Some schools in northern Colombia use white flags in areas affected by armed conflict. (Photo: Milena Ayala/NRC)
Some schools in northern Colombia use qhite flags in areas affected by armed conflict. (Photo: Milena Ayala/NRC)

Colombia's long road to peace

Oda Lykke Jernberg|Published 02. Jun 2020
The country’s 2016 peace agreement promised an end to 50 years of civil war, but a change of government and the humanitarian crisis in neighbouring Venezuela threaten to undermine its provisions. NORCAP supports the UN in the region in providing a comprehensive response to help the parties navigate the complex crisis.

Political conflict, violent crime and natural disasters have affected millions of Colombians in recent decades, resulting in mass displacement. National and international humanitarian organisations have worked hard to ameliorate their suffering, but ongoing conflict and violence involving groups outside the peace process have prevented any lasting improvement.

After four years of talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a peace agreement was signed in 2016. It should have brought relief and respite to long-suffering communities, but more than four million people across the country are still in need of humanitarian assistance, according to ACAPS

In 2018, a staunch critic of the peace process, Ivan Duque Marques was elected president. At the same time, Venezuela’s economic and political collapse under president Nicolás Maduro affected the whole region, and its neighbours in particular. Around 4.6 million people had fled the country as of November 2019, 1.9 million of them to Colombia. As the situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate, the movements of people are likely to continue. 

Implementation of the peace deal all but ground to a halt in 2019. Nearly a third of its 578 provisions had not been implemented at all as of the end of the year, and another third had barely been put into effect, according to a report by the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

Colombia has faced and continues to face numerous challenges; Venezuelans fleeing across the border in need of assistance, rural areas in need of economic development, reintegration of armed fighters and reining in violent crime. This has called for support from the international community that spans the humanitarian, development and peacebuilding sectors. 

“A range of factors have impeded implementation of the peace agreement, so it’s been vital to ensure a holistic response that doesn’t undermine the gains made. Given the multifaceted challenges in ensuring stability and peace in Colombia, we believe it is important to continue to engage long-term in the country,” says NORCAP’s executive director, Benedicte Giæver. 

The 2030 agenda 

NORCAP has deployed 26 experts to strengthen the UN response in Colombia since 2016. Four have been working directly with the office of the resident coordinator, the most senior representative of the UN development system in the country.

“NORCAP’s experts have been vital in ensuring that the UN and the international community provide strategic and coherent support for the peace process. They have also played a key role in the rapid scale-up of our response to the enormous influx of refugees and migrants from Venezuela,” says Head of the Resident Coordinator’s office, Pontus Ohrsedt. 

“The support came when the UN was engaged in global discussions and preparations for its development pillar reform. NORCAP’s experts have undoubtedly helped the resident coordinator’s office in Colombia get ahead of the curve in terms of putting the reform into practice.”

The pillar reform involves far-reaching changes in the way the UN development system works to help countries achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. It is intended to reposition the system with a stronger collective identity as a trusted, cohesive and accountable partner. It should yield a more integrated approach more focused on delivery on the ground, with capacities and resources to better support countries in their pursuit of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

“The main challenge for Colombia is that there is a multifaceted crisis. A strong resident coordinator’s office focused on the reform is key to ensuring that the UN’s response is in line with people’s needs and the 2030 agenda,” Giæver says.

Mariano Aguirre Ernst, a senior peacebuilding adviser, was deployed to the resident coordinator’s office from August 2017 to December 2019. His role included supporting implementation of the peace deal by strengthening bonds between the government, civil society and the UN system. Aguirre Ernst provided analysis on topics such as peacebuilding and the political controversy surrounding the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a newly established extrajudicial court system to try former rebels and others for their crimes. 

He also suggested the government adopt a more nuanced approach to its plan to expand its territorial reach to previously excluded, marginalised and violent areas. “The state has no institutional presence in these areas at all and several non-state armed groups operate there, taking control of people’s lives,” he says.

“It was important to understand that people in excluded areas are organised by criminal organisations in systems of coercion. The state cannot get into these territories just by force. It needs to provide justice, jobs, public services, infrastructure and security. It must involve local communities and deliver the civil side of the state at the same time as military operations. To focus on the latter is a recipe for failure.”

Mariano Aguirre Ernst, senior peacebuilding adviser, deployed to the UN Resident Coordinator's office in Colombia. (Photo: Marta Peiro-Suso/NORCAP)
Mariano Aguirre Ernst, senior peacebuilding adviser deployed to the UN Resident Coordinator's Office in Colombia. (Photo: Marta Peiro-Suso/NORCAP)

Scaling-up humanitarian aid 

Andrés Romero, a peace and post-conflict expert, was deployed to the Resident Coordinator’s office from mid-2017 to the end of 2019 to support peacebuilding initiatives. Six months into his deployment, however, the Colombian presidency asked the UN to boost its support for efforts to address the growing influx of people from Venezuela. Given Romero’s humanitarian background, the Resident Coordinator asked him to shift his focus to improving coordination mechanisms for the response. 

“Most of the international community was focused on implementing the peace deal and addressing the humanitarian consequences of ongoing violence in some areas of the country, and we were having a difficult time mobilising money and support for the Venezuelan population,” he says. 

“The Colombian authorities have an open-door socioeconomic integration policy toward migrants willing to stay. What we need is an integrated and long-term development plan that takes the country’s complex reality into account.” 


A balancing act  

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) launched a joint emergency appeal for migrants and refugees from Venezuela in December 2018. It called on donors to increase their support for people affected by displacement in the region, including host communities, with $738 million for 2019, targeting 2.7 million people in 16 countries. The 2020 appeal has been increased to $1.35 billion and targets almost four million people. 

“NORCAP’s support was highly valued and well timed. The migrant situation was getting too big and the resident coordinator did not have the resources to handle it. NORCAP boosted the response with the provision of expertise in coordination, gender, protection, shelter and cash transfers. These areas were identified jointly by NORCAP, government officials, UN agencies and NGOs,” says Romero. 

With the humanitarian, development and peacebuilding sectors operating simultaneously, short-term humanitarian responses to minor disasters are implemented in parallel with broader and longer-term interventions to address the impacts of conflict, displacement, social exclusion and economic inequality. To succeed, it is important that the various organisations and stakeholders collaborate effectively.

“What we refer to as the humanitarian, development and peacebuilding nexus recognises the need for all sectors to coordinate with each other. Better coordination means that limited resources can be used more effectively and that we can improve collaboration with local stakeholders. This is key to ensuring that long-term interventions are sustainable,” Giæver says.