Peace at Last in Colombia Cocaine Country—Unless We, er, Blow It

After half a century of war, is it possible the killing will end? This is the best chance there’s been, but the world—and the U.S. Congress—will have to help.

02.08.16 9:50 PM ET

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and President Barack Obama met at the White House last week to celebrate 15 years of Plan Colombia and in anticipation of a peace deal with Colombia’s largest insurgent group, the FARC, that could be signed by next month.

Before a crowd gathered in the East Wing, Obama announced a new bilateral aid package of $450 million to help secure the peace in Colombia. He’ll forward details of this “Paz Colombia,” the peacetime successor to Plan Colombia, to the U.S. Congress this week. The package could not be more timely.

Four years of peace talks between the Santos government and the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) have achieved remarkable progress, producing agreements on contentious military and political issues, and addressing the causes of a conflict that has cost nearly a quarter of a million lives, displaced 6 million of the country’s 46 million people, and left 7.8 million registered victims.

President Santos now stands on the brink of ending a guerrilla war that has dragged on for more than a half a century.

The time is quickly approaching for the international community to step up its game.

So far, global participation in Colombia’s peace process has been limited. There is no international mediator—only a small but important presence of Cuba, Norway, Venezuela, and Chile at the peace tables in Havana.

Targeted interventions by the UN, the Red Cross, and the Organization of American States; special envoys from the United States, Germany, and the European Union; and technical guidance from a variety of non-governmental groups have helped keep the process moving forward. Likewise, USAID has been one of the strongest international donors for support to victims, whose rights have been a central component of the talks.

Political support for the peace process is critical now.

Once a peace deal is signed, a highly skeptical Colombian public that rejects the idea of the FARC entering the political arena instead of going to jail will be asked to endorse it through a mechanism yet to be determined.

As Santos noted in a forum that the U.S. Institute of Peace co-sponsored last week, there is no perfect solution; there will be a cost for peace and the populace must be asked to weigh that cost against the prospect of two or three more decades of relentless war. “I am absolutely sure that when the whole package is put to the Colombian people, the majority will say ‘yes,’” Santos told the audience.

The $450 million dollar package Obama hopes to get approved on the Hill after a peace plan is in place pales next to the $10 billion that the U.S. ponied up over a 15-year period to support the war through Plan Colombia.

It will nonetheless be seen in Colombia as a sign that the United States favors a peaceful settlement of Colombia’s conflict, particularly if the aid is targeted toward fighting drugs and crime, expanding rule of law, strengthening rural economies, and promoting justice and services for victims, as Obama suggested.

This plan will differ from Plan Colombia, particularly with regard to drug policy. Provisional agreements at the peace table in Havana call for an end to aerial spraying (a preferred strategy by the U.S. government that has fallen into disfavor in the wake of a WHO finding that the chemical spray that was being used was cancer-causing).

Likewise, Paz Colombia, in keeping with the anticipated peace agreement, is likely to eschew strictly law enforcement solutions and favor instead preventive public health approaches geared at reducing consumption, as well as regional or multilateral cooperation.

A new U.S. peace plan for Colombia should also help give a boost to Santos’s flagging approval ratings at home, which reached a new low of 29 percent last week, and help him convince his fellow compatriots to vote for peace.

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In addition to political support, the international community can play other roles:

MONITORING. Last month, at the request of the negotiating parties, the UN Security Council agreed to assist with ceasefire arrangements by setting up a political mission in Colombia soon after an agreement is signed. The mission will have a one-year renewable mandate, with shared responsibilities with the government and the FARC. To be most effective, the UN should custom-design its process to take advantage of Colombia’s strong internal capacities. Victims’ and women’s organizations, church groups, and human-rights defenders in Colombia are well positioned to serve as local monitors of a ceasefire—a role some are already playing for unilateral ceasefire in effect since July. International donors should ensure that these groups are adequately financed and equipped to continue the task after the UN has gone home.

VERIFICATION. Involvement of an independent third party such as the UN will be critical to ensuring that the FARC, which considers itself to be undefeated, begins to set aside its weapons within 60 days of the signing of a final agreement, as it has promised. Given the group’s rejection of any disarmament process that might project an image of military defeat, international actors provide an alternative solution.

ADDRESSING PARAMILITARY ACTIVITY AND RULE OF LAW. The last time the FARC signed a peace agreement, paramilitary groups, allied with large landowners and regional politicians, enjoyed virtual impunity as they killed thousands of ex-combatants who had disarmed and joined the newly created Patriotic Union Party. Such criminal elements are growing in size and strength and could undermine the peace. The international community should lend its expertise and encourage the Colombian government to address this burgeoning issue and apply the full strength of the law to abuses.

RECONCILING LEADERS. Former President Alvaro Uribe, long opposed to the negotiations, holds tremendous sway with the public, which must endorse the final peace accords. Mutual friends of Uribe and Santos in the international community should assist in reconciling these leaders in the name of peace.

CREATING CONDITIONS FOR A COMPREHENSIVE PEACE. With the government and a second insurgent group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), arguing about who should set the schedule for formal talks, the international community could quietly facilitate a solution behind the scenes. With Venezuela’s new conservative leadership in parliament, the ELN will be less wedded to Venezuela as a host for the talks, so this obstacle has now been removed. The peace train is moving fast, though, and it will be less stable if the ELN is not brought in soon. An active ELN could incorporate disaffected FARC fighters and derail the prospects for peace.

PROTECTING HUMAN RIGHTS. A surge in violence is likely as reforms that threaten vested interests take hold. Protective mechanisms, strengthening the rule of law, and rigorous prosecution for human-rights violations will help break the culture of impunity that can undermine an enduring peace. Furthermore, U.S. and international support are needed for independent Colombian civil society organizations that can monitor and hold both parties to account for their agreements.

As the Hill considers President Obama’s request in the coming weeks, it should keep in mind that a partnership that secures human rights and sustains peace will set the foundation for a more stable hemisphere.