‘This is the best effort we ever had at peace’

By bogotapost July 14, 2015
Colombian Peace Process

Representatives of the government, FARC, Cuba and Norway at the negotiating table in Havana. Photo: farc-ep.org

American researcher and academic Oliver Kaplan tells The Post’s Mark Kennedy he’s optimistic about the prospects for peace, despite the recent surge in violence

Colombia has never been so close to achieving peace, and despite the increase in fighting and the guerrillas’ renewed infrastructure attacks, Colombians are likely to accept an eventual peace accord, professor and civil conflict researcher Oliver Kaplan says.

He said it’s easy for people to get caught up with the almost daily news of bloody fighting and destruction, and think things are worse now than they have ever been since peace talks began in Havana in November 2012. But people need to take a broad view on the 51-year conflict.

“Reading the news every day and seeing these negative things happening, people get very anxious and upset that the peace process is taking so long, but these things take a long time,” he said.

The recent violence may look bad – and it is, Kaplan said – but the acts of violence are actually down compared to pre-peace talks times. “I think there has been an uptick in events but I think overall the trend line shows that since the talks started, the intensity of the conflict has decreased, even though it hasn’t gone away entirely.”

Late last month the FARC called off their unilateral ceasefire after Colombian military airstrikes killed 32 rebel fighters. Since then the guerrillas have gone back on the offensive, attacking police stations and patrols, and stepping up attacks on oil and energy infrastructure.

In spite of the fresh violence and destruction, Kaplan says there is reason to remain confident in the two-and-a-half-year-old talks.

“The underlying structure and incentives still remain to try to reach a peace deal, but that doesn’t mean there’s not going to be fighting in between. It’s in part because the two sides have not agreed on a ceasefire.”

He continued: “There’s always a chance for skirmishes and fighting. It’s terrible, but it’s not totally unexpected, and you can think of that related to, but separate from the peace negotiations.”

However, others fear the clashes could put the peace process in jeopardy. Last week the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said the violence has the potential to “derail” the peace process.

“After decades of unrest, Colombians, especially the millions displaced, have longed for peace, pinning hopes on a negotiated settlement. Any disruptions in the peace process could jeopardize its chances of arriving at a positive outcome,” the Commissioner said.

But Kaplan doesn’t see it that way. He thinks that although public support for the peace talks continues to dwindle as they drag on, and there is little sign of the violence abating, Colombians will nonetheless accept a peace deal.

He is cognisant of the challenges presented by the question of impunity.

“In terms of the victims, there are two issues. One, is if the victims feel like the FARC have been punished enough or there’s been enough truth of what’s happened,” he said. “[The second] is that there is a model to at least try and compensate the victims. That’s a question of money. The extent that the government and international donors can contribute to a fund to make sure that people feel they have been compensated and acknowledged, that’s important.”

Kaplan believes when it comes time to ratify any such accord in a national referendum, people will not want to say no.

“[If a deal is reached], the two sides will say ‘look, here is a deal. Take it or leave it, but it’s kind of a done deal at this point’. It would take a lot of gall for people to say ‘no, we don’t want it, we don’t want peace’. This is the best effort we ever had at peace, and people would say, ‘no we don’t want this’? I would be really surprised if that happened.”

kaplanOliver Kaplan is Assistant Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver who specialises in civil conflict studies, and the Associate Director of the Human Trafficking Centre.