WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
30 Jan 2017 | Commentary

5 Ways Supporting Peace in Colombia Benefits U.S. Interests

AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Julio Cortez

This week, the United States Senate is expected to hold a final confirmation vote for President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. While his nomination is expected to be confirmed, in his written testimony Tillerson made a remark regarding the longstanding U.S.-Colombia partnership that merits some clarification. When asked about Colombia’s historic peace accord, which ends 52 years of conflict between the Colombian government and armed rebels, he suggested he would “review the details of Colombia’s recent peace agreement, and determine the extent to which the United States should continue to support it.”

WOLA is confident that a look at the details will prove that Colombia’s peace agreement deserves full U.S. support. For one thing, the agreement holds immense benefits for the Colombian people, particularly those communities that have been most affected by over five decades of violence. But support for a lasting peace also carries promise for the United States as well, and it is directly in line with U.S. interests.

Last year saw widespread bipartisan support for a $450 million aid proposal for Colombia, which was approved by both houses of Congress. However, the 2017 foreign aid bill has not yet passed. When it does, this $450 million should be sustained or increased. Below are five reasons why doing so is in the U.S. interest.

1. Consolidating Security Gains will Require Sustained Investment

The accords have had a drastic effect on violence in Colombia. The historic ceasefire between the armed the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has been accompanied by a major drop in homicides: the country reported 12,262 in 2016, down 25 percent from when the peace talks began.

However, neither the Colombian government nor the United States can remain complacent. Now that the rebels are beginning to demobilize, a state presence—infrastructure, basic services, access to justice—must be established in the roughly one-fifth of Colombia’s territory with heavy FARC presence. By continuing its support, the U.S. government can ensure that the benefits of peace go beyond simply an end to fighting. Post-conflict transitions elsewhere have clearly shown the limits of military aid alone, underscoring the importance of focusing resources on strengthening democratic institutions and expanding state presence.

2. More Integrated, Long-Term Efforts are Needed to Address Drug Trafficking

According to the latest United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report, coca crop cultivation in Colombia has increased by 40 percent.  With coca cultivation on the rise, now is not the time to cut U.S. aid. Instead, the United States should be helping Colombia in its efforts to build state presence in in coca-growing areas, and present rural Colombians with sustainable economic alternatives.

Fortunately, the peace accord lays out the blueprints for an innovative program that aims to supplement mandatory eradication with coca reduction through community engagement, a plan that will be aided by the participation of former FARC rebels. The plan will require resources and could benefit from parallel U.S. funding, but it holds far more promise for reducing coca crops in the long term than the failed policies of the past.

3. Peace Can Prevent Proliferation of Illegal Armed Groups

While the FARC—the country’s largest guerrilla group—have signed the accords and are participating in demobilization efforts, other smaller armed groups remain active. The United States has a role to play in ensuring that talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN) move forward, and that criminal networks and neo-paramilitary actors across the country do not fill the vacuum left by the FARC. There are already reports that criminal gangs are moving to take control of traditional FARC areas and dissuade rebel elements from demobilizing. In order to ensure that these efforts are not successful, the United States will need to provide generous support for increasing state presence and programs to reintegrate ex-combatants.

4. Supporting Peace in Colombia is a Bipartisan Policy

The Plan Colombia aid package, despite its shortcomings, has been hailed in Washington as a rare successful foreign policy initiative with broad bipartisan support. Indeed, Republicans and Democrats alike backed the initiative across five U.S. presidential terms. In today’s polarized political climate, supporting U.S. funding for Colombia’s post-conflict future represents an opportunity to show the public that lawmakers of both parties remain committed to working together to advance U.S. foreign policy objectives.

5. U.S. Support for Vulnerable Populations is Key to Deepening Colombian Democracy

U.S. policy towards Colombia has long been rooted in support for the country’s democracy. Over the last two decades, U.S. aid has been increasingly focused on the needs of vulnerable populations in Colombia, namely indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. Because these same groups are among the hardest hit by Colombia’s armed conflict, supporting civil society efforts in their communities is essential in order to secure a lasting peace and help Colombia make its democracy more inclusive.

U.S. assistance will continue to be fundamental in Colombia’s post-conflict transition. Today, civil society leaders in rural areas are under serious threat. Despite the nationwide reduction in violence since the accords, community activists and rural organizers are being targeted by criminal organizations in a wave of threats and killings around the country. Continuing to fund civil society organizations and community initiatives in these areas would send a powerful message to those who are opposed to making political participation safe for all in Colombia.