for women, girls and LGBTQI+ persons, including equal access to decision making arenas. Gender equality is the number one predictor of peace and the Women Peace and Security agenda offers transformative solutions and a new and different perspective to militarised masculinity, inequality and entitlement.

Business and Human Rights

The Colombian conflict has seen multinational companies (MNCs) involved in complex ways, as exemplified by the recent decision in the case of Chiquita Brands.

MNCs today are using international mechanisms that allow them to sue the government for policy changes that seek to address human and environmental rights, as well as for decisions by the Constitutional Court upholding fundamental rights. Upholding rights is essential if Colombia is to achieve sustainable peace. 

British registered MNC Glencore has initiated three ICSID arbitration proceedings against Colombia.[1] The most recent case arises out of the Colombian Constitutional Court’s suspension of the development of the northern portion of La Puente, at the Cerrejón open pit coal mine, in order to protect the fundamental rights of the Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities living close to the mine. The Court was concerned about the impact of the creek’s rerouting on the water supply for these communities. Wayuu Indigenous and Afro-Colombian Communities are calling on Glencore to withdraw this case.

Globally, the ISDS system has seen at least US$114bn of public money awarded to corporations, with fossil fuel corporations being the biggest beneficiary. The amount paid out in awards to MNC is similar to that paid by rich nations in climate aid in 2022.

Colombia, a country rich in biodiversity, has been particularly impacted by ISDS claims, with 23 listed between 2016 and 2023. These are claims for millions of pounds, related mainly to policies enacted to address climate concerns and human rights. Colombia is also a key partner of the UK on climate issues.

  • ABColombia is calling on the UK to bilaterally terminate the Colombia-UK Bilateral Investment Treaty and neutralise the Sunset Clause, which can be done after October 2024 when it reaches its 10 year point.

[1] Glencore is using the Colombia-Switzerland BIT not the Colombia UK BIT for these cases.