USIP Panel Discussion: “Colombia Peace Forum: Paths to Reintegration”

Last Thursday, January 28, the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) hosted the Colombia Peace Forum on Paths to Reintegration. Two panel discussions with experts in the field analyzed some of the successes and pitfalls of Colombia’s past Demobilization, Disarmament and Reintegration (DDR) efforts, as well as the policy recommendations provided in a new report from the International Crisis Group (ICG) for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) peace process.

The thought-provoking panels dredged up issues of gender, race, spirituality and religion, criminal networks and drug trafficking, communal versus individual reintegration and the humanity of ex-combatants which often gets lost in the DDR process.

In addition to the following summary, I have compiled a collection of tweets from those who engaged on Twitter with #ColombiaPeaceForum.

Sandra Pabón and Kathleen Kerr discussed some of the lessons learned from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) peace process that began in 2000 under President Álvaro Uribe with the mission of dismantling paramilitaries and reintegrating ex-combatants. Pabón and Kerr noted that there was no definitive legal framework for the DDR process, there was a lack of information held by government about the identities and past criminal conduct of demobilizing individuals and the limbo created by shifting legal to distrust of the government by demobilizing individuals causing many to go underground and never receive benefits of reintegration. For Pabón and Kerr, among the main lessons learned are:

  1. The Importance of a Clear Agreement
  2. The Importance of the Protocol for Handing Over Weapons
  3. The Importance of Clear Logistics for Coordinating Demobilizations, especially in Remote Areas
  4. The Importance of Consultations with Receptor Communities
  5. The Cantonment Period is Crucial for Transition from Combatants to Civilians
  6. The Importance of Assisting and Providing Restitution Services for Child Soldiers
  7. The Importance of a Clear Legal Framework to Build Legitimacy
  8. The Importance of Identifying Commanders before the DD Process Starts

Alejandro Eder, Former High Commissioner for Reintegration and Former Alternative Plenipotentiary at the Havana Peace Talks, noted that while most peace processes tend to fail in the first few months, Colombia is not starting from zero; Colombia has experience that can and should be built on once the peace agreement is signed. Eder emphasizes that there is a lot of political will for the DDR process to happen correctly and that a short process of 18-24 months will not work. Eder argues that the reintegration process will require at least a decade. Some important factors include:

  • Psychological help and education must be provided to demobilizers. 70% of demobilizers, arriving mostly from the FARC, are illiterate and 90% have a psychological problem, mostly typically Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
  • The reintegration process takes around 7 years per person for successful reintegration.
  • More trained psychologists are needed for a better ratio of doctors to demobilizers. In 2003 there was 1 psychologist for every 20,000 combatants, now there is 1 psychologist for every 20-30 combatants.
  • The process needs to be more sustainable and more fair.

Eder also provided “Six Lessons Learned”:

  1. For long-term sustainable reintegration the process must be individual and personalized because communal solutions usually don’t work. Each ex-combatant has their own dream and wants independence, so you can’t push all demobilizers from the same group into the same job and lifestyle.
  2. The process needs to guarantee physical security and judicial stability. The legal rules can’t continually change because it makes the program unsustainable and destroys trust in the process by making the government appear unreliable. The demobilizers must also feel physically secure in order to participate. Between 2006 and 2009, 11-12% of ex-combatants were killed. Often, lower-level combatants are targeted and victimized by spoilers, commanders or criminals may also try to draw them into criminal activity.
  3. A strong institution with political strength and stability is needed to implement a reintegration process properly.
  4. The whole government needs to play a part in the reintegration process because a strong educational component is necessary and strong coordination within in the government is needed to handle this logistically.
  5. Reconciliation is key to successful reintegration and the processes of reconciliation and reintegration need to meet and interact. Victims and victimizers need interaction and reintegration to move forward with their lives.
  6. In the DDR process we work with humans and each person has their own life history, views, goals and situations that pain them. Those factors need to be taken into account to get demobilizers to engage and commit to their own reintegration. Most low-level guerillas do not want to go back to the area where they operated and not all ex-combatants from each group want the same type of reintegration.

Kimberly Theidon, Senior Fellow for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Latin America Program, was quick to point out that the ICG’s new report only includes one disconnected paragraph about gender, even though “gender regimes are central to military regimes, as much as guns and bullets.” Theidon brought up the widely criticizedGuerrillera, Vuelve a Ser Mujer” campaign as an example of the ways that gender has been mishandled in the DDR process in Colombia. Theidon says “gender should always have mattered from the very start” and that “ideas of violent masculinities” are integral to the reintegration process.

Theidon discussed how reintegration processes enforced as top-down measures on communities that may be fearful of demobilizers can create further communal tensions when “comunidades receptoras” may not want to be receiving. She pointed out the role that local religious actors play and the importance of a spiritual component in reintegration, especially for ex-combatants racked with questions of guilt. In this context, Theidon says she has observed the rise of Evangelical churches, a number of which host pastors who are themselves former paramilitaries, that promote a Theology of Redemption for “People with a Past” who are primarily Afro-Colombians. Theidon points out the significance of spirituality, race, alternative masculinities and the potential for combatant violence to transform into domestic violence.

Michael Duttwiller, Legal Analyst for the Transitional Justice Unit of the Organization of American States’ Mission to Support the Peace Process, raised the issue of determining who should and who should not be included in the demobilization process. In the AUC demobilization, Duttwiller explains there was a rudimentary screening process that was easily manipulated by civilians looking for a free ride on DDR benefits, with some drug traffickers, unaffiliated with the AUC, buying a place on the demobilization list in order to avoid prison sentences for crimes they had committed. As a result, Duttwiller says there was a misallocation of public resources and that future collective demobilization processes need better screening. In addition:

  • Many lead-ranking officers left the demobilization process to join newly emerging criminal bands.
    • Top commanders didn’t tend to want to enter the jobs offered to them, because most had money set aside and were not concerned about finances. They simply joined demobilization to avoid lengthy prison terms.
  • Mid-ranking commanders need special attention. The DDR process needs to find a way for them to keep some level of status.
    • Mid-ranking commanders had authority in the ranks and access to resources, as well as operational knowledge of criminal networks. Because their skills and knowledge are worth millions, but only in a criminal context, they have a lot to lose in the demobilization process and can be tempted to join criminal bands.
  • Reintegration is not only an effort for demobilizing people, but is the state’s duty.
  • Security is important because if demobilizing individuals don’t feel protected, they will reintegrate into armed groups instead of into communities.
  • Economic reintegration is important. Currently there are worries the ex-combatants won’t be able to find or retain jobs.

Mark Schneider, Senior Vice President and Special Adviser on Latin America for the International Crisis Group, says that after a peace agreement is signed there can be an immediate move to unilateral ceasefire, but there will be complicating factors, including:

  • The transition of the FARC from an armed group into a political movement.
  • The possibility that the ELN may convince some FARC not to demobilize.
  • The reintegration process has to incorporate militias as well.
  • There must be special provisions on gender, child combatants and mid-level commanders.

Schneider indicated that initially there will be more communal demobilization than Eder argues is effective, but that a robust gender and ethnic focus, as well as the possibility of the ELN joining the DDR process along with the FARC, can contribute to a more successful reintegration. Schneider says it is necessary to ensure that government and justice institutions begin budget, program and investment planning immediately so that every ministry can be involved in implementing the DDR process and have the budget earmarked to do so.

“It’s important to remember that the vast majority of Colombians alive today have never lived in a country with peace. I think the time is now,” says Schneider.

Adam Isacson, Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, reinforced much of Schneider’s thoughts and emphasized the need for international presence and participation in the long-term reintegration process, purporting that Colombia needs a level of international presence that will probably make the FARC and the Colombian government uncomfortable. However, this international presence is needed for Transitional Justice to take place, because the FARC won’t likely submit themselves to the Colombian justice system, though members of the Colombian military will.

A creative, well-resourced and sustained reintegration process is needed for a solution that involves the international community, says Isacson. He reiterate the need to protect individuals trying to leave combat and brought up a potential stumbling block: the FARC will likely want to pay their own body guards for security, but the Colombian government most likely won’t accept that. Isacson also stressed the importance of “La Paz Territorial,” getting the Colombian state into areas where the FARC operated to fill the vacuum before a criminal force does.

Rounding out the panel, Virginia M. Bouvier, Senior Advisor for USIP’s Latin American Programs, emphasized that there has to be a real shift in the political culture to allow for challenges to the status quo, without ex-combatants and civilians feeling fearful about their physical security. Bouvier argued that while Theidon was correct to note that gender had been isolated in a “gender paragraph” within the ICG’s report, this mention of gender is progress from what we’ve seen in the past. It must be taken into consideration how gender issues shape what can happen in the next change, rather than solidifying exclusion in the peace process, including the exclusion of women, explained Bouvier. She cited the fact that of the main predictors of peace and violent conflict, the single most important factor shaping these conditions is the equality (or inequality) of women.

At the start of the discussion, Bouvier clarified that the DDR framework in Colombia is semantically different from other conflict zones because the term “DDR” has been rejected by the FARC, which has instead opted for “leaving aside of arms” (dehacion de armas).

Moving forward in the peace process, as the weapons are left aside, all of these issues must be picked up for a successful reintegration process to take place.

The forum was filmed and is now available on YouTube.

Sincere thanks to all involved in coordinating this event, including the United States Institute for Peace, International Crisis Group, Washington Office on Latin America, International Organization for Migration, U.S. Agency for International Development-Colombia, Organization of American States, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the panelists who contributed their thoughts.

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