WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
17 May 2017 | Commentary

FAQ: How the United States Can Advance a Lasting Peace in Colombia

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is expected to meet with President Donald Trump at the White House on May 18, in what will  be the first face to face meeting since Mr. Trump took office. Ahead of this visit, WOLA (the Washington Office on Latin America) has prepared an FAQ below on the ways the United States government could further enhance U.S.-Colombia relations and solidify a lasting, just peace in Colombia.

  1. The United States has given over $10 billion in aid to Colombia since 2000, a large portion of which has been security assistance. Is this assistance still needed, now that the Colombian government has signed a peace accord with the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)?

In reality, the end of Colombia’s armed conflict means that U.S. assistance is needed now more than ever. It would be a major mistake if the United States turns its back on Colombia at this time. It could potentially undo all of the security gains achieved in recent years. All peace processes are fragile and their success and sustainability depends on effective implementation. U.S. support for sustainable peace is key to achieving transformative change in this country. For there to be more equitable economic growth, security gains, and effective drug control efforts, Colombia needs more support–not less–in its post-conflict era. U.S. financial support, monitoring, and political engagement will be needed for at least the next 10 years to consolidate peace.

Fortunately in February 2016, during President Santos’s last high-profile visit to Washington, President Barack Obama proposed increasing U.S. assistance to $450 million in 2017, to support implementation of the peace accord (which was subsequently signed in November). The budget agreement that Congress reached during the first week of May 2017 provides the aid, known as “Peace Colombia,” that the Obama administration requested. However, WOLA is concerned that the Peace Colombia aid package will be undone by the Trump administration’s 2018 foreign aid budget request to Congress.

This aid is an important show of support for Colombia at a crucial moment, and provides key post-conflict assistance at a time when Colombia—hit hard by the global drop in oil prices and a weakening of its currency—badly needs resources to implement peace accord commitments.

  1. There have been reports recently about an increase in coca cultivation in Colombia. How is the Colombian government addressing this issue?

As WOLA documented in a March report, Colombia is experiencing a boom of coca cultivation. This boom has many causes: forced eradication was reduced and not replaced with anything new, the prices of other illicit commodities like illegally mined gold fell, Colombia’s peso grew weaker, and news that the peace accord included benefits for coca growers may have perversely incentivized many farmers to plant coca.

Increased coca cultivation and cocaine production are driving calls, in Washington and elsewhere, for more forced eradication, including a revival of an aerial herbicide fumigation program that was suspended in 2015 for public health reasons. It would be a mistake to return to policies that did not work in the past. A key reason why the United States claimed it backed aerial herbicide fumigation was that the presence of well-armed guerrillas made the countryside too dangerous. Now, though, the FARC is gone from these areas and Colombia has a plan for addressing the illicit crop problem, which—though it won’t achieve dramatic immediate results—deserves a chance. As part of the peace accords, the Colombian government is signing agreements with over 50,000 coca-growing households around the country to provide assistance aimed at integrating them into the legal national economy, in exchange for their voluntary eradication of coca plants. Demobilized FARC fighters are to have some sort of role in eradication. Meanwhile, the Colombian government says it plans to eradicate 50,000 hectares forcibly this year, in zones, like national parks or indigenous reserves, that are not meant to be open to small farmers.

If carried out along with other commitments in Colombia’s peace accord, especially those aimed at making the rural economy function better for impoverished small farmers, Colombia’s new plan for coca will yield long-lasting, even permanent reductions in coca cultivation. The hard-line strategy the United States may begin pushing, by contrast, tends only to deprive growers of a few harvests before they replant again for lack of other opportunities.

  1. The number of security incidents involving former FARC fighters is low. However, the statistics on murders of social leaders, including human rights defenders, ethnic minority leaders, and land rights activists remains high. What can the United States do to address this situation and guarantee that perpetrators of this violence are held accountable?

In 2017, at least 40 social leaders were assassinated. The peace accords themselves contain essential commitments meant to provide guarantees against this kind of political violence. The U.S. must ask President Santos to prioritize these efforts. The social leaders, human rights defenders, and others who are risking their lives under threat are doing essential work, working for a society in which peaceful dialogue and engagement replace violence as a means of addressing differences and conflict. The recommendations of these communities and their leadership are vital to guaranteeing an effective implementation of the peace accord in Colombia’s remote and less developed areas.

  1. Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities were hardest hit by the conflict. What is the Colombian government doing to ensure their voices are heard?

The armed conflict concentrated in areas where Afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples live. During the talks between the FARC and the Colombian government, Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups sent representatives to the negotiating table in Cuba, in an attempt to ensure that their communities were represented. The outcome of this engagement was the inclusion of the “Ethnic Chapter” in the final peace accord. This chapter guaranteed that Afro-Colombians’ and indigenous peoples’ rights would be safeguarded in the peace process, and established a High Level Ethnic Commission to help guide implementation in a manner that guarantees their participation. This is a historic achievement for a sector of Colombian society that is repeatedly excluded and marginalized. Moving forward, it is essential that the United States help the Colombian government upholds its commitments to this process, and that the Ethnic Chapter is implemented just as it was signed.

  1. While the FARC are demobilizing, the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) and paramilitary groups continue to threaten security in rural areas. How can the United States help Colombia address this problem?

As WOLA wrote in a recent analysis, the peace process with Colombia’s second guerilla group the National Liberation Army (ELN) is slow in coming. Despite a few starts and stops, the process is moving forward. The United States should be supportive of the ELN peace process and encourage that it advances as quickly as possible. At the same time, efforts to more boldly dismantle the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC) and other paramilitary groups are vital to consolidating security gains. Here too, the United States government should ensure that President Santos is prioritizing these efforts.