Conflict, Peace and History in Colombia – Opening Remarks

EU Special Envoy Gilmore opening remarks

Historians without Borders Event: Conflict and History in Colombia

Making Peace and History Rhyme 

17 February 2021



Thank you Erkki for the introduction and for the honour and privilege of speaking to Historians without Borders today and to join Professor Wills at this event

I became EU Special Envoy for the Peace Process in Colombia just over 5 years ago.  During that time, I have seen how much the history of Colombia has influenced the conflict, the peace process and indeed how it continues to influence events today.  I have chosen the theme “making peace and history rhyme” as the title of my talk for two reasons.

Firstly, I am not a historian, but I have always felt that formal history attaches too great an attention to the history of war and conflict and not attention to the history of making peace and of people living in peace.   Therefore, the idea of peace and history rhyming is a theme that I would like to develop.

Secondly, it resonates with a passage from one of Ireland’s greatest poets, Seamus Heaney, who spoke of hope and history rhyming, about which we heard indeed quite a lot during the recent inauguration ceremony of President Biden in Washington.  That phrase, that passage about hope and history rhyming comes from Seamus Heaney’s first venture into drama, a play called The Cure at Troy, which was his adaptation of the Sophocles’ Greek tragedy based the Trojan War.  Of course, as with many Greek tragedies, it still resonates today.

It is about the conflict between personal integrity and political expediency.  It is about the ways in which the victims of injustice can become as devoted to the contemplation of their wounds as the perpetrators are to the justification of what they have done.  Heaney of course wrote that play against the backdrop of the violence that was raging in Northern Ireland at the time.

Heaney’s words are fundamentally about choosing hope to make a better history and not always allowing the past to define the future.  In Colombia, peace and hope have become synonymous.   But the history of the country, as the history of countries do everywhere, continues to influence politics, and in some respects I think it is also raising obstacles to the future of peace in Colombia.

When I think of the history of Colombia, I think of two things.  It is of course a very old history and one that long predates the arrival of Europeans.  It is a very rich history, particularly of its indigenous peoples.  But there are two things that stand out for me in the more recent history of Colombia.

The first is that Colombia is one of the oldest and longest enduring democracies in the world.  For more than two hundred years, since its independence in the second decade of the nineteenth century, Colombia has been a continuous democracy with just one interruption, which was in the mid-1950s, a period of four years of military rule.  It is a democracy that is almost as old of that of the United States and with a very similar system of government

The second thing that stands out in the history of Colombia for me is that, that two centuries plus of democracy has been punctuated with horrific levels of political violence and other forms of violence in almost every generation.  I think for example of the War of the Thousand Days” which began 1899, where around 120,000 people died in a civil war between Liberals and Conservatives.

The conflict between FARC and the Government of Colombia, which lasted for fifty-three years, was almost a product of that rolling wave of violence.  When one period of violence comes to an end, another one is almost begot.  In this case, it grew really from the period of violence known as “La Violencia”, which lasted for about ten years.  It was sparked off by the murder of Liberal leader, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, in Bogotá in 1948.  140,000 people were killed during that period of time.

Eventually, that phase of violence was brought to an end in the late 1950s by an agreement, which was brokered between the Conservative and Liberal Party leaders. The two parties, which were the two largest parties in Colombia, effectively agreed to rotate power in what was known as the National Front. The arrangement gave rise to one where in each alternating period there was a Liberal Government with a Liberal President, followed by a Conservative President.  That arrangement put an end to the worst of the violence and ushered in a new period of relative political stability.

However, it closed the political system to new entrants and emerging forces.  It gave rise to a sense, particularly in many remote parts of the country, that this was essentially a deal between the Bogota elites.  Many people in many parts of the country felt especially disenfranchised by that arrangement.   A number of the rural militia that had formed during “La Violencia” refused to accept the legitimacy of the central government and in many cases, asserted their autonomy, forming so-called ‘independent republics’ in different parts of the countryside.  These ‘republics’ are often cited today by some in Colombia to warn against the “communisation” of the country, or what is called, Castro-Chavismo.

This was taking place at a time when Castro had come to power in Cuba and there was the whole emergence of armed activity by mainly left-wing forces in a number of countries in Latin America.  What happened in Colombia was that after a period of what one might call reluctant tolerance towards these so-called ‘republics’, the central government’s attitude hardened and it began offensive actions against these groups.  Arising from that, a number of insurgency groups emerged, the main one being FARC, which emerged in 1964.  That really was the beginning of what became one of the oldest and bloodiest armed conflicts in the world.

FARC of course were not the only organisation.  There were several other left wing guerrilla movements, including M-19, the EPL and the ELN, and then there emerged various paramilitary groups, which claimed to be a reaction to perceived threats from guerrilla movements.  Most of these groups have now disbanded or have demobilised, with the exception of the ELN and there are still dissident and illegal armed groups, some of which have grown out of previous processes.  While the reasons for fighting varied from one group to another, the conflict was largely concerned with issues regarding political participation, political reform, political revolution particularly of left wing movements, issues relating to inequality, resources, and especially about the issue of access to land and land reform.

In the 1980s, there was a migration of that conflict and something of a merging with drug trafficking, extortion, kidnapping and illegal mining all of which allowed these groups to strengthen their military capacity.  Control of the drugs trade has been a central element even since the peace agreement was signed, with illegal armed groups moving into territories vacated by FARC.  Since the disbanding of paramilitaries in the late 2000s, organised crime has also increased their share of this lucrative market. That has come hand in hand with a strategy for control of the regions and the civilian populations.

Over that fifty-three year period of time from 1964, that conflict in Colombia claimed the lives of 240,000 people, 100,000 people disappeared, 7.7 million people displaced from their homes and 9 million people were victims in one way or another.  Bringing that to an end was an enormous task.  It was a task that had to be undertaken with very careful negotiation, including a lot of back channel negotiations which took place before formal talks began in 2012.   Of course I might also say that was in turn preceded by many repeated attempts over the previous two decades to try to bring the conflict to an end.

As we have seen in many countries, including in my own, the process of peacebuilding is not just about the signing of the agreement.  It is about what is done afterwards.  And in Colombia, there are deep ideological divisions in politics, deep divisions in society, in equality, poverty and disenfranchisement, as well as lack of infrastructure and state presence in many parts of the country.  These problems do not disappear overnight.  That becomes the first challenge of any successful peace agreement.  Bridging the gap between the promise of peace and the reality that building it requires hard work.  This has to be done by Colombians in the first instance, but also with international support.

I want to say a couple of words about international support for the peace process in Colombia.  Firstly, there were two guarantor countries, Cuba and Norway, without whom the peace agreement could not have been made.  The United Nations played a critical role towards the latter end of the negotiations, but also in the earlier stages of the implementation, including in the disarmament process, and indeed is continuing to play a critical role in the implementation of the agreement.

The European Union, along with the United Nations, was asked to support the negotiation process, which we have done.  This is not just since the negotiation process itself.  We have been engaged in peacebuilding in Colombia for about two decades prior to that.  An emblematic example was the Peace Laboratories project, which was focused on how to grow peace from the ground up by addressing the root causes and promoting economic and regional development, human rights and democratic governance.

One of the important contributions that I think that the European Union contributed to this process was its own experience of peacebuilding.  The story of the European Union itself – that it grew out of horrific conflict on the continent of Europe; that it was born to promote peace; that we in Europe know how difficult it is to overcome history to build a prosperous and stable future; that the most difficult time comes after the formal agreement has been signed; that the hard work of cultivating reconciliation and peace in communities and reincorporating ex-combatants into civilian life requires a lot of work.

That was the work that I was appointed to contribute to, as EU Special Envoy for the peace process in Colombia.  It was originally envisaged that I would support the implementation of the peace agreement.  At the time I was appointed it was anticipated that the agreement was imminent.  But it was not quite as imminent as hoped for and therefore I became more involved in meeting with the negotiating teams and spent quite an amount of time in Havana on different occasions before the agreement was signed.   Indeed also after the agreement was signed.

That was of course put to a plebiscite in October 2016, but it failed to get a majority.  50.2% of voters voted against the agreement; 49.8% voted in favour.  So, the negotiators went back to the table in Havana, made several changes and the revised final agreement was signed on 24 November 2016.  It is a very comprehensive agreement.  It is often cited internationally as a model, because of its ambition, its innovation and its determination to address and resolve the specific causes of the conflict.  It is in six very comprehensive chapters.

In order to implement such a complex agreement, all parts of the agreement need to be implemented, as they are interdependent in addressing the causes of the conflict.  Dialogue between the parties is key and therefore it is important that the institutions set up under the agreement function well, to provide that space for dialogue.

To support the implementation of the Peace Agreement, the European Union created the European Fund for Peace in Colombia with a total of €127 million in contributions. The projects from the Trust Fund focus on peace and stabilisation and particularly on rural development and reincorporation of ex-combatants.

The agreement allocated different areas of responsibility to different parts of the international community.  In the case of the European Union it was:

  • rural development
  • reincorporation of FARC members into civilian life
  • establishment of a Special Investigation Unit in the Prosecutor General’s Office

In addition to supporting projects across these areas, we have supported a number of other elements in peace agreement, including through providing support to the transitional justice system.  We have also participated in the National Commission for Security Guarantees, which is tasked with the creation of a public policy to dismantle the remaining illegal armed groups.

Much has been achieved over the past four years – countless lives have been saved, FARC has demobilised, disarmed and converted into a political party, now known as Comunes.  The comprehensive transitional justice system envisaged in the agreement is now up and running and the JEP, which is the transitional justice court, has just handed down its first ruling, which formally accuses former FARC commanders for kidnappings committed during the armed conflict.  Should they accept this ruling and avail of the restorative sentences envisaged in the agreement, this will be truly historic – former combatants accepting accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity from a tribunal that they negotiated to create in a peace agreement.

Transitional justice is vital part of any peace process to ensure the needs of victims are never forgotten. Ignoring the truth destroys the possibility of putting the past to rest and undermines the future.  It is important that all who have submitted to the transitional justice system give a full account of what happened during the conflict.  But it is also important that we look forward and that we learn from the lessons of history.  One of the big lessons of history in Colombia is the extent to which phases of violence are brought to an end and then new violence starts to emerge.

One of my major concerns now in relation to the peace process in Colombia is the killings of social leaders, human rights defenders and ex-combatants.  I am alarmed by recent massacres of civilians and the deterioration in the humanitarian situation of local communities, which has created considerable fear.  According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, more than 400 human rights defenders have been killed in Colombia since 2016.  This is truly shocking.  Human rights defenders are the lifeblood of their communities, defending their rights and the rights of others, safeguarding democracy and working to build a lasting peace.  Many pay a terrible price for their courage.

I recognise that these past few months have been very difficult for many— that the fear, uncertainty and hardship of the Covid-19 pandemic have been compounded by tragic reminders that insecurity and inequality are still daily realities in some parts of the country.  Human rights defenders are even more important in that context.  Their protection is and must remain a priority for the Government. A comprehensive approach aimed at a more effective protection of the population at risk is needed, notably through collective protection measures.

Those responsible for the attacks, including the intellectual authors, must be brought to justice.  The EU stands ready to further support Colombia in its efforts to reverse this tragic trend.  The comprehensive presence of the State in rural areas needs to become a reality, not just a security presence, but also an effective civilian presence with social services. Sustainable development, including through addressing illegal economies and illicit drugs, goes hand in hand with security.

Nelson Mandela once said: After climbing a great hill. One only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”  For a population long used to living in the middle of conflict and with many yet to see the dividends of peace, it can be difficult to leave history behind.  It is clear that many deep divisions remain.  Polarisation and dogma dominates the political discourse and that only increases the risk of another cycle of violence and conflict.

For peace to rhyme with history, all Colombians must participate and invest in a more equal and inclusive society.  A culture of peace needs to take hold and it can only do that if it is driven by all actors.  The future does not have to re-inforce or repeat the mistakes of the past.  Respect, empathy and the protection of human rights must always be our guide, even in the most difficult circumstances.

Peace and hope may be synonymous in Colombia, but they have to be acted upon in order to make peace rhyme with history.

Thank you.