5 Years of Peace? Disentangling Colombia’s Complex Humanitarian Puzzle

Author: Sören Schneider
Date: 1. December 2021

The humanitarian situation in Colombia remains dire, even 5 years after the adoption and ratification of the peace agreement between the Colombian government under then-president Juan Manuel Santos and the left-wing guerrillas Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). Despite the demobilization of roughly 10,000 FARC combatants and the successful transition of FARC from an armed group to a legal political party, the process of stabilization and the implementation of the peace accord has stagnated under president Iván Duque, successor of Santos and an outspoken opponent of the peace deal. His adverse peace policy of the past five years has led to a slow but steady deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Colombia.

In the areas formerly controlled by FARC, the state has failed to deliver basic security and economic development as well as to offer protection to actors key for advancing and consolidating the peace process. As a consequence, skyrocketing numbers of displaced people and incidents of violence have left large parts of the (rural) population worse off than before the 2016 agreement. Additionally, the lack of stability, basic public services and economic perspectives makes the communities in these areas even more vulnerable to the frequent external shocks, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, political instability in neighboring Venezuela, and natural hazards. The result has been a downward spiral in which the adverse effects of ongoing violence and other risk factors are mutually reinforcing themselves and have left 6.7 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

With the limited capacity and political will of the government to enforce its commitments on protection and economic development on the one hand, and the impact of disasters and other crises on the other, the current constellation in Colombia is alarming. The humanitarian situation has evolved into a dismal yet in many aspects illustrative example of a complex and protracted emergency that pushes humanitarian actors to their limits. The fifth anniversary of the 2016 peace agreement therefore is an important instance to stress the relevance – and limitations – of integrated approaches like the Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus (“Triple Nexus”) that address different risk factors for communities in protracted crises in an integrated and systematic way.

What does the current situation look like? A potpourri of conflict, lack of economic perspectives and external shocks   

The most salient threat to civilians and responsible for roughly 80 per cent of recent new displacements is the persistent violence in rural areas, particularly those that were formerly controlled by FARC. As a consequence of the state’s failure to step in to fill the power vacuum that FARC’s retreat left, the remaining left-wing guerilla groups (the ELN and the FARC splinter factions refusing to disarm), right-wing paramilitary groups involved in drug-trafficking, and the security forces violently compete for control in these areas. The persistent level of violence has led to over 130,000 new internal displacements on average in every single year since the peace accord was signed, and in 2021, the numbers have been climbing even more sharply so far.

Unfortunately, the lack of (state) protection particularly concerns those actors that are key to advancing and consolidating the peace process. The most prominent epitome of this development are the targeted assassinations of over 900 human rights defenders and peace advocates (including numerous staff members of local NGOs) and 250 ex-FARC combatants since the signing of the peace accord. Against the background of the Covid-19 pandemic, the ICRC has also recorded a worrying increase of attacks against both national and international health care workers that ought to enjoy special protection under International Humanitarian Law. Altogether, these targeted attacks not only reduce the humanitarian space on the ground in the short term; they also have the potential to significantly undermine trust in the long-term prospects for peace and stability: The attacks constitute a discouraging signal for social leaders, peace and human rights activists, humanitarian and health care workers as well as combatants of other armed groups which might potentially follow the FARC’s example and demobilize.

The situation is further complicated because perspectives for inclusive (long-term) economic development in rural areas – which should address some of the root causes of organized violence – have not been established to the degree that was stipulated in the peace accord. Although the territorial development program offers a useful framework for rural development, this chapter remains one of the least implemented and most underfunded elements of the 2016 agreement, with the Duque administration allocating only a marginal fraction of the necessary annual budget. The absence of sustainable economic perspectives makes it extremely difficult for the internally displaced to fulfil basic needs and continues to drive economically vulnerable farmers into coca cultivation, which in turn increases their vulnerability to violent crackdowns by security forces and power struggles between illicit armed groups.

Finally, the stagnating progress on peace and development has also increased the vulnerability to the impact of additional risk factors that are not immediately linked to the conflict. First, frequent disasters – such as Hurricane Iota in 2020 or the recent floods in the annual rainy season – are aggravating food insecurity and loss of (agricultural) livelihoods in already vulnerable rural communities, thus prolonging existing and provoking new displacement. Second, Colombia is among the Latin American states that have been hit the hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic. Again, the most vulnerable are bearing the brunt: A study commissioned by the government confirmed that mortality rates were significantly higher among members of ethnic minorities who inhabit mainly the rural areas, as well as economically deprived communities. Third, Colombia is still affected heavily by the political instability in neighboring Venezuela. Besides further outbreaks of violence along the border, the immediate challenges of integrating Venezuelan refugees into a polarized environment, in which the Colombian state is already unable to provide basic services to (rural) communities, should not be underestimated.

How could this happen? An absent state and tough terrain for humanitarian actors

Examining the root causes of Colombia’s complex humanitarian crisis could fill a book for itself. However, several factors that are also emblematic for complex humanitarian emergencies in other parts of the world can be identified, such as an absent state and severe constraints for humanitarian actors.

At the national level, the government of President Ivan Duque has lacked both the political will and the capacity to advance the peace process and sustainably reduce humanitarian needs. Duque’s climb to power in 2018 rests on explicit opposition to central elements of the peace deal, backed by conservative electorate from the less conflict-affected areas. Furthermore, the government has dedicated a significant portion of the scarce amount of (flexible) state resources to other issue areas, such as its response to the Covid-19 pandemic or social protests.

While the government’s inability to guarantee security at the physical and economic level has exacerbated humanitarian needs (and created new ones), the ability of humanitarian actors to address these needs has also been constrained. Funding targets of both national and regional response plans regularly remain unmet. High levels of violence and frequent natural hazards, especially in the rural areas, as well as the attacks on humanitarian and health care workers, severely limit the access to affected populations.

Which way out? The importance of integrated approaches to address complex emergencies

In Colombia, a hesitant peace and development policy against the background of decades of (political) violence and social inequality has increased the vulnerability of affected communities to disasters, displacement and health crises. Mutually, the effects from these different risk factors reinforce each other, thus creating a downward spiral – the situation seems gridlocked. However, it is exactly these constellations that led to the commitment to more integrated approaches at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, thus converting Colombia into a textbook case for concepts like the Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus.

The usefulness of the triple nexus concept is still being evaluated, and the remaining challenges concerning (flexible) funding as well as the common understanding and systematic implementation of triple nexus projects on the ground should not be underestimated.  In particular, the conceptualization and operationalization of the “peace component” remains highly contested and always implies a thorough evaluation of the context to avoid the perception of a blurred line between humanitarian and security objectives that might endanger the humanitarian principles of independence or neutrality. However, if done carefully and in a people-centered way, adding a peacebuilding lens to humanitarian programming can also yield new opportunities for principle-based aid: In contexts like Colombia, it might provide both humanitarian and development actors alike with the room for maneuver that they need to access affected communities and foster immediate assistance as well as long-term development. Further adding an anticipatory component can provide these projects with the necessary flexibility in a volatile environment such as large parts of Colombia’s rural areas. Scenario-building, for example, is currently being revisited as a useful tool to advance anticipatory planning in conflict contexts.

Finally, the call for integrated approaches does not concern humanitarians alone: For the Colombian government, existing state-led initiatives such as the territorial development programs and the security-centered “future zones” provide useful approaches to start from that can be linked and integrated more systematically. However, not rarely do rural communities in Colombia only come into contact with security forces through their crackdowns on local armed groups or forced coca crop eradication. Precisely because the state might not be bound to the humanitarian principles as closely as other humanitarian actors are, it is important to stress once again that this integration must be grounded in the experiences of the local population.

Conclusion and outlook

Against the background of Colombia’s complex crisis, integrated approaches alone will not provide a silver bullet to break the stalemate. While these approaches can neither substitute political will nor induce social cohesion and reconciliation, the stagnation of the past years shows that problems stemming from interconnected factors demand a nuanced reflection on the role that humanitarians can and want to play as part of an interconnected solution. Again, to achieve this humanitarian action alone is unlikely to suffice, and it is undisputed that taking the triple nexus seriously can only be a starting point.

Without additional international assistance, Colombia will not be able to address the multilayer causes of human suffering within its borders and to develop integrated approaches to tackle them. Financial support is necessary for the government to have more flexible budget at hand to address both immediate needs and the long-term investment in rural infrastructure and governance. Additionally, concrete provisions, such as the EU’s pledge to offer support in the implementation of the 2016 agreement through a roadmap, might spark progress.  In addition to international assistance, the appeal of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to the government to “redouble efforts in the implementation of all chapters of the Peace Agreement” is just one example of how multilateral bodies can use their authority at least in a symbolic way to maintain international pressure high.

Finally, the fifth anniversary of the 2016 agreement’s ratification provides a unique window of opportunity for the humanitarian community and beyond to raise awareness for the dire humanitarian situation in Colombia’s remote areas at a moment when international attention has focused on social protests and their repercussions in the country. Using the agreement’s anniversary to sensitize donors and the public to its yet insufficient translation into protective and economic progress for communities at risk might be a starting point to tackle the massive funding gap for humanitarian (I)NGOs, multilateral initiatives and state actors. Furthermore, it will also reaffirm the importance of the accord’s implementation on top of the political agenda during the run-up to the 2022 presidential elections.

About the author: Sören Schneider is a research associate at the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (IFHV), where he coordinates a training program on humanitarian action. His research interests encompass peace and armed conflict as well as forced migration and displacement. He has lived and studied in South America for one and a half years and written his master’s thesis on conflict transformation in Latin America.

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