20 Years on, Guatemalan Peace Can Be a Lesson for Colombia
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Thursday marks the 20th anniversary of Guatemala’s peace deal, when the government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity political organization signed the “Accord for a Firm and Lasting Peace.” The agreement ended the 36-year civil war, which at the time was Latin America’s longest ongoing conflict, in which hundreds of thousands of civilians died or were disappeared.

Guatemalan President Alvero Arzu (C) lights a peace torch with Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) commander Rolando Moran (2nd R) at the Plaza de la Constitución in Guatemala City, as a girl, victim of the war, looks on, Dec. 29, 1996.

In Colombia, the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC, recently signed revised peace accords to end the 52-year civil war that claimed an estimated 260,000 lives and disappeared tens of thousands.

As Colombia's peace deal starts to be implemented, the Guatemalan experience can provide a number of important lessons in the need for strong legal and political backing, how peace goes from paper to practice and importance of tackling underlying structural problems that can undermine lasting peace and security.

Legal and Political Strength Behind Peace

Importantly, Guatemala’s peace deal has not been enacted into the country’s constitution, meaning that a number key parts of the peace deal do not have a strong legal backing to ensure implementation and compliance with the accords.

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While the FARC supported having the peace deal as part of Colombia’s constitution, only parts of the deal relating to human rights and international humanitarian law will have constitutional status. The FARC, therefore, will have to rely on the good faith of the Colombian state in its adherence to other parts of the accords.

In Guatemala, political will and timing were important factors in supporting the peace accords after they were signed. After a number of proposed changes in Guatemala's Congress, it took three years before a referendum for the peace accords took place, only to be rejected amid dismally low voter turnout. Politicians were criticized for letting the process drag on, and by the time citizens went to the ballots there was widespread disillusionment.

Many Guatemalans, particularly Indigenous people and other victims of the conflict, felt they were not adequately involved in the peace process and were particularly skeptical about amnesty laws regarding state crimes. This detail was particularly relevant due to the fact that 93 percent of human rights abuses were committed by state forces and the majority of victims were Mayan Indigenous people.

Decades later in Colombia, amid low voter turnout and fear mongering from the far right, the historic peace deal with the FARC was surprisingly rejected in a plebiscite on Oct. 2 this year. Since then, however, the FARC and the government have maintained the political will to revise the deal, which was ratified in Congress on Nov. 30, and both sides continue to work towards lasting peace from paper to practice.

Initiatives to fast track the amnesty bill pardoning rebels and Colombian troops for political crimes — human rights crimes are exempt, which can be seen as a positive for transitional justice — has kept Colombia's process moving forward. FARC leaders say passing key bills of the peace deal will aid the disarmament process by protecting former FARC troops as they transition back into society while being confident that the peace agreement will be respected.

As the FARC prepares to reorganize as a political party, there are a number of challenges – particularly from far-right politics and conservative media that helped twist public perception in the plebiscite to demonize the FARC and, in particular, the issue of impunity for past crimes.

Underlying Factors That Undermine Lasting Peace

Twenty years on from signing the peace deal, other issues of human rights, violence and insecurity have continued to plague the Central American country. While officially Guatemala is in peace, the country still faces unpeaceful conditions.

Guatemala remains a violent country by world and Latin American standards, and the Northern Triangle region is generally cited as the most dangerous region outside of an active war zone. Guatemala had a homicide rate of 39.9, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime’s latest homicide report from 2013. Femicide in Guatemala for a number of years has also been alarmingly high.

In many ways, civil war violence in Guatemala has been replaced with violence surrounding the drug trade and gangs which has also helped to fuel a refugee crisis in the region as many choose to flee the violence as well as poor economic opportunities.

While rates of murder have been decreasing in recent years, Colombia still has underlying problems of violence and large numbers of displaced people and the problem won't necessarily be fixed with the peace accords.

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The illicit drug trade, despite commitments from all signing parties, will not be able to be halted solely through a peace agreement.

Unless Colombia's government is able to support more legitimate economic opportunities or there are major policy shifts towards currently-illicit crops, the criminal groups that are involved in the drug trade will continue their operations and fill any void left through this peace agreement. When drugs such as cocaine, and even products from illegal mining — an increasing illicit market in Latin America — are more lucrative than other crops and forms of income, there are few incentives attracting people to legal economic activities, which is likely to only continue contributing to a spillover of violence.

As the FARC begins to demobilize, already there have been over 100 murders of human rights defenders in Colombia in 2016. The UNHCR has said that the majority of violence was occurring in rural areas where the FARC was situated before disarming as the process creates a violence power-vacuum as other groups seek to fill the void left by the FARC.

To draw further from the Guatemala experience, the country is still incredibly unequal following the peace deal, particularly in relation to its Indigenous population. While Colombia has a relatively dynamic and more diversified economy, many parts of the population are likely to remain poor and disadvantaged — which could prove to be key base ingredients for perpetuating further cycles of violence.

As Ross Eventon from the Global Drug Policy Observatory notes, “Guerrilla demobilization or otherwise, Colombia will remain a country with deep social conflicts and a far cry from a functioning democracy.”

In both Guatemala and Colombia, social disadvantage and land rights were at the heart of the ongoing conflicts and even after a peace deal land distribution remains unequal and can be a tension point that can spill over into conflicts.

While the Guatemalan accords see that the state does not recognize Indigenous rights or guarantee territory to farmers, in Colombia's accords there are a number of positive provisions in the “Ethnic Chapter” that aims to give guarantees to Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, particularly with respect to their land rights.

Implementing Peace

While signing a peace deal is one thing, making it last through implementation is another. In the initial years of post-conflict Guatemala, there was agreement that human rights conditions were generally improving and that peace was being implemented. Yet it was still plagued with problems.

The Guatemalan state initiated a number of reforms to aid the transition to peace, while the tasks of monitoring and implementing the accords was largely supported by international bodies such as the UNHCR, which helped to facilitate the return of refugees to the country who had been displaced by the conflict.

From 1997 to 2004, the U.N. Verification Mission in Guatemala, known as MINUGUA, oversaw the implementation of the accords. However, it faced difficulties with the government as well as the former guerrilla Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity organization and social movements. In particular, tensions flared over the “Mincho” scandal in April 1997, an incident in which the military was accused of “disappearing” Guatemalan rebel fighter Juan Jose Cabrera, also known by his alias Mincho. The incident blew up in public view and MINUGUA, along with Guatemalan authorities, were accused of foul play over the incident. The rebel was never seen again.

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On a number of occasions, MINUGUA — and more recently U.N. human rights reports — warned that the majority of Guatemalans were not seeing the promised benefits of peace become a reality and that progress from the peace accords was lagging.

In a similar vein to Guatemala, international monitoring of the accords in Colombia will also be supported by the international community, including the U.N. But international power and influence in the process is likely to only be as strong as both sides are willing to afford such players. Colombia must ensure coordination as well as strong internal support across the state and social movements to help aid and monitor the peace accords.

Before the FARC’s anticipated transformation into a political party with legitimacy in the eyes of the state, the “Voices of Peace and Reconciliation” will sit in Congress to represent the FARC during the implementation process to monitor the peace process until 2018, when the FARC are expected to run in Colombia’s general elections. Hopefully, by then the will for implementing a lasting peace in Colombia will not have faded away.

While peace in Colombia is a huge step forward for the future of the country, Guatemala proves that making the peace deal work will be an ever-present challenge going forward while the construction of a stable and lasting peace that also ensures social justice will continue to be a struggle.

WATCH: Media Review – Colombia: Peace Deferred

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