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One step forward: on Colombias new challenges

Colombia is confronted with new challenges even as integration of FARC rebels gains pace

Ending a civil war-like conflict is never easy. In some ways it is more difficult to end than a conventional war, as it leaves many festering wounds that prevent a re-integration of warring groups. In the case of Colombia, which has experienced two lengthy civil wars involving left-wing guerrilla forces of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN), the challenges are that much more. Last year, President Juan Manuel Santos, whose efforts were rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize, achieved a breakthrough by signing a peace accord with the FARC, which agreed to demobilise following concessions such as amnesty for many of its rebels and transition to a civilian political party. The accord had a setback with its rejection thereafter by a narrow margin in a referendum, and since then Mr. Santos has taken a piecemeal approach to achieving peace with the FARC. After months of negotiations that retained the guarantees of political participation to FARC rebels, measures related to rural land reform, batches of FARC rebels, whose numbers are estimated to be close to 7,000, began disarming their units and weaponry in demobilisation camps across the country. For the first time last week, a group of 12 rebels formally became civilians as United Nations monitors certified their integration. This is a milestone in the ending of a five-decade-long civil war, but as expected, every step taken towards peace is fraught with new challenges.

Some dissidents within the FARC, including those who were part of the negotiations that led to the accord, have refused to give up arms, fearing retribution from right-wing paramilitary groups following their integration. These dissidents were believed to be behind the kidnapping of a UN anti-narcotics official. Meanwhile, the retreat of the FARC from the forested rural areas, including where coca production thrived, has created a vacuum that criminal and paramilitary groups have tried to fill. Also, the demobilisation of the FARC and the peace process have coincided with the murder of many social activists in Colombia, many of whom were taking up issues related to agrarian rights and the environment. This retribution by paramilitary groups is reminiscent of the previous resistance to peace attempts between the FARC and the Colombian government in the mid-1980s. Activists claim 40 such murders have been committed this year, much higher than the average in violence-prone Colombia. This could well roil the peace process and lead to a new phase of paramilitary violence. How Mr. Santos negotiates this challenge, besides taking on former President Álvaro Uribe’s continued opposition to the peace process, will determine the future of the milestone accord and its implementation.

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