Photo courtesy Al Jazeera 

For most of us growing up in the 1970s and living through the 1980s and the 1990s, the armed conflict in Colombia seemed to be absolutely intractable. A very radical leftist group, which over years and with the help of the drug trade, was one of the most ruthless in the world, kidnapping politicians, recruiting child soldiers and forcing young women to take contraception. They began as the heroes of the peasantry but over time seemed to have lost their initial purpose.

The Colombian government, on its side, seemed equally brutal. When I was there for the first time in the 1990s I was amazed at the number of body guards, SUVs and men in sun glasses that were there near every restaurant. Everyone had a private army and the rich lived in a state of siege behind high walls in gated communities. Since the Colombian government was accountable for international human rights violations, the rich landowners delegated their protection to paramilitaries who were so brutal on the peasantry that their crimes were mindboggling for anyone dealing with human rights. Add to that the drug trade with incredibly powerful drug lords like Pablo Escobar also ruling large swathes of territory and Colombia seemed a playground for every kind of violence .At any given time someone was gunning someone else down and you did know when you would be caught in the crossfire. Colombia was the home to perhaps the greatest modern novelist of our time- Gabriel Marquez- whose imagination must have been fired by the social and political reality of Colombia where everyone lived close to the bone.

Suddenly it seems the country has begun to turn it all around with a lot of help from the international community.  The more belligerent President, President Uribe began the process by disbanding the paramilitaries realizing that Colombia’s trade options with the US were being stopped by the pro labour factions of the democratic party. Some form of accountability was assured though President Uribe in a surprise move sent some of the paramilitaries to the US for trial on drug charges. The Constitutional Court and the Ombudsman also began to do their work in an independent and objective manner with the lower judiciaries also falling in line to ensure the rule of law.  With regard to child soldiers, comprehensive programmes were developed for their rehabilitation that were the envy of many countries though child rights activists were concerned that such programmes came under the purview of the military. Brutality was slowly being replaced by a more sophisticated approach. There was successful military action against the FARC but also government programmes began to deal with underlying causes

At the same time, the present President who was the Minister of defense in the last government felt that a military victory was not possible without a terrible toll on the civilian population and he turned to regional and international friends. The regional countries acted first. Cuba and Venezuela began to place consistent pressure on the FARC rebels, Chile and Brazil on members of the Colombian government. As a result the present peace process began, slowly, and with very few expectations. Now over two years into the process there seem to be major signs of hope.

Firstly, the talks are taking place in Havana, a first for the government of Cuba that has normally resisted internationalization of issues. This gives security to the FARC rebels and they have more faith and are more amenable to discussion. Second, the primary facilitators are Cuba and Norway, backed up by the secondary “guarantors”, Venezuela and Chile. Representatives of all four governments sit in the room, they do not intervene directly but do provide administrative support to the government and the rebels to conduct the discussions. The United Nations is not in the room but is called on to assist with technical information or with consultations. The UN has been asked to facilitate dialogues and consultations throughout the country on the main themes of the negotiations which are 1. Rural development and land tenure, 2. Illicit drug 3. Political participation, 4. Rights of Victims, 5. End of the conflict and DDR and 6. Implementation. The UN has conducted these consultations in all parts of Colombia and have summarized the discussions and collated the recommendations.

The negotiators have also created three sub committees- one that would look at the causes of the conflict, the second that would plan the end of the conflict and the process of demobilization and reconstruction and the third that would look into the issue of gender equality. At the main table there are ten negotiators on each side, six plenipotentiaries who do the actual negotiations and four who back them up. The government has two women plenipotentiaries after a great deal of pressure from women’s groups but FARC has only two women who are not plenipotentiaries but are in the support group.

When the peace process began no one was very optimistic. However, the talks have lasted, and defying expectations the parties have come to an agreement on the first three points- rural development and land tenure, illicit drugs and political participation including the provision for gender quotas. They are called “partial agreements” because they will not be implemented unless there is agreement on all six points. Most observers thought these very divisive issues, given the ideological make-up of the parties, would create obstacles that would be insurmountable. But they have been proved wrong. The talks could come to an end, especially on the issue of the rights of victims, but the recent successes have given them a momentum that has surprised many commentators.

Another extraordinary development is that neither President Santos nor FARC, let alone the Cuban government, have been great supporters of civil society or NGOs. However, the peace processes has been very open, allowing many groups, including NGOs and victims, especially women, to speak directly to the negotiators, expressing their hope for what they feel the agreement should contain. In addition arrangements have been made so that victims of the conflict from all sides could meet with each other and discuss their common problems building certain solidarity across ideologies.

Many other problems outside the peace process plague Colombia. Smaller drug lords continue to exist and the former jailed paramilitaries coming out of jail have now become complex gangs. They engage in some political activity but are mainly criminal posing a threat to law and order in their provinces. And yet those who have watched developments in Colombia over the last three decades cannot believe that this peace process is taking place, that it is actually moving ahead and that the parties are slowly committing themselves to a future that will transform Colombia, as they know it.