Preventing Ex-Combatants From Spoiling Colombia's Peace

Colombia is a potential success story. A peace accord would not only end 50 years of civil war. It would also showcase ways that UN agencies can advance the cause of peace through humanitarian and development assistance.
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The government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are on the verge of an historic peace agreement after 50 years of civil war. Sustainable peace requires a plan for disarming, demobilizing, and reintegrating (DDR) ex-combatants. The UN has vast experience with DDR, which can help consolidate Colombia's peace.

Disarming is always difficult. DDR requires a clear understanding of terms and well-defined goals.

DDR is a process that seeks to remove weapons from the hands of combatants, take combatants out of military structures, and help them integrate socially and economically into the society.

  • Disarmament is the collection and destruction of weapons in the possession of combatants, as well as civilians. It also includes the development of a responsible arms management program.
  • Demobilization involves the dismantling of the command, control, and remobilization capacity. Ex-combatants are typically grouped in camps to prepare for life outside the armed group.
  • Reintegration works best when the ex-combatant has a job, and the community benefits from recovery and development. Community centered reintegration has proven effective in several post-conflict contexts.

Peace requires incentives. Ex-combatants are wary of promises after years of fighting. Going forward, combatants will weigh the benefits of entering a DDR program to remaining in an armed group.

The "ripeness" theory of conflict resolution is based on the belief that a comprehensive peace agreement can be achieved when combatants grow weary of war. Political will is the prerequisite for peace and DDR.

Of course, each situation is unique. Designing a conflict-specific DDR program relies on good baseline data, political analysis, and cultural understanding. To increase chances for success, directly-affected communities should also be involved in design and implementation of the DDR program.

Security is the universal requirement for any peace agreement. Parties to the conflict need security in order to prevent backsliding and deadly violence. DDR cannot proceed effectively without a cease-fire agreement.

In addition, DDR must be part of a broader transitional justice plan. Incentives could include pardons or targeted amnesties. Truth commissions versus criminal justice processes can also be considered.

Security sector reform is also part of a transitional justice plan. In Colombia, para-military groups emerged out of drug-trafficking and the reaction of rural landowners to attacks and kidnappings by guerilla groups. The government of Colombia signed an accord with paramilitaries in 2003, allowing them to disarm and demobilize as units. Despite halting progress, paramilitary groups still exist and could undermine current negotiations.

Economic factors are also critical to peace-building. Ex-combatants require livelihoods, sustainable employment and income. Reintegration can incorporate educational opportunities to foster job skills. Cash payments through a guns buy-back program could help kick-start the economy.

Colombia's conflict has been going on for more than half a century. Distrust runs deep. As a procedural breakthrough, both sides have invited the UN to participate in DDR.

The UN must be pro-active. As a first step in confidence building, the UN could establish a trust fund to support both the re-integration of ex-combatants, as well as the needs of recipient communities so they can better meet the needs of returning combatants.

Transparency is important. Stakeholders must be engaged. The UN should invite DDR participants to discuss what DDR means to them, and how DDR would be implemented.

The UN must show results. It can quickly establish cantonment areas where UN personnel would take custody of weapons and ultimately dispose of them. Additionally, the UN would prepare a list of units and individuals to be demobilized. To avoid the appearance of defeat, the UN could also organize an event where individuals are acknowledged -- before demobilizing.

Colombia is a potential success story. A peace accord would not only end 50 years of civil war. It would also showcase ways that UN agencies can advance the cause of peace through humanitarian and development assistance.

Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights.