On the way to peace

After more than 50 years of civil war, Colombia is on its way to peace, but the road is paved with many challenges that will not disappear when a peace agreement is signed in March 2016.

The civil war in Colombia has displaced more than 6.4 million people, or 12 per cent of the total population. The only country in the world exceeding this percentage is Syria. In addition, more than 400,000 Colombians have fled to neighbouring Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama.
In the current peace talk climate, central questions are whether those displaced will be able to return home, and if a post-conflict situation will bring solutions to the great humanitarian problems. At the heart of the Colombian conflict lie the unfair distribution of land, violence and weak local governments, exacerbated by the lack of education opportunities in rural areas.

Fear and continuing violence

“While a peace agreement with FARC would be extremely positive, it will not end all armed violence in Colombia. Other groups will continue to affect the most vulnerable communities and generate humanitarian needs,” explains United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Colombia, Fabrizio Hochschild. 

“In some areas, their impact could even increase should they struggle to take over new areas and gain dominance in illicit economies previously under control of FARC,” he adds.

Humanitarians in Colombia agree that a conclusion to the peace talk is at hand, but peace will require more than signing an agreement: Something fundamental must change in the way humanitarian assistance is provided and in the work for durable solutions. In this context, Hochschild believes that an early withdrawal of the international humanitarian community could be detrimental to the sustainability of a peacebuilding process.

Read caption REFUGEES. A Colombian mother has escaped with her child to Venezuela, Colombia’s neighboring country which is housing thousands of Colombian refugees. Photo: NTB Scanpix
Map of Colombia

Humanitarian key role

“The experience and know-how of humanitarian actors can facilitate the entrance of peacebuilding and development actors to conflict-affected regions. Its field presence and access puts the humanitarian community in an ideal position to provide impartial and timely information regarding new violence trends and protection risks; information which is vital for decision-makers in the stabilisation stage following the signing of a peace agreement,” says Hochschild.

The problems that led many rural Colombians to join the illegal armed groups a half-century ago, still remain. Violations of human rights, as well as the conflict’s impact on civilians, continue to be reported. The peace process is an important part of the development agenda, and humanitarian assistance might be a useful tool to achieve political and development objectives.


The official peace talks between the Colombian government and FARC started with a meeting in Oslo, Norway in October 2012, and have since taken place in Havana, Cuba. Over the past three years, the negotiations have broken down on several occasions, but in September 2015, the parties reached a major breakthrough when they agreed to set the deadline for signing the peace treaty to 23 March 2016.


When Juan Manuel Santos takes over as president in Colombia in August 2010, he states he wants to negotiate with FARC.


January: Secret contact is established between FARC and the Colombian government.

November: FARC leader since 2008, Alfonso Cano, is killed by Colombian army forces. The new FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez alias “Timochenko” makes it clear he is interested in pursuing the peace talks.


February: Representatives of the Colombian government and FARC secretly begin informal talks in Havana, Cuba.

August: Colombian government and FARC representatives meet in Havana along with facilitators from Norway and Cuba. They sign a general agreement for the termination of the conflict and building of a stable and long-lasting peace.

September: President Santos and FARC announce the start of formal peace talks. President Santos rejects FARC’s call for a ceasefire. A poll finds that 77 percent of the Colombian population approve of the peace negotiations, but the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC) criticises the talks for lack of indigenous participation.

October: Official peace talks start in Norway. The parties agree on five discussion points.

November: Negotiations begin in Havana. Measures taken to include civil society.


January: FARC ends its two-month unilateral ceasefire.

26 May the Colombian government and FARC announce that they have reached a partial agreement on land and rural development, the first of five points on the agenda.

November: The parties announce they have reached a partial agreement on the second agenda point: Political participation. Later that month, when a new round of talks begins in Havana, the topic on the agenda is: Solutions to the problem of illicit drugs.


May: The negotiating parties reach a partial agreement on solutions to the problem of illegal drugs.

August: The negotiators announce the creation of a historical commission on the conflict and its victims, with the purpose of drafting a report on the origins of the armed conflict, the causes of its long duration, and its impact on the civilian population.

November: Following the capture of an army general by FARC, President Santos suspends the peace talks until the captives are released. Three days later, FARC agrees to release the general and those captured along with him. They are released 30 November.


February: The accord on victims is on the agenda. Bernard Aronson is nominated US special envoy for the Colombian peace process.

March: Agreement to begin humanitarian landmine removal projects to be conducted together with Norwegian People’s Aid. 10 March President Santos announces a one-month cessation of aerial bombings of FARC encampments.

May: A Colombian police and air raid kills 27 FARC-members. Among the dead is Jairo Martínez, a supporting member of the FARC’s negotiating team. FARC declares an end to its five-month-old unilateral ceasefire and demands that the negotiating parties work separately.

June: The negotiators announce an accord laying out the structure and mandate of a commission for clarification of the truth, coexistence, and non-repetition. 8 July FARC announces a one-month unilateral ceasefire.

September: The negotiators announce they have reached a deal on issues of justice and reparations to victims. President Santos and FARC leader Timochenko say in a joint announcement that they have agreed on a formula for transitional justice for conflict-related crimes. The two sides also agree to sign a final deal by March 2016, and FARC commits to put down their weapons within 60 days after the broad pact is reached. With the deal on justice, the parties have reached agreement on four of the five points of negotiation. Still remaining is a deal on how the guerilla will demobilise.

October: President Santos offers truce with FARC and bilateral ceasefire from 1 January 2016.

November: FARC says its three months old unilateral ceasefire may be at risk because of a rise in military actions against its fighters.

(Sources: Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), BBC, The Guardian, El País, University of Oslo, Bistandsaktuelt, Reuters)

While a peace agreement with FARC would be extremely positive, it will not end all armed violence in Colombia. Other groups will continue to affect the most vulnerable communities and generate humanitarian needs
FABRIZIO HOCHSCHILD, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Colombia

50 years of violent conflict

The centre-right president, Juan Manuel Santos, who was re-elected in 2014 for a second four-year term, is committed to concluding key initiatives started in his first administration. He particularly wishes to finalise the talks to end 50 years of civil conflict through a peace settlement with the left wing Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), in addition to initiate official negotiations with the smaller group Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN). Long-term peace could help boosting institutional and social development, but violence and organised crime might remain a problem, even if FARC and ELN demobilise.

One challenge is for the government to garner enough popular support to guarantee the legitimacy of the peace accords. Also, the government has to secure the resources needed to fund a sustainable post-peace development, such as improving healthcare and education services, reduce high informality rates, tackle a dysfunctional judicial system, curb corruption, increase political participation for certain groups and improve security. Restoring normal life for the displaced population, who have lived in the eye of the conflict, is vital to achieve lasting peace.

Restoring normal life for the displaced population, who have lived in the eye of the conflict, is vital to achieve lasting peace.

Read caption HISTORIC HANDSHAKE. Cuban President Raul Castro unites President Santos and FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez 23 September 2015 in Havana. Photo: NTB Scanpix

Displacement and despair

The majority of the displaced population lives under miserable conditions with host families or dispersed in urban areas. 64 per cent live below the poverty line, while 33 per cent live in extreme poverty. Providing humanitarian response to these populations should remain a priority during a post-conflict situation.

Colombia’s humanitarian crisis threatens the future of a large part of its population. The average age of a displaced person is below 22, and 66 per cent are under 25 years of age. Children and youth are among the most vulnerable; they lack shelter and food, and they have no access to school. Lots of children have witnessed parents and family being murdered and their homes destructed. Many hope the peace agreement will bring new opportunities.  

Great humanitarian needs

A recent report funded by the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre (2015) states that, in the past years, the Colombian government has made significant efforts to acknowledge the conditions of the conflict’s victims and address their needs. Even so, the humanitarian situation in the country remains severe.This must be considered central to the post-peace process. International experience shows that an early withdrawal of humanitarian assistance may have negative impacts on at-risk groups and the evolution of the peace process.

International experience shows that an early withdrawal of humanitarian assistance may have negative impacts on at-risk groups and the evolution of the peace process.

Addressing victims’ needs should above all be the government’s responsibility. In addition to strengthening the presence of humanitarian aid in the areas of displacement, the government must implement laws and regulations ensuring the rights of those displaced. This is the only way for the authorities to create the trust they need in order to succeed.

Certain groups of displaced persons require particular attention. These include Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, women, children, the elderly and persons with disabilities or chronic illnesses. While this is accepted in theory, the specific concerns and needs of these groups are still often overlooked.

Parties to the conflict

CIVIL WAR: The Colombian authorities are in conflict with FARC and ELN, leftist guerilla groups controlling big areas in the country. The civil war between government troops and the guerrilla started in 1964, and continue to this day. More than 220,000 people have lost their lives to the conflict, and millions have lost their homes.

THE GOVERNMENT: Juan Manuel Santos was elected president in June 2010. Shortly after, he initiated negotiations with FARC. The official peace talks started in October 2012 and are still ongoing.

FARC: Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) is a leftist guerilla group established in Colombia in 1964, fighting for a change of regime and more democratic governance in the country.

ELN: Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) is a leftist guerilla group that has been in conflict with the authorities since its establishment in 1965. ELN has not yet initiated official negotiations with the Colombian government.

PARAMILITARY GROUPS: In the 1980s, the Colombian land owners and drug cartels established paramilitary groups to fight the guerilla and the political left. In 1997, they united in one force called The United Self-defence Forces of Colombia (AUC). In 2003, AUC laid down their weapons in exchange for reduced punishment for those proved guilty of violations. Despite this, many former paramilitary have continued their criminal activities, closely related to production and trade of narcotics. According to the government, these groups represent the biggest threat against security in the country.

USA: The US has been strongly involved in Colombian politics, with major focus on the drug problem. Colombia is one of the main suppliers of illegal drugs cannabis (marihuana) and cocaine to the United States. US interests in Colombia were given a new dimension after the Al-Qaeda terror attacks on 11 September 2001. US then put both FARC and ELN on the list of terrorist organisations, and defined the struggle against them as part of the worldwide "war on terror".

(Source: United Nations Association of Norway)


The killing of Genaro García

Afro-descendant community leader Genaro García, president of the Alto Mira y Frontera Community Council, was killed last August (2015) in the Tumaco Municipality, southern Colombia. He had been threatened and was under government protection. On 3 August, Genaro García had been forced by FARC to attend a meeting with them. While he was travelling by car on a rural road in Tumaco, a group of armed men stopped the car and shot him dead.

After the incident, Afro-Colombian populations demanded, once again, access to rights in the context of armed conflict. Tumaco has 190,000 inhabitants; 95 per cent are Afro-Colombians, 64 per cent are poor and a quarter live in extreme poverty. Formal unemployment rate exceeds 70 per cent, and 30 per cent of the population are illiterate.

In a call for urgent action released 10 august 2015, Amnesty International stated: “During the long-running armed conflict in Colombia, Indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant farmer communities have endured the brunt of the conflict. All the conflict parties – the security forces, guerrilla and successor groups of paramilitaries – are responsible for abuses and violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, including killings, enforced disappearances or abductions, torture, forced displacement and crimes of sexual violence.”

The law of the jungle

According to Fabrizio Hochschild, conflict-affected regions in Colombia suffer from a weak rule of law and, in some cases, the complete absence of the formal justice system.
“As a result, in many of these regions, ‘survival of the strongest’ is the prevailing law. In the absence of the rule of law, civilians are subjected to a range of human rights violations associated to the armed conflict and criminal activity,” says Hochschild.

He argues that the peace process between the Colombian Government and FARC should not only bring to justice those most responsible among conflict actors, but also end the systematic impunity affecting millions of Colombians living in conflict areas. 

“To do so, the signing of a peace agreement needs to be followed by an ambitious plan to bring legitimate institutions of the state and their mechanisms of law and order to conflict-affected regions,” he says.

Between November 2012 and June 2015, 541,034 people were displaced in Colombia, according to UN-OCHA. This means that while peace negotiations were held in Havana, approximately 17,000 people were forcibly displaced each month.

“In the absence of the rule of law, civilians are subjected to a range of human rights violations associated to the armed conflict and criminal activity”
FABRIZIO HOCHSCHILD, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Colombia

New forms of violence

In the past years, there has been a shift in the Colombian conflict: the nature of the violence has changed, with more emphasis on the criminal elements than on the armed conflict. This trend might worsen in a post-conflict situation; the involvement of FARC and newly formed armed groups in the drugs or illegal mining industry are the main new drivers of displacement.
“We see for instance that armed groups without clear identification occupy strategic locations where they can control the gold business, and the only way to stay in place is by intimidating the local population,” says Rodrigo, a displaced person from Barbacoas.

One symptom of the shift is the increasing amount of people, originally displaced by civil conflict, who must flee again because of violence related to drug trafficking or illegal mining. There is little doubt that, even if the conflict comes to a negotiated end, levels of violence and displacement linked to organised criminal groups operating in Colombia will be maintained, at least in the short term.

Survivors first

According to Fabrizio Hochschild, the victims - or, as many prefer to be called, “conflict survivors” - need to be at the center of peace accords for three fundamental reasons.
“Firstly, peace accords that do not strive to meet the expectations of the majority of victims will struggle to appear credible and legitimate,” he says.

“Firstly, peace accords that do not strive to meet the expectations of the majority of victims will struggle to appear credible and legitimate”

FABRIZIO HOCHSCHILD, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Colombia

“Secondly, there is a need for an integral approach to justice.”

No other item on the negotiating agenda has generated more controversy in Colombia than justice. Many among the country’s non-victim population have been placing a lot of emphasis on punitive justice with long jail sentences for those having committed crimes, in particular FARC. Others have claimed that justice must come to those most responsible for serious human rights violations on all sides, and this was one central demand of the 60 victims who travelled to Havana in 2014.
“The final reason to involve victims is their credibility and authority to lead a reconciliation processes,” Hochschild continues.

In his opinion, reconciliation will not be easy in Colombia. “The country has experienced armed conflict for most of its post-independence history and polarisation, distrust and stigmatisation have been passed down from generation to generation. Yet, peace will not flourish without reconciliation. And reconciliation will not occur unless there are those brave enough to lead the country down that path. Given what they have suffered, conflict victims have the legitimacy to assume those leadership roles where they wish to do so.”

Read caption IN THE HEART OF THE VIOLENCE. Maritza Crus (49) arranges workshops for women victims of violence in Buenaventura, one of Colombia’s most violent cities. Cruz holds up a poster showing the various government institutions and health authorities responsible for helping abused women.

New protection strategies

Creating an environment in which displaced people find guarantees of non-repetition and durable solutions will require enormous efforts. Lack of resources and infrastructure, the volatile security situation and the absence of state structures pose serious threats to human rights after a peace agreement. This is probably the main reason why Colombian authorities, the international community and donors need to perform further and new strategies to ensure protection of the rights of 6.4 million people displaced by conflict. Special efforts should be put forth to ensure the full participation of internally displaced persons in the planning and management of their return or resettlement and reintegration.

Also, there is a need to bridging the gap between humanitarian assistance and long-term reconstruction and development. More flexible funding mechanisms are needed, as well as a readiness by humanitarian and development actors to work hand in hand early on in crises. It is important that while humanitarian donors continue funding humanitarian assistance and protection activities, substantial progress toward durable solutions can be achieved through early recovery actions.