Nicolas Lloreda is Colombia's ambassador to Canada
Amid the current worldwide economic uncertainty, the political deadlock in many democracies, and the security threats across the globe, it is easy to miss the successful transformation of Colombia, a country not too long ago considered by many as a failed state. For almost a decade now, life in Colombia has significantly improved for many. In 2015, the homicide rate was the lowest in 40 years.
Now, an imminent peace agreement with FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), if ratified by the voters, could help reduce violence further and bring much more needed investment. A conflict that has generated more than 220,000 violent deaths would finally be over.
Bringing FARC to the negotiation table four years ago was possible because of the improvement in security conditions in many parts of the country and a strong economy that brought millions out of poverty and into the middle class. At its peak in the late 90s, FARC's forces numbered more than 30,000 armed combatants. By 2010, FARC's members totaled less than 10,000 armed fighters.
The agreements reached by the government with FARC in Havana go beyond the guerrilla group laying down its weapons and morphing into a political party. They also aim to rectify a historic debt with the rural population that has borne the brunt of the conflict. They include investment commitments on infrastructure, education, health coverage and economic opportunities to benefit Colombians in the remote areas, where FARC ruled.
The agreements focus on the victims. A truth commission will be established and, unlike peace agreements in other countries that provided full amnesties (no other insurgency has, to date, signed a peace agreement to go to jail), a new tribunal will judge the principal culprits of crimes against humanity. Those found guilty will face reparations and liberty restrictions. Those who lie or do not confess to all the crimes that can be proven, will face long prison sentences.
Some Colombians oppose the peace agreements. For many large landowners, the government's commitment to finally update the National Real Estate Registry so that reasonable taxes on unproductive land are finally paid, is seen as an attack on the status quo. For others, the jurisdiction given to the new tribunal could mean that some in the military sentenced to prison for their participation in massacres and other crimes, could get benefits if they link others to their crimes. For others, it is just very hard to forgive the many atrocities committed by FARC against civilians.
Even if Colombians vote 'yes' to the agreements, it is possible that a smaller guerrilla group, ELN, will continue its own criminal activities. And there are plenty of narco-trafficking groups still active. But by any measure, there would be a dramatic reduction in the kidnappings, murders, displaced population and civilians maimed by the landmines the guerrillas planted in many areas.
Under the agreements, many FARC combatants could join the government's efforts on comprehensive coca crop substitution. Further, the commitments will provide poor peasants better opportunities to participate in the democratic process and access to local dispute resolution. These would be profound transformations.
All these changes would take place in a market economy that welcomes trade and foreign investment, with independent branches of government that enforce regulation and aim to protect the disadvantaged. Over the past six years, President Juan Manuel Santos and his team have worked tirelessly to transform Colombia into a more tolerant, inclusive society, within the democratic rules and without changing the economic model.
Canada, along with the United States, the European Union and all developed economies, has been a staunch supporter of the Colombian government's efforts in the peace negotiations. Canada recently announced a significant co-operation package aimed at the women and children affected by the conflict, the elimination of landmines, soft credits to poor peasants and education access for more than 1,500 Colombian students.
The implementation of the peace agreements would be a significant step forward for Colombia. The foundations allowing for real social mobility could become much stronger after Colombians vote.