Bogota, Colombia – Representatives from the UN Security Council will visit Colombia this week to check on the implementation of the landmark 2016 peace agreement that brought an end to the world’s longest-running armed conflict.
Designed to target the structural causes of perpetual rural conflict, the agreement laid out ambitious agrarian reforms to bring vast areas of isolated countryside out of the drug trade and into the fold of the Colombian state and economy. It also promised assisted integration into civilian life for more than 13,000 former fighters of the country’s largest armed group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a signatory to the deal.
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But the fulfilment of those commitments, which has spanned a hand-off of presidential leadership, has sputtered and stalled due, in part, to a lack of government capacity and political will to institute such a sweeping transformation in this long-troubled nation.
“There are many programmes that were simply never implemented,” said Naryi Vargas, a researcher with the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, a Colombian think-tank.
“It’s a discouraging situation,” Vargas told Al Jazeera.
Duque and the peace deal
For Colombian President Ivan Duque, the UN visit puts at stake his image abroad as committed to the peace process, which was championed by his predecessor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, President Juan Manuel Santos, and has drawn more than $1bn in international support.
“The president has been clear that we are going to fulfil the accords,” said Emilio Jose Archila, an adviser and spokesperson for the President Duque.
“We are confident that (the UN Security Council) will arrive at the conclusion that we are doing it,” Archila told Al Jazeera.
Although popular abroad, the deal is a contentious political issue in Colombia, where it was initially rejected in a 2016 public referendum over resentment of an amnesty for rebel fighters and aid for farmers of coca, the base ingredient of cocaine. The deal was revised and signed by the government and FARC in November 2016.
Duque won the presidency last year as a leading critic of the agreement and has domestically held a tough-on-crime posture towards the coca growers and former fighters. But outside of Colombia, he’s struck a softer tone, affirming his support for the peace process.
“He must be worried about how his implementation is being portrayed in the international community, which tends to be very pro-peace accords,” said Adam Isacson, a longtime Colombia researcher with the Washington Office on Latin America. “I think he wants to reassure the Security Council.”
The UN delegation of representatives from 15 nations will make a four-day visit to Colombia, beginning on Thursday. It is the group’s second checkup visit on the implementation of the peace deal.
“The peace agreement provides Colombia with a unique opportunity to overcome a deeply entrenched legacy of conflict,” wrote UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a Security Council report on the Colombian peace published last month. “However, the overall picture remains mixed, and once again I deeply regret the continuing atmosphere of polarisation over elements of the agreement.”
There have been some successes, namely ending the bloody conflict with the FARC and bringing thousands of fighters out of the jungle and into transitional camps. A special justice system has been set up to judge those who turned over arms and the FARC has formed a political party. Rates of kidnapping and displacement are a fraction of what they were 20 years ago, and Colombia’s murder rate is near an historic low, less than 40 percent of what it was at its peak in 2002.
But there are worrying trends. After years of decline, the murder rate ticked slightly upwards in 2018. Colombian newspaper El Tiempo reported this month that instances of shootouts with the Colombian military in the first six months of 2019 hit a five-year high, one-third of them with dissident FARC groups who have returned to combat.
About 120 former FARC fighters and between 460 and 700 social leaders, mostly in rural communities, have been murdered since the agreement, according to the newspaper El Espectador.
Cocaine production in Colombia hit a record high in 2017.
According to analysts, the agreement’s biggest failure has been its largest and most ambitious objective: rural reform, which was supposed to fundamentally shift the dynamics that fostered violence in the Colombian countryside. The government was going to build roads out to isolated communities, offer them educational opportunities and provide legal titles to their informally owned land. It promised material and technical assistance to farmers who relied on the coca trade so they could build legal livelihoods in farming and ranching.
“Sadly, they haven’t even begun to implement that part, even since the last government. It was a failure from the start,” said Sandra Borda, a professor of political science at Los Andes University in Bogota. “It’s revealed the enormous weakness of the state to confront these challenges in the rural zone.”
Other armed groups have moved into to territories vacated by the FARC, claiming large profits from the booming cocaine trade.
Now Duque, under pressure from the US to curb cocaine output, is pushing for a return of hardline drug war policies such as aerial herbicide spraying over small farmers’ fields. That proposal signals to affected communities that the government means to move away from the cooperative manner outlined in the agreement towards the more confrontational approach of years past.
The FARC has also stumbled in the process. It didn’t live up to promises of reparations for victims and one of its leaders – an appointed member of congress – was implicated in cocaine smuggling after the peace deal and subsequently fled the country to avoid arrest.
The UN delegation is expected to comment early next week on its findings in Colombia, though analysts expect to find the country’s progress rather than its shortcomings highlighted.
“The strategy of the international community, the Europeans more than anything, is not to confront this government but to be more proactive, not to polarise,” said Borda. “They want to help and encourage them.”