Notes from the field: The Opportunities and (Possible) Perils for the UN in Its Intervention in Colombia

“Notes from the field” is a series of articles written by South America editor Christian Medina Ramirez, on location, about the ongoing Colombian peace process.  Read previous installments here and here.

“The UN is coming!” reads the cover of Semana – one of Colombia´s most respected news magazines— the words superposed over the baby-blue flag. After three years of peace negotiations in Havana between government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the UN Security Council has unanimously passed a resolution for a political observation mission to verify the disarmament, demobilization and reinsertion (DDR) of FARC fighters.

There is a general feeling of elation floating around Colombia these days, with optimism over the peace process at an all-time high. The decades-long Colombian conflict, which has claimed the lives of thousands, seems to be near its end at last. The UN resolution which was first discussed at the joint-request of FARC and government negotiators t seems to set in stone the fact that a peace agreement will be signed.

Despite the general optimism, it is my job as a certified cynic to take a step back and really look at what this intervention means for the UN and for my country.

Opportunities:

There is political will on the ground – The job is already half-done for the UN in Colombia. After a grueling three years at the negotiating table, the parties are committed to having a finalized agreement by 23 of March of this year. Thorny issues, like the political participation of the left, victim reparations and agricultural reform, have been mostly agreed upon. Furthermore, with the very public announcement of UN support, the negotiating parties cannot afford to renege on any agreement. The government needs international support to continue its long term development strategy and the FARC leadership wants to establish itself as a legitimate political force.

There are no great power struggles or proxy wars – Isn’t this one nice to hear? Fortunately for us, Colombia doesn’t feature high on Putin’s wish-list of annexed territories. The UK-led resolution was swiftly approved unanimously by the Security Council, only two days after the request was filed. Furthermore, Colombia’s neighborhood, unlike many others, is relatively stable. Even Venezuela, the biggest trouble-maker in the region, is keen on the peace agreement and has served as one of the guarantor parties during the negotiations.

It will cost very little – The sanctioned mission will be composed of unarmed observers (which might also be problematic, see below) and member countries of Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). The mission is originally sanctioned for one year only, with the possibility of an extension.

The UN needs a win, badly. – Heck, we all need this win. There is little doubt that the world has become more dangerous in the past couple of years, with hopelessness as the plat-du-jour in the Middle East and Ukraine. A peaceful resolution to the longest conflict in the Americas is a silver lining in an increasingly violent world.  The UN in particular could benefit the most.

It’s been a rough few years for UN peacekeeping. From scandals about sexual abuse by blue helmets, to its inability to actually “keep peace” in several of its missions, the UN has not fared well in conflicts lately. A successful UN intervention in Colombia breaths life back in to the organization.

 

Perils (Possible)

The mission lacks teeth –The mission sanctioned is an unarmed political mission, and its mandate is only “to monitor and verify the definitive bilateral ceasefire and cessation of hostilities, and the laying down of arms”.  If the situation goes awry, which is a possibility (see spoilers), there is little the UN can do immediately. Furthermore, the cease fire can easily break down, as it happened with an earlier cease fire last year.  The UN might again be caught as a bystander unable to stop violence.

There will be spoilers – The disarmament process requires FARC rank and file to leave the safety of their camps in the mountains and gather in a specific geographical area. There are many problems FARC forces might encounter on their way: certain factions might decide that peace is not the best idea (something rather common in DDR processes), or paramilitary groups might seek to carry out acts of vengeance once the FARC are viewed as vulnerable. Colombia has a history of “dark forces” carrying out mass murders of demobilized former soldiers. In 1991 a mass amnesty was signed and members of various guerrilla groups, including FARC factions, joined in to form a political party known as the Union Patriotica (UP). The following months saw a string of assassinations of UP members and former guerrillas carried out by drug-traffickers and paramilitary groups, with the tacit support of government actors. Around 5,000 UP members, including 2 presidential candidates were murdered. Hopefully, this time will be different.

Links between local governments and “dark forces”—there is a huge debate whether these should be considered paramilitary forces, criminal gangs or something in between—are still in place. The possibility of vengeance against demobilized members is one of the biggest worries the FARC negotiating team has expressed. Such acts of violence risk dragging the country back in to conflict. The UN mission might serve as an early warning system for atrocities, but given its current mandate, it can do little to guarantee safety.

This will not be the end of violence – Despite the remarkable achievement of reaching peace with the FARC, the current peace agreement won’t put an end to violence. The drug trade is well entrenched in the country and a myriad of actors still profit from it. Already, there are fears that a few FARC factions—those that tend to be most active in the drug trade—will reject any agreement reached. Furthermore, the National Liberation Army (ELN), the second biggest insurgent group, remains active in areas close to the Venezuelan border and recently claimed responsibility for a bomb attack in Bogotá. An unconfirmed report from a source on the ground told me that the ELN is swiftly moving in to areas previously under FARC control in the Cauca region.

The opportunities seem great, the dangers are looming and the UN has placed its hopes on a successful mission. We all really need this win, I am quite frankly sick of writing about dead Colombians.

 

Photo Credit: Flickr/Steel Wool

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