The road to peace is long and complex

The Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia ratified in Cartagena the Agreement for building a stable and lasting peace.  It is an historic moment, fundamental to ending one part of an internal armed conflict which has lasted more than half a century and left over eight million victims in its wake,[1] most of them civilians.[2]  It is a step towards attaining a less violent society, more respect for human rights, and hopefully, more justice. The Government and the FARC have committed to “breaking any kind of nexus between politics and the use of arms” from now on.[3]

If the Colombian people vote “Yes” in the referendum on 2 October, the FARC’s units and fronts will start to concentrate and disarm, in places nominated as Transition and Normalisation Zones and Points where they will give up their arms gradually over the next six months.


More than 600 political party committees and social movement campaigns at national, departmental, municipal and local levels have registered[4] in the months leading up to the vote, to promote the “Yes” or “No” answer to the question “Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace?”. [5] In the meantime, many human rights, social and victims’ organisations developed ‘peace education campaigns’ to explain the content of the agreements in rural and remote areas of the country, in schools and low income neighbourhoods.

The most important stage starts now

PBI works around the world to open spaces for peace and stand up to conflict without the use violence, and for human rights defenders to have a fundamental and indispensable role in transforming societies immersed in violent conflict into societies at peace and with social justice. The final agreement being ratified in Colombia was negotiated by the Government and FARC in four years of dialogues, but above all, it was the product of the struggle and decades of work by human rights organisations, victims and Colombian social movements. Civil society put together numerous proposals for change and many of them are reflected in the final agreement. PBI is proud to have accompanied them on this long, difficult and dangerous enterprise, which cost so many people their lives.

However, signature of the agreement is not the end: it is the beginning of an even more important stage.  In the agreement there are great opportunities to improve guarantees for defending human rights and political opposition; this includes recognising the persistence of the paramilitary phenomenon and the threat that it represents, and measures to fight it and investigate its crimes. There is an opportunity to strengthen recognition for Family Farmer Reservation Zones and create a land fund for farmers who don’t have access to it.  The agreement includes a more holistic policy to deal with narcotics which goes beyond war, repression and fumigation; it also includes multiple guarantees for political opposition, and incentives for social movements to take part in politics.

In Bogota, people expressed their wishes for peace on canvas.
In Bogota, people expressed their wishes for peace on canvas.

Threats to peace

But in the midst of all the optimism surrounding the signature of the agreement, a worrying tendency has emerged in the post-conflict setting. Since the historic announcement of the definitive bilateral ceasefire on 24 August 2016,[6] there were at least 22 murders of human rights defenders and community leaders.[7]  The Electoral Observation Mission (MOE) warned that 15 victims were killed in areas where the Transitional Normalisation Zones are due to be set up.[8]

In Barrancabermeja a new leaflet signed by the ‘Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces’ was circulated which declared a list of military targets including public officials who support the Santos government.  The leaflet spoke out against people campaigning for the Yes vote and working to implement the peace agreements and declared them military targets.[9]  The same threat against Yes vote supporters was reported in several other areas around the country.[10]

There is concern that as the date for the referendum approaches and the concentration and disarming of the FARC begins, attacks will increase against spokespeople for the campaigns, or against people who are raising awareness about the content of the agreements or taking part in their implementation in some way.  In many cases they are members of social organisations, human rights defenders and community leaders.[11]

Who are responsible for the threats and assassinations? According to the We Are Defenders Programme, 68% of attacks against human rights defenders are attributed to neo-paramilitaries, 22% are unknown, 10% are attributed to State Security Forces, and there was one case each for the FARC and the ELN.[12]  According to the MOE, the extreme risk for the referendum vote is due to: deep-rooted paramilitarism, ELN presence, illicit drugs, illegal mining and corruption. [13]

Neo-paramilitary groups, heavily armed and wearing full uniform with insignias have been present and sending threatening messages to the civilian population, as reported in recent weeks in the areas where PBI is on the ground:  El Bagre (Bajo Cauca), the Cacarica, Curbarado and Jiguamiando river basins (Lower Atrato) and in San Jose de Apartado Peace Community.[14]  The presence of these groups in areas bordering the Transition and Normalisation Zones and Points, generates risks for the peace process with the FARC and the civilian population, especially community leaders and people who defend human rights, who live or work in these areas.

Another risk factor is the presence of the ELN, the other insurgent group involved in an armed conflict with the National Government, which has increased its actions in recent years and widened its presence to new areas of the country. In recent weeks there have been reports of displacement due to direct pressure from the ELN, or from army actions against the group.[15] The Government and the ELN announced an agenda for peace dialogues with the Government in March 2016, but since there has been no progress in the process, although the ELN declared a unilateral ceasefire to avoid disrupting the vote on 2 October.[16]  PBI highlights the importance of negotiations with this guerrilla group moving forward.

Implementing peace

In the coming months there will be social mobilisations on a massive scale, not without risks for those taking part.

After the referendum comes the implementation of the agreements.  Participation by victims, organisations, movements and communities in transitional justice mechanisms like the Truth Commission, the Special Search Unit for Disappeared Persons and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace will be sizeable and important, owing in part to organisations having documented and investigated cases for years, or accompanying relatives in their search for their loved ones.  The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights warns that “Attacks against people who represent victims are repeatedly taking place, especially against those who are bringing cases for violations attributed to state agents”.[17]

Organisations like the World Council of Churches have expressed that for the agreement to be fulfilled, oversight of the implementation by civil society organisations will be fundamental.[18]  Even more so because the current Government’s political reforms which go backwards on humans rights issues agreed on in Havana:[19] the new Police Code which increases the criminalisation of social protest,[20] and the Zidres Law, which according to Oxfam, causes “negative effects in terms of land concentration and expropriation”.[21]  Despite an end to the armed conflict with the FARC, the Government was not willing to negotiate the necessary reforms to the armed forces, according to social organisations, which would guarantee that crimes committed during the armed conflict are not repeated.[22]


Now is not the time to stop supporting and accompanying people who defend human and environmental rights, they are at risk because of the work they do, and now is not the time to look away because Colombia is ‘already a country at peace’, as the statistics on violence show that the road to becoming a society at peace is still very long and complex.  Organisations, groups and communities need now, perhaps more than ever, to be watching Colombia, at this historic moment which will determine if the peace will be one with social justice, for everyone, a peace that lasts.

Today, 26 September, is a day to celebrate, but afterwards human rights defenders will carry on with the task of building a lasting and sustainable peace for everyone. PBI will continue to accompany them in that work.

Hendrine Rotthier, PBI Colombia Analyst

Notas de pie

[1]              El Tiempo: Víctimas del conflicto en Colombia ya son ocho millones, 16 April 2016

[2]              Basta Ya!

[3]              Acuerdo sobre garantías de seguridad, p. 1.

[4]              Consejo Nacional Electoral: Comités de campaña inscritos de cara al plebiscito, 22 September 2016

[5]              El Espectador: Esta es la pregunta que se hará a los colombianos en el plebiscito por la paz, 30 August 2016

[6]              Tele Sur: Presidente Santos anuncia el cese al fuego bilateral y definitivo en Colombia, 25 August 2016

[7]              Comunicado Espacio Cooperación para la Paz

[8]              El Colombiano: “Preocupan la polarización y la intolerancia de esta campaña”: Moe, 21 September 2016

[9]              La W Radio: Policía investiga panfleto amenazante para volantes del “Sí” en Barrancabermeja, 21 September 2016

[10]           Caracol Radio: Siguen amenazas contra las víctimas que dicen SÍ al prebiscito, 15 September 2016. El Colombiano: La intolerancia, principal riesgo para el plebiscito, 16 September 2016. El Tiempo: Amenazan a joven que confrontó en Buenaventura al expresidente Uribe, 6 September 2016. El Nuevo Día: Denuncias por riesgo electoral ‘preplebiscito’, 20 September 2016

[11]           Semana: Los 13 líderes asesinados después de la firma del acuerdo de paz, 12 September 2016

[12]           Somos Defensores: ¿Este es el fin?, 18 August 2016

[13]           El Nuevo Día: Denuncias por riesgo electoral ‘preplebiscito’, 20 September 2016

[14]           Noticias Uno: En vídeo, neoparamilitares exhiben su poder militar en Urabá, 17 September 2016

Noticias Uno: Neoparamilitares llegaron a la comunidad de paz de San José de Apartadó, 11 September 2016

[15]           Comunicado 015 Aheramigua, 160906

[16]           Semana:  ELN anuncia cese al fuego temporal, 24 September 2016

[17]           United Nations Human Rights Council:  Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Colombia, 15 March 2016

[18]           Contagio Radio: “Veeduría social será fundamental para el cumplimiento de Acuerdos de Paz”, 29 January 2016

[19]           Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos: Cambios para la vida, derechos para la paz; Declaración política asamblea anual Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos, 11 July 2016

[20]           Contagio Radio: Nuevo código de policía es dictatorial y viola ddhh: alberto yepes, 18 June 2015; Colombia Informa: Derecho a la protesta en el nuevo Código de Policía: ¿en contravía de la Paz?, 27 June 2016

[21]           Oxfam: Colombia: las falacias detrás de ZIDRES, una ley de “subdesarrollo rural”

[22]           Ccajar: Ante ola de asesinatos, exigimos creación de Comisión de Alto Nivel de Garantías de No Repetición, 16 March 2016

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