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Article - February 16, 2016

President Santos directs talks aimed at ending half a century of armed conflict in Colombia, and brings foward an agenda that will ensure future economic dynamism


Last September, the Colombian government and leftwing FARC guerrillas came to an agreement that will put an end to the world’s longest running war. When the peace deal is sealed in March, it will see the five-decade conflict, which has cost an estimated 220,000 lives and led to the highest internal displacement of people in history, finally put to rest.

Negotiations between President Santos and FARC’s chief Rodrigo Londoño, known as Timochenko, began in Cuba in 2012. During the announcement of the agreement, President Juan Manuel Santos said, “We’re adversaries on different banks of the river, but today we’re both headed in the same direction. It’s the most noble direction that any society can take: peace.”

While many points of the agreement were nailed down quickly during the negotiation period – wide spread land reform, the curtailment of drug trafficking – the process was a three-year tightrope walk where the two leaders struggled to define the line between justice and peace.

The United States’ government appeared to understand this dilemma. Top officials indicated that they would not allow existing extradition requests for various FARC leaders wanted on trafficking charges in U.S. courts to stand in the way of a peace deal.

September’s announcement signified the end of this long road. A formula for transitional justice for conflict-related crimes, such as kidnapping, murder, forced displacement, disappearance and torture, was agreed, as well as reparation guidelines for the conflict’s six million victims. A final deal date was set for 23 March, 2016. FARC has agreed to lay down their weapons within two months of the signing of the accord.

And then Colombia will vote. President Santos has promised to submit the final deal to a national referendum. In December, he reiterated this promise, saying, “When we have the final agreement, I will fulfill my promise and it will be you, Colombians, who will decide if you approve or not. You will have the final word.”

“Colombia has an outstanding economy. It is without question the country with the highest growth rate in the region, with extremely different indicators from the rest of the countries”

German Vargas Lleras, Vice President of Colombia

The Havana-brokered peace deal is being hailed as a new model for ending conflicts. During the search for the right line between justice and peace for Colombia, negotiating teams considered the prosecutorial approach employed by the Hague in the case of the former Yugoslavia and by South Africa in its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They also considered the Good Friday agreement, consulting both Irish and British sides. In the end, the negotiators formed their own groundbreaking hybrid.

The agreement’s central document, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, aims to satisfy the victims’ right to justice, obtain truth for Colombian society, contribute to the reparation of the victims, and contribute to the fight against impunity, while also granting legal security to those who directly or indirectly participated in the armed conflict.

The peace court, which will benefit from the participation of international observers, will try all those involved in conflict crimes – not only FARC members but also government soldiers and rightwing paramilitaries. Under the deal, political crimes will be eligible for amnesty and pardons. As in the South African model, the court will acknowledge and accept statements of responsibility in lieu of prison terms. Those who acknowledge their crimes at a later date face prison terms of up to 8 years, while those who refuse to acknowledge their crimes and who are tried and convicted face terms of up to 20 years. The agreement also provides the opportunity for FARC to transition to the political arena.

Since the FARC’s ceasefire in July of 2015, violence in Colombia has dropped to 1975 levels. Even before the peace agreement, Colombia’s economy began posting some of the highest growth rates in Latin America, and once the ink is dry on the final accord, the country is set to truly unleash a new era of prosperity. The National Planning Department has calculated that the agreement will triple foreign direct investment and boost economic growth by 2%.

“Colombia has an outstanding economy. It is without question the country with the highest growth rate in the region, with extremely different indicators from the rest of the countries,” says Vice President German Vargas Lleras.

Faced with the chance to give Colombia a new beginning and firm in their belief that peace cannot exist in tandem with social inequity and poverty, the government has created the Colombian National Development Plan: Everyone for a New Country. Covering the period from 2014-2018, the plan is drawn from the results of an extensive multi-sectoral and inter-regional dialogue, and emphasizes good governance and the consolidation of a modern, transparent and efficient state.

It rests on three pillars: peace, equity and education. “These are the three pillars of the President’s second term, and also the three essential components of justice,” says Justice Minister Yesid Reyes Alvarado. “Through these, President Santos hopes to achieve a more equal country.”

Minister Reyes’ department is working to consolidate the legal certainty that will sustain peace. “We are working continuously to enhance different aspects of legal security in order to bring justice closer to the people and to enhance the trust between citizens and the justice department,” he explains. “This will be especially important in a post-conflict period in which the state must establish its presence in every corner of the country, not only through infrastructure and social assistance, but also through decentralized justice administration.”

Initiatives include the creation of new courthouses, social service departments, conciliation centers and justice decentralization programs. A new website called LegalApp, which will be made available for smart phone download, provides Colombians with easy access to justice services, information and assistance.

“It allows people to report their concerns in a very simple way. It helps them identify their situation, and informs them of where, how and what they can do about their situation. There’s a very easy explanation of the procedure, tips to know whether or not they need an attorney and which authorities near them can help solve the conflict,” says Minister Reyes.

Along with the Unit of Territorial Consolidation and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the justice department is involved in the Alliance for Good Government. “The purpose of this alliance is to eradicate all of the illegal crops with the support of the State in order to provide job alternatives to the population responsible for these crops,” says Minister Reyes. Coca production has been replaced by coffee, cocoa beans and sugar cane in some regions, and by fish farming, dairy production and rubber manufacture in others. “We stand firm in our commitment to finding alternatives in the war on drugs and our belief in the need to strengthen alternative development projects,” adds the justice minister.

The National Development Plan’s aim to foster inclusive and sustainable growth as a means of creating a lasting peace is aligned with Colombia’s aspirations to become a full member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The country launched its accession process in 2013, and has since worked to meet the terms established by the organization. “President Santos has set this goal for us, and it has not been an easy task. The OECD has obliged us to improve all of our standards and practices in every public sector,” explains Vice President Vargas Lleras.

Deputy Minister for Business Development Felipe Sardi Cruz adds, “A target like becoming part of the OECD is helping Colombia look at itself and realize some of the things we have to do better in terms of government, trade, commerce and practices. I think we are on schedule. Being part of the OECD will mean that we will be treated differently and it will open up more possibilities for investment.”

“Comprehensive peace is not possible if there is no equity, and the only way to achieve long-term equity is to have a well-educated population”

Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia

Lessening regional inequality is another goal common to both the National Development Plan and OECD accession requirements. The government is working to deepen territorial integration through cross-cutting strategies in education, innovation, infrastructure and rural development that will boost equality among the regions.


Improvement in the quality and coverage of Colombia’s educational system is at the heart of these initiatives. President Santos believes that education and equity are inextricably linked, and has said that, “a comprehensive peace is not possible if there is no equity, and the only way to achieve long-term equity is to have a well-educated population.”

Boosting economic competitiveness is also an aligned strategy. The national plan aims to develop production, especially in sectors at the base of the income pyramid. Central to this drive is an ambitious transport infrastructure investment plan that will better link people, regions, producers and markets. Vice President Vargas Lleras says, “In a recent World Bank survey, Colombia ranked 18th in the region. Only Guiana, Haiti, Cuba and Bolivia had poorer infrastructure quality than ours. After the investment we have planned over the next four years, we will be third in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico.”