Lessons from Colombia


Lessons from Colombia

On August 24 2016, a historic agreement was signed between warring parties in Colombia, ending five decades of armed conflict which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, devastated many more, and caused countless internal displacements. The four-year path to this tentative peace agreement offers an important example for Turkey’s conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which began in the 1980s and endures today, with no end in sight.

The official toll in the conflict between the Colombian state and the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), a leftist rebel group, is more than 220,000 dead and 45,000 disappeared. The number of internally displaced people amounts to an astronomical seven million, the highest number of any country until 2015. Most of those who lost their lives were non-combatants, in one of longest and most costly civil wars in world history.

The historic accord signed last month, which follows four years of intermittent negotiations, will be put to a public vote in a referendum to take place on October 2.

“Today begins the end of the suffering, the pain and the tragedy of war,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said in a nationally televised address. “Let’s open the door together to a new stage in our history.”

“Never again will parents be burying their sons and daughters killed in the war,” FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, known as Timoleon Jimenez, stated in a press conference declaring definitive ceasefire. “All rivalries and grudges will remain in the past,” he said.

With the deal, FARC, which took up arms against the state in 1964, renounced its armed struggle and begins its transformation into a legal political party.

FARC members who committed or ordered atrocities but confess their crimes will be able to avoid serving prison sentences, instead performing “community service” projects and acts of reparation.

Turkey, with its painfully long and ongoing civil conflict with the PKK, an armed Kurdish militant group, can learn lessons from the peace deal in Colombia. Turkey’s Kurdish conflict has unfolded with renewed vigour following the collapse of a two-year-long ceasefire in July 2015 and the failure of the much lauded “solution process”.

First build trust

One key problem  of the “solution process” was the lack of trust between the parties. Vicenç Fisas, an expert in conflict resolution, states that one of the most crucial conditions for the creation of a peace process is the existence of belief in the process within negotiating parties.

A crucial aspect of the transitional justice measures envisioned in Colombia’s peace deal centers on forced disappearances during the civil war. Though the official figure is 45,000, according to the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), however many more went missing under other circumstances related to the conflict such as those who died in captivity and combatants who were killed and anonymously buried in conflict zones. Combining all kinds of disappearances related to the conflict, the figure rises to more than 100,000 people.

To tackle this problem, FARC and the government of Colombia agreed in October 2015 on the creation of the Search Unit for the Missing (Unidad de Búsqueda de Personas dadas por Desaparecidas) which marks a significant step forward in addressing forced disappearances. The agreement between FARC and the Colombian government also stipulates the establishment of a commission to monitor  the process of transitional justice.

Forced disappearances are a crucial milestone en route to peace in Turkey as well, with more than 1,300 disappeared according to Hafiza Merkezi, a transitional justice group in Turkey. Joint missions such as in Colombia can also play an important role in establishing trust and dialogue between the negotiating parties.

Another confidence building measure is supervision of the steps taken throughout the process by a third party. In the case of Colombia, the third party role has been filled by the United Nations.

Delegating the supervision power to a third party can be difficult for both sides. In the Colombian case, UN envoys James LeMoyne and Jan Egeland have worked hard in convincing FARC to agree to UN oversight in the past. In January this year, both sides asked the UN Security Council to establish a mission to oversee the truce. Following the signing of the agreement, the council authorised the measure in a unanimous decision from the 15-member group.

The idea of third-party oversight on the road to peace in Turkey came onto the agenda when a “Supervision Committee” was mentioned in a declaration made by government officials and MPs of Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) after the historic Dolmabahçe Palace meeting of February 2015. This meeting was widely proclaimed as the beginning of a viable peace process with the PKK.

The Committee was never established however and the process collapsed, followed by the de-facto end of the ceasefire in July 2015. With the Colombian example in mind, a third party could play a very constructive role in terms of building trust between the conflicting parties in any future negotiations.


Sibylla Brodzinsky, a freelance journalist in Colombia, argues that an important element of ‘making peace’ is the incentive.

Under the Colombian agreement, the government commits to development programmes and addressing gross inequalities in the country’s long-neglected rural areas. In Turkey, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım has recently declared a set of economic steps to be taken in the southeast, the conflict’s epicentre.

Such an effort could help close the gap between the more wealthy and populous west of the country and the chronically underdeveloped east, at least on the entrepreneurs’ side. But it remains to be seen whether these ‘development packages’ will address the political and social root causes of Kurds’ unrest in Turkey, or, as in some cases, further exacerbate tensions as development projects destroy local communities and environments.

Participatory social and economic efforts have to be quid pro quo. According to Brodzinsky, both parties in Colombia understood that neither side had won and neither had been defeated.

That meant both sides were forced to make compromises at the negotiating table. FARC, for example, agreed to sever all ties to illegal drug trafficking while in exchange, the government agreed to a 10-seat parliamentary quota for the political party FARC will eventually become.

In Turkey, the fight between the army and PKK militants escalated once again over the past week with over 20 soldiers and more than 100 militants killed in clashes in the southeast.

With continuing attacks in civilian areas by the PKK and intensified military operations, neither side seems ready to return to the negotiation table.

No perfect peace

In every case of peace and reconciliation, there are those who are not content with the steps taken by the conflicting parties. As for the Colombia/FARC case, a group of dissidents led by former President Álvaro Uribe launched a campaign against the deal with the slogan “Paz sí, pero no así” (“Peace yes, but not like this”). The group claim that the Colombian government is over-compromising. Equally, a group of FARC militants believe that laying down arms would lead to elimination of their cause for existence.

The Turkey/PKK case is no different. During the “solution process”, extensive criticisms were raised by nationalist groups led by the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and secular nationalists. MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli called the process a “dissolution process,” referring to nationalist fears of separatism.

Such criticisms should be taken into account but should not be allowed to preclude the processes. As in both cases, while the negotiations continued, public opinion was significantly in favour of an agreement.

Of course, these two cases are not a perfect comparison, as the idiosyncrasies of both conflicts mean they differ from each other significantly. For instance, the issue of drugs and drug trafficking is not as significant in Turkey’s Kurdish issue as it is in the case of FARC. Further, the regional dynamics which have often steered the disastrous course of Turkey’s conflict with the PKK — most significantly, the Syrian civil war — are very different from the regional dynamics around Colombia.

A crucial element for a just and honorable peace is “solid democratisation” as argued by Essa Moosa, the South African human rights lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela and played a critical role in ending the apartheid regime.

Yet despite the hope derived from early democratisation under the ruling AKP government, leading up to the ‘solution process’ of 2012, Turkey has actually regressed democratically in recent years. With growing repression in the southeast, extended curfews and restrictions on basic freedoms such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, this may be an untenable prerequisite.

The peace deal in Colombia is the product of four years of intermittent negotiations. During that time, the conflict has often halted the peace process. And yet not, as in Turkey, indefinitely. Perhaps the reason for the eventual success in Colombia, given its equally tenuous relationship with democracy, is that unlike in Turkey today, communication channels between the conflicting parties were never entirely cut.

As the PKK intensifies attacks and the Prime Minister rules out any possibility of returning to peace talks, stating that: “There is no solution anymore, that ship has sailed!”, it appears a remote possibility that Turkey will follow in Colombia’s footsteps.

With no solution in sight to this 30 year-long armed conflict, which has claimed more than 40,000 lives, over 1,500 this year alone, a question arises as to how long this can continue: the consequences more devastating every day. Any chance for resolution may lie in following and examining cases such as Colombia. If Turkey and the PKK can agree to learn lessons from past conflicts, that, combined with international pressure may well provide a glimmer of hope for a return to talks and even for an end to the bloodshed.

Yavuz Yavuz

Yavuz, Yavuz “Lessons from Colombia ”, Independent Turkey, 11 September 2016, London: Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey). Original link:http://researchturkey.org/?p=12860





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