23 October 2020

In January 2016, when the United Nations Security Council decided to establish a special political mission in Colombia—the first such mission in South America in two decades—a headline in the most credible local weekly raised eyebrows: “¡LLEGA LA ONU!” (“The UN is Coming!”). In a country sharply polarized around the idea of negotiating a settlement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (FARC-EP), the headline stirred opposing hopes and fears. To some, the “coming” of the United Nations promised the first serious steps towards peace after more than half a century of war, while to others, it implied a loss of sovereignty and a concession to FARC-EP, seen by many as an organization of criminals and terrorists who should never have been dignified with inclusion in the peace process.

The headline was, however, oddly inaccurate. The United Nations had been active in Colombia for well over 40 years. Its support for peace efforts started long before the initiation of the Havana-based peace talks between the Government and FARC-EP in 2012. For more than a decade, United Nations agencies, funds and programmes had been working closely with Colombian civil society organizations, local communities and authorities in the regions hardest-hit by violence and entrenched in poverty, as well as areas that had been abandoned by the State. The commitment of the United Nations country team in Colombia to building peace at the grass-roots level unfolded when those promoting it were swimming against the current, at risk of being stigmatized and targeted.

Since the early 1990s,1 the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and other United Nations agencies and their partner non-governmental organizations delivered assistance to thousands of displaced families in areas difficult to reach or inaccessible to State institutions. They provided protection to civilians at risk through their presence in the field, bearing witness and lending an ear to those whose voices were not sufficiently heard. By documenting and denouncing human rights abuses, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) also gave a voice to the victims; at times those efforts had a preventive effect. By building local capacities to manage conflicts peacefully, empowering local communities, youth and women's organizations, and offering socioeconomic opportunities—often in places where coca crops were the only source of income—the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other United Nations development entities helped break local cycles of violence and contributed to improving livelihoods. Conflict-affected communities asked the United Nations to stand with them, and we did. They felt that our presence could afford some protection. The commitment, courage and solidarity of generations of national and international United Nations colleagues working for peace and justice in the most impoverished and conflict-affected areas in Colombia were exceptional and all the more noteworthy, as doing so often meant coming into friction with the Government. 

The United Nations "Respira Paz" (Breathe Peace) campaign in Colombia promoted a culture of peace across the country. Chocó Department, Colombia, 2015. Photo by Karina Teran/UN

Following the unsuccessful peace process between the Government and FARC-EP, known as “El Caguán” (1999-2002), the door for a political settlement was shut and remained closed for a decade. The peace negotiations were discredited, and the space for the international community, including the United Nations, to support peace efforts shrank significantly. At that time, working on or even talking about peace was not only unpopular but was even considered subversive in some quarters. The drums of war beat hard, and the most vulnerable suffered the brunt of the country’s commitment to pursue a military solution. According to official figures, in the decade that followed, the conflict left over 4 million victims.2

As the Government failed to acknowledge the existence of an armed conflict—rather insisting that it was addressing a terrorist threat—the United Nations country team in Colombia faced challenging policy choices. There were long and sometimes difficult internal discussions on how to continue assisting violence-affected communities and promoting local peace initiatives while at the same time maintaining a constructive approach with the host Government. During the darkest years of the conflict, the country team remained on the side of the victims, even at the cost of being perceived by some as partial and too close to the left, who in turn were often accused of being FARC-EP (and hence terrorist) sympathizers. While the space for political engagement and peacemaking was closed, the country team’s peacebuilding work continued uninterrupted. 

Thanks to the efforts of civil society, grass-roots organizations, and the Catholic Church, which kept the flame of peace alive for over a decade, once the Havana negotiations began, there were new but still very fragile hopes for peace. United Nations agencies, funds and programmes helped to nurture and protect those hopes. During the peace talks, the United Nations country team continued its peacebuilding efforts in conflict-affected areas, while at the same time adapting to better support the political peacemaking efforts led by the Government.3

Promoting and supporting the participation of civil society, and especially of victims, was one of the most important United Nations contributions to the Havana peace process. In 2012 and 2013, at the request of the Congress’ Peace Commissions, the United Nations organized several regional roundtables in which Colombians could voice their opinions and make proposals on the issues being discussed in Havana. This eventually triggered the first joint request from the Government and FARC-EP to organize, together with the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, extensive regional and national forums to collect and synthesize the views of civil society on the various items on the peace agenda and present the results to the negotiators in Havana.

The 2014 national forum on the peace agenda item concerning victims was particularly impactful from a human perspective and contributed to the parties’ decision to invite several delegations of victims to Havana to share their testimonies with the negotiators. We supported this effort, which was a game-changer for the peace talks. Giving a human face to the tragedy of war injected renewed urgency into the need to end the conflict.

In 2013, at the request of women’s civil society organizations, UN-Women, supported by the Resident Coordinator and United Nations agencies, organized a National Summit of Women for Peace, highlighting the need to give women a seat at the table and ensure that a gender approach was included in the negotiations. In addition to the United Nations-accompanied visits to Havana of representatives of women's civil society organizations and experts on women, participation by LGBTI rights activists and advocates for victims of sexual violence contributed to the decision by the Government and FARC-EP to include more women in their delegations and their agreement to conduct a complete revision of the peace agreements from a gender perspective.4

During the negotiations, the peace talks remained a divisive subject in Colombia. The fact that the Government and FARC-EP decided to negotiate without a call for a ceasefire contributed to the scepticism of many Colombians towards the peace process. In this context, we conducted a study on the cost of war and the economic benefits of peace, trying to depoliticize the concept of peace and demonstrating that ending the war would benefit all Colombians regardless of where they stood on the political spectrum. We also undertook the documentation of the humanitarian impact of negotiating amid the ongoing conflict to publicly and privately advocate for confidence-building measures, including the need for a bilateral ceasefire, and for FARC-EP to end the recruitment of children and release child soldiers, stop the use of landmines and permit demining operations. Similarly, at the request of the Government, we launched a countrywide communications campaign known as “Respira Paz” (Breathe Peace) to promote a culture of peace. Unfortunately, these efforts were not enough to bring all Colombians together around the common objective of peace, which remains elusive.

Thanks to its large field presence and decades of work on the ground, the United Nations country team in Colombia knew that for local communities, peace meant much more than the absence of war. Addressing some of their expectations and concerns was critical for peace to be sustainable. Thus, while the negotiations were progressing, we underscored the need to prepare a post-conflict stabilization strategy that would produce tangible benefits for war-torn regions in the immediate aftermath of the conflict. We prepared a widely consulted plan and offered the country team field presence and capacities to support the implementation of rapid impact projects that would result in early peace dividends. Furthermore, in February 2016, we launched, in partnership with the Government and the donor community, the United Nations Post-Conflict Multi-Partner Trust Fund for Colombia to support the implementation of confidence-building measures, post-conflict stabilization projects and the early implementation of the peace agreements.

Children pose in front of an OCHA vehicle during the United Nations humanitarian needs assessment mission in Córdoba Department, northern Colombia. 2016. Photo by Felinto Córdoba/UN OCHA

In addition to the joint communiqué issued by the Government and FARC-EP on 19 January 2016, which requested the Security Council to set up a special political mission in Colombia, the final peace accord explicitly appealed for the support of several United Nations agencies, funds and programmes in implementation of various parts of the agreement. Both developments reflected growing United Nations credibility earned from years of its peacebuilding work in the country.

What followed brought to light the stark difference between ending a war and building peace. The signing of the peace agreement ended the conflict with FARC-EP. But improving the living conditions of the most vulnerable, assuring protection from other armed actors, reducing social inequalities, increasing the State’s presence, transforming war economies, defending human rights, promoting development and resolving conflicts peacefully remained unfinished tasks in many regions. The Havana peace process and the ensuing peace agreement provided a valuable national framework and revitalized Colombians’ efforts to address these long-term development and peacebuilding challenges. Colombians continue to count on the support of the United Nations system throughout their long peacebuilding journey. 


1The United Nations has been working in Colombia since 1950 when UNICEF opened its office there. It was followed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in 1956, WFP in 1969, UNDP in 1974, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1977, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 1985, OHCHR in 1996 and UNHCR in 1999. At the time of the Havana peace process, the United Nations country team in Colombia was comprised of 26 agencies, funds and programmes, with over 2,300 staff working in 24 of the country’s 32 departments.

2Estimate provided by the authors based on data from Colombia’s National Victims’ Registry. Available at https://www.unidadvictimas.gov.co/es/ruv/37385.

3Given previous experiences, however, the Government was reluctant to allow an active role for the international community in the nascent peace talks and wanted to keep the negotiations sealed from external interference. While the United Nations had strong credibility within civil society, had a long way to go to build trust with other sectors of society and parts of the Government. The latter was needed in order to contribute to the peace process, but also to position the United Nations to support peace implementation efforts when requested by the Government.

4In addition to supporting women’s participation, at the request of the parties, the United Nations also provided discrete technical assistance on other sensitive issues, including child protection and transitional justice. 

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