BY CHRISTINA MURPHY
Colombia captured international headlines and accolades in 2016 when the government signed a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). This victory for President Juan Manuel Santos’ government marked the beginning of the end for one of the world’s longest running civil wars. Although the deal was narrowly rejected by Colombian voters in October 2016, the Colombian Congress approved a revised deal in November.
The conflict between the Colombian government, the FARC, and other guerilla and paramilitary groups has taken a devastating toll on Colombia over the past half-century. More than 220,000 people were killed between 1958 and 2012, mainly civilians, and more than 7 million people have been displaced by the conflict. Estimates suggest that the conflict also cost the country billions in lost economic growth.
While the agreement was a major win for the country in 2016, it comes on the heels of a much longer trajectory of improving governance and legitimacy in Colombia. In fact, Colombia has been steadily improving every year since the FSI began, from a total score of 91.8 and ranking of 27 in 2006, to being ranked 69th in 2017 with a score of 78.9.
One of the key factors in Colombia’s improvement has been State Legitimacy, moving from a score of 8.7 in 2006 to 6.3 in 2017. The Security Apparatus score also improved from 9.0 to 6.9 during the same period. The Colombian government has historically had a weak and uneven presence in parts of the country, particularly in rural areas, which has contributed to societal fragmentation and mistrust of government, creating a vacuum for powerful non-state entities. The state’s legitimacy has been further undermined by widespread corruption and the lucrative cocaine trade. During the term of President Álvaro Uribe, however, the government began a concerted military effort to combat the drug trade and reassert its authority. During this period, the Colombian military nearly doubled in size, with support from the U.S.-funded Plan Colombia package, and made advances in the fight against the FARC, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and other guerilla groups. Between 2003 and 2006, key paramilitary groups including the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) were also officially demobilized, although reports of human rights abuses by successor groups have continued. Levels of violence, displacement, and the number of kidnappings have subsequently dropped from their peaks in 2002. As security has improved in the country, Colombia has also seen improvements in the Human Flight and Brain Drain, Refugees and IDPs, and External Intervention indicator scores.
However, the extension of state and military authority has not come without high social and economic costs to the Colombian people. The effort to combat the FARC and other armed groups resulted in the deaths of thousands of soldiers, guerilla and paramilitary fighters, and civilians. Human rights groups reported widespread abuses by military forces and government-supported paramilitary groups, including thousands of so-called “false-positive” killings, in which civilians were killed and passed off as members of guerilla groups to inflate the body count and demonstrate military effectiveness. The government also cracked down on journalists, human rights groups, and political opponents during this time. And finally, the focus of government expenditures on security diverted money away from much-needed infrastructure and social services development. As a result of these factors, Colombia has seen only marginal changes in its Human Rights and Rule of Law score, from 7.6 in 2006 to 7.0 in 2017.
The FSI scores over the past decade also point to a number of areas in which the Colombian state faces ongoing pressures: namely in the areas of Human Rights, Public Services, Demographic Pressures, Group Grievance, and Uneven Economic Development, which have seen the least improvement. Although Colombia’s highest score is in Economy (4.2), the score for Economy has actually worsened by a full point since the 2006 FSI.
The peace agreement with the FARC marks an important, and hopefully permanent, turning point in Colombian history and should be celebrated. Yet plenty of work remains. Negotiations with other guerilla groups in the country are ongoing, and Colombia will continue to face numerous challenges to consolidate recent gains, fully implement the terms of the peace agreement, and begin the much longer processes of Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR), peacebuilding, and reconciliation. As the defeat of the referendum in October demonstrates, issues such as amnesty remain contentious and the Colombian public is divided. In the coming years, the crucial test will be the state’s ability to effectively navigate the social and political changes of the post-conflict period while also addressing underlying conflict drivers and incentive structures to prevent a return to conflict.
By building on the gains of the previous decade in state legitimacy and security, and placing additional emphasis on promoting human rights, equitable development, and social reconciliation, Colombia may yet successfully navigate the transition to a peaceful post-conflict era.