by Rhodri C. Williams
Reports have emerged this morning that peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the left-wing Farc rebels have resulted in an accord on land issues. The chief Government negotiator, Humberto de la Calle describes the land agreement (here, in Spanish) as a measure that will “transform the rural realities of Colombia and create real changes that can close the gap between rural and urban areas.”
In both Mr. de la Calle’s official statement and the actual Joint Communication issued by the parties to the negotiations in Havana (both in Spanish), a good deal of stress is placed on the principle that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.” Thus, although the land accord represents a real breakthrough, it will remain no more than “principles that orient” the peace talks until the peace talks are concluded. And numerous challenges lay ahead, beginning with the next chapter of talks on FARC’s future political status.
However, there is certainly cause to take hope. While the current set of statements are vague on details, two principles appear to be clearly endorsed. The first is that the accord would support an equitable approach to land in rural areas, bringing broad-based economic and social development and securing land for campesinos. If implemented, this would quite simply set the last three hundred years of Colombian rural land policy on its head.
Second, the starting point for the accords appears to be the principle that those wrongfully dispossessed of their land in connection with the decades long conflict between the Farc and the government must receive a remedy. While the parties continue to disagree on who is responsible for how much dispossession (as between right wing paramilitary groups that have enjoyed the tacit support of the Government in the past and Farc fighters), the establishment of the principle that victims should receive remedies in all cases, is a crucial breakthrough.
Just how crucial will be clear to anyone who has studied the long and tormented history of restitution proposals made during the previous process of demobilising right wing paramilitaries, beginning during the tenure of the previous President Alvaro Uribe, but only meaningfully engaged under the current President Manuel Santos. And a very healthy precedent was set by the fact that when restitution legislation was finally passed early in President Santos’ presidency, it applied in principle in favor of all victims, regardless of the perpetrator.
It is encouraging that the land accord reached in the Farc peace process appears to have bypassed the protracted wrangling over responsibility for dispossessions and other abuses that plagued paramilitary demobilisation. However, the most hopeful sign of all may be that the restitution process that resulted from paramilitary demobilisation appears to have taken hold, with a dedicated corps of restitution judges issuing fairly bold decisions on the return of land taken by notorious paramilitary groups, many of whom remain active – and dangerous – in the form of ‘criminal bands’.
The slow pace of the current restitution process and the continued risks to both claimants and adjudicators indicate the challenges that will face the eventual implementation of the Farc land accords. At the same time, the apparent commitment of the Santos Government to implementation of its restitution commitments in the wake of paramilitary demobilisation may give victims of the conflict with the Farc reasonable grounds for hope.