WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
22 Jul 2014 | Commentary | News

Is the International Community Ready for Post-Conflict Colombia?

On July 14-16, WOLA staff held twenty meetings in Bogotá with embassies, Colombian government officials, legislators, international organizations, and experts. On July 17-19, WOLA Senior Associate Gimena Sanchez traveled to Cali to meet with human rights defenders, representatives of ethnic minorities, and trade unionists, and to visit U.S.-funded economic opportunity programs for Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities.

We sought views on preparations for a scenario we view as likely: the signing of a peace accord between Colombia’s government and the FARC guerrilla group, perhaps as soon as mid-2015. If the two sides reach an accord, the international community will have a large role to play, supporting many post-conflict (or at least “post-accord”) activities.

In perhaps a year, donor countries, UN agencies, and multilateral bodies will be compelled to shift gears, increasing and reorienting their aid packages. Are they ready to do that? Is the Colombian government helping them to prepare? What will the most urgent needs be?

Here are preliminary conclusions that we reached after our visit.

1. There is not very much donor coordination right now. Donor states’ planning to support a post-conflict Colombia is not at all mature. This is in part because Colombia’s government has not made clear even the outlines of the type of support it might need. (A typical exchange between donor government representatives and Colombian peace negotiators seems to run along the lines of governments saying, “We are slow-moving bureaucracies, please tell us where you’ll need us,” and Colombian officials offering vague exhortations to “up your game” and “think outside the box.”)

For now, donor states are “on standby” or “in a holding pattern.” This is due to:

  • the Colombian government’s lack of specificity about its likely needs;
  • some donors’ desire to await more certainty about an accord before acting;
  • several donors’ internal fiscal pressures, especially in economically slumping Europe; and
  • some donors’ overall plans to reduce or zero out assistance to Colombia, a “middle-income country” deemed less needful of aid.

2. Of all international actors, USAID and UNDP are probably most advanced in thinking about post-conflict needs. On June 13 the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) published “A Path to Peace” [PDF], a 50-page document explaining the outlines of its grantmaking in Colombia for the next four years. “The CDCS [Country Development Cooperation Strategy] is closely linked to the GOC [Government of Colombia]-FARC negotiation agenda and can be scaled up to address the extraordinary needs associated with implementing an agreement,” it explains. The document lays out four development objectives to guide future programs:

  • Expanded state presence – helping the Colombian government to “arrive” and provide services in stateless areas historically under the control of FARC and other armed groups.
  • Reconciliation – a category that combines victims, transitional justice, and reintegration of ex-combatants.
  • Rural economic growth – implementing the 2011 Land Restitution law and commitments in the first accord (“Comprehensive Agricultural Development Policy”) and parts of the third accord (“Solution to the illicit drug problem”) between the FARC and the Colombian government.
  • Environmental resiliency.

Of particular importance, given the conflict’s disproportionate impact on these populations, is USAID’s emphasis on specialized programs to aid marginalized groups, including Afro-Colombians and indigenous communities. Particularly innovative are the results-oriented public-private income generation programs initiated by ACDIVOCA, which work with Afro-Colombian and indigenous organizations to employ marginalized and internally displaced youth and women heads of households. USAID should consider scaling up its Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Program (ACIP) as Colombia transitions from conflict to peace. Less clear, however, is the future of U.S. assistance programs, managed by both USAID and the U.S. Department of Labor, that aim to improve labor conditions and compliance with the 2011 U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is in the initial months of a three-year, US$4 million effort called “Territorial Alliances for Peace and Development.” This program aims to strengthen the social fabric in historically ungoverned, conflict-affected zones, seeking “to empower capacities for peace that already exist in Colombia to support the peace conversations, as well as social organization spaces and platforms.” It has four components:

  • Supporting peace-building – improving “traditionally excluded populations’” ability to participate in peace-building and accord implementation.
  • Sustainable territorial development for peace – increasing economic opportunities for poor, conflict-affected communities.
  • Social rule of law – strengthening state and civil-society institutions’ relations to build peace, protect human rights, and improve governance.
  • Culture of peace – changing attitudes and promoting reconciliation in conflict-affected communities.

UNDP’s effort is smaller than USAID’s, and its public materials say much less about near-term objectives or how it will measure success.

3. A “Donor Coordination Group” exists, and meets periodically. Diplomats or development office personnel from the embassies of all significant international donors participate in this, the main space for donor coordination. Right now, the DCG appears to be more of a space for information-sharing about programs than a space for strategizing or decision-making. The group has a rotating presidency, which serves for a year; Sweden currently occupies this position, and Germany will likely do so in 2015. The DCG has five subgroups, which meet with greater regularity and overlap somewhat with USAID’s development objectives listed above.

  • Peace and transitional justice (currently coordinated by UNDP, Sweden, and Spain)
  • Environment (Germany)
  • Economic and rural development (European Union, Netherlands)
  • Gender (United States, UN Women)
  • Human Rights and Democratic Governance (Canada, UNHCHR)

4. Many donors with whom we spoke listed “transitional justice” as a top priority of their post-conflict cooperation. Transitional justice—tribunals for human rights abusers, truth commission activities, victims’ restoration, and similar possible measures—will require a great deal of international resources. It will require relatively few financial resources, though, compared to “big-ticket” peace implementation items like building territorial governance, reintegrating ex-combatants, or impl
ementing the rural development accord.

5. The “territorial” piece is crucial. A striking absence of state institutions and a weak social fabric are key reasons why armed groups and the drug trade have remained active in so much of Colombia’s territory. Filling the governance and civil-society vacuum in a post-guerrilla phase promises to be a monumental task: the OAS monitoring mission has identified 33 zones that should be territorial governance priorities. The United States, UNDP, Caritas, and the Colombian government’s High Commissioner for Peace are all implementing, or planning to implement, programs that seek in differing ways to strengthen local governance and civic organizations along with productive economic projects.

Colombia has some very recent, and very different, experiences upon which to draw, including the U.S.-backed National Consolidation Plan and the European Union-supported “Peace Laboratory” program. Both have contributed to territorial reductions in violence and drug production, but require generous investment and sustained commitment in order to avoid a quick reversal.

6. It’s not clear whether Colombian government agencies are yet in harmony about the “territorial peace” approach. This observation is still speculative, but worth flagging now. The Colombian Presidency’s High Commissioner for Peace has established a small post-conflict planning office, the Peace Coordination Unit. It is developing the concept of a post-conflict “territorial peace”—a strategy for getting government into long-neglected areas after an accord is signed. Most resources, though, currently go to agencies attending to specific populations, not territories: the Victims’ Unit, the Reintegration Agency, the Land Restitution Unit, the Child and Family Welfare Institute, and targeted cash-transfer programs. This is not necessarily a different concept than, or challenge to, “territorial peace,” but there may be some tension, or unnecessary delay, should the latter seek to harness the resources of the former to its vision.

7. There may be more resources available than implementation capacity. Donors will increase their giving, and Colombia’s government will find resources from within, or by increasing, its US$105-110 billion annual budget (a large multiple of potential international aid). But as one international organization official worried, “implementers are the missing link.”

We heard very little confidence in the ability of the Colombian state’s bureaucracies to carry out large, nimble peace implementation programs. Doubts about capacity surround Colombia’s civilian ministries, most components of the massive Social Prosperity Department of Colombia’s Presidency, the justice system, internal affairs and audit agencies, and most local governments.

This is not due to a lack of talented people working, or willing to work, in Colombia’s civilian government. The reasons for these implementers’ shortcomings are more institutional. They include over-bureaucratization, lack of specific managerial expertise, resistance—at times violent—from local political and criminal groups, and unpunished corruption.

As long as civilian state institutions cannot carry the burden of post-conflict implementation, two other options are available:

  • Colombia’s armed forces, with less to do in the post-conflict phase, could deliver services in stateless areas. This is a terrible idea, however, for reasons ranging from damaged civil-military relations, to the inappropriateness of military training to civilian governance, to the FARC’s likely unwillingness to demobilize if their zones of influence are to be effectively militarized.
  • UN agencies and private contractors—both of whose employee bases are overwhelmingly Colombian—can pick up some of the slack while ungoverned zones await the arrival of civilian state institutions. This can only be a temporary fix, and must be phased out as local government capacities come on line. One proposal worth exploring is a steady transfer to state institutions of Colombian citizens working as UN agency and contractor personnel.

Whichever path is chosen, the success of implementation depends on the degree to which populations are able to participate in programs’ design and decision-making at the community level. Meanwhile, the Colombian government also needs to offer incentives—better pay, greater promotion opportunities—to professionals willing to manage programs and provide services in remote areas that do not offer anywhere near the amenities available in cities. The government should also ensure that the commitments and standards spelled out in the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan apply to its employees.

From several donor governments we heard a desire for Colombia to desist from responding to challenges by designing new institutions and reshuffling organizational charts. The emphasis instead should be on strengthening existing structures, especially in the areas far beyond Bogotá where governance does not exist. Colombia today is a middle-income country closing in on membership in the OECD, but as one international agency official put it, its state “needs to transform itself to get to the ‘low-income’ Colombia.”

8. Among government agencies, the Colombian Reintegration Agency (ACR) appears to be doing the most to prepare for the post-conflict. This agency, which oversees the often difficult reintegration of demobilized ex-combatants, has nearly doubled its staff in the past year, and now has 34 regional offices. Its leadership notes that about 98 percent of its current budget comes from domestic resources, and expects that the agency will not need much international assistance if the FARC demobilizes. Still, it is not clear whether the agency will be ready for what the USAID strategy document calls “8,000 FARC combatants that need to be reintegrated into society, that figure rising to over 30,000 when including their family members and support networks.” Much will depend on issues remaining to be negotiated in Havana: we still do not know what form disarmament and demobilization might take.

9. Efforts at “mapping” aid and cooperation programs are underway. We were told that a Spanish government study found about 90 existing “coordination spaces” for the provision of assistance to Colombia. Meanwhile, the Presidency’s Social Prosperity Department has launched an online database, “Mapa Social,” which (with assistance from Microsoft) aims to document assistance programs by donor. This site still appears to be under development: WOLA staff spent 15 minutes unsuccessfully trying to get the page’s impressive map to show only USAID programs. If maintained scrupulously, and if donors provide information about their programs in sufficiently granular detail, this resource could revolutionize post-conflict donor coordination, helping to avoid duplication and revealing where vacuums exist.

10. Implementing peace accord commitments will require some kind of impartial verification. What form that will take is still unknown. We heard general consensus that a post-conflict Colombia is unlikely to have an international mission with the high profile and strong mandate that ONUSAL had in El Salvador or MINUGUA had in Guatemala. We did frequently hear the view, though, that some armed international presence may be necessary to protect demobilized ex-combatants in early phases.

To guarantee effective implementation of accords, protection for human rights defenders, land rights activists, trade unionists, and Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders will also need to be bolstered. The period between the signing of an accord and the referendum to ratify it will be a vulnerable time, both for those who are demobilizing and for these defenders, as would-be “spoilers” will face strong incentives to act against them.

The most likely verification structure might be a shared UN-OAS arrangement that manages disarmament and demobilization, perhaps guides transitional justice, and reports to both parties (state and FARC) about concerns or areas where either is falling short.

In our view, even if this mission is given a weaker mandate, it must be able to report publicly when it finds either side is not honoring its commitments. The model of private consultation with the Colombian government, which has guided the OAS Mission to Support the Peace Process (MAPP) since it began verifying paramilitary groups’ demobilization in 2004, is unacceptable. Certainly, private expression of concerns about unfulfilled commitments is an appropriate first step. But it is too easy for parties to ignore if there is no follow-up threat of detailed public accountability.

As should donors with their coordination programs, this mission should make public, to the greatest extent possible, data about its activities and findings. Unlike the Central American verification missions of the 1990s, Colombia’s will be functioning in the era of “big data.” A mission gathering bits of credible information about peace-accord compliance and implementation must not sit on them. Civil-society groups, international donors, the media, and other oversight bodies should be able to contribute their own analyses and recommendations based on this data. The next peace verification mission should have a public API.

Appendix: Here is a list of potential post-conflict needs that came up in our July 14-16 interviews and discussions.

  • Impartial verification
  • Organization of a referendum to ratify peace accords
  • Territorial governance and social fabric-building
  • Demobilization and disarmament of combatants
  • Reintegration of ex-combatants
  • Reintegration of child ex-combatants
  • Victims’ reparations / restoration
  • Reintegration, and victims’ programs, focused on specific populations (women, Afro-Colombian communities, indigenous communities, campesinos)
  • Tribunals and/or restorative justice for human rights abusers
  • Truth commission to identify abusers and narrate atrocities, and perhaps a “historical clarification” commission to identify interests that benefited
  • De-mining
  • Territorial ordering for future economic development in conflict zones
  • Land titling, including a cadaster to determine rural property holding
  • Illicit crop eradication and substitution
  • Border zone security and development (to be coordinated with neighboring countries)
  • Controlling and regulating illegal mining, especially precious metals
  • Improving municipal and departmental government capacities
  • Improving justice system capacities, especially ability to investigate and punish corruption
  • Environment and sustainability