The global COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound impact on Colombia, but it cannot be allowed to derail the Latin American nation’s quest for sustainable peace after five decades of conflict, the Head of the United Nations Verification Mission in that country told the Security Council in a videoconference meeting* on 14 April.
Carlos Ruiz Massieu, who is also the Secretary-General’s Special Representative to Colombia, said that the pandemic will impact on the implementation of the Final Agreement for Ending the Conflict and Building a Stable and Lasting Peace, signed on 24 November 2016 between Bogota and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia‑People’s Army (FARC-EP).
It is encouraging to see Colombians finding creative responses to the crisis and responding positively to calls for unity as authorities at all levels take measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, he said, noting how implementing parties are embracing video technology to continue their work.
However, while the National Liberation Army (ELN) — which is still in negotiations with the Government — has declared a month-long ceasefire for April, clashes involving illegal armed groups are continuing, he said.
“At a time when all efforts must be focused on fighting the pandemic, we urge all illegal armed actors in Colombia to desist from continuing to perpetrate violence upon vulnerable communities, including indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities,” he emphasized.
He told the 15-member Council that the international community has a “collective obligation” to ensure progress in implementing the 2016 peace agreement.
“Peace in Colombia cannot and should not be a casualty of this pandemic,” he added, calling for ongoing progress to fully implement the Final Agreement, including on three priorities that the Secretary-General set out in his latest report on the Mission’s work (document S/2020/239).
Those include: adopting all necessary measures to protect social leaders, human rights defenders and former combatants from acts of violence; strengthening the foundations for the longer-term reintegration of former combatants and ensuring that the benefits of the peace agreement reach them; and ensuring that communities — especially victims — remain at the heart of peacebuilding efforts.
Elaborating, he said that violence against social leaders, human rights defenders and former combatants is continuing despite a nationwide quarantine. Since the Secretary-General’s report was issued on 26 March, three more former combatants have been killed, bringing to 195 the total number of former combatants killed since the peace deal was signed. Three social leaders have also died violently.
“Just as Colombian actors are uniting to confront the pandemic, it is imperative for all actors to unite to end the epidemic of violence against social leaders, human rights defenders and former combatants,” he said.
On reintegration efforts, he said that close attention must be paid to former combatants living outside former training and reintegration areas, in places where access to basic service, such as clean water and sanitation, is more vulnerable. He also encouraged the parties to work within the National Reintegration Council to support collective projects that are more vulnerable to the economic consequences of COVID-19.
Turning to peacebuilding efforts, the Special Representative said that the current context is an opportunity to undertake planning and consultations to put the Comprehensive Programme for Security and Protection of Communities and Organizations in the Territories — a key part of the Final Agreement — into operation. Doing so, he stressed, “can make an important difference on the ground”.
Also briefing the Council was David Santiago Cano Salazar, youth representative, said all Colombians who lived through the conflict have suffered from the consequences of violence. Having grown up in Medellín, he remembers neighbours who were killed, corpses on TV, the sounds of gun shots and pervasive fear. While the peace agreement fulfilled hopes, it also raised expectations that peace would finally take root in rural Colombia. These expectations remain and all Colombians must do their part to implement the entire peace agreement.
Following his travels with the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia to Miravalle, Caquetá — the heart of the conflict for decades — where former combatants were now being trained as tour guides, he made a pledge to do his part. In December 2019, he organized a fair in Bogotá for former combatants to sell agricultural products and handicrafts, in an alliance with the United Nations, the Agency for Reintegration and Normalization and several non‑governmental organizations. He is now working to replicate the fair in other cities and has launched a programme for young entrepreneurs to share tech advice, another example of how his generation is supporting peace and reconciliation.
Going forward, he said steps must be taken to help the most vulnerable Colombians withstand the economic impact of COVID-19. Former combatants struggling due to diminished fair sales are being encouraged by mentors to sell their wares online or to offer new products. Others previously involved in a clothing project are turning adversity into opportunity, producing face masks for the COVID-19 response. Violence against young social leaders is another challenge — one of the deepest wounds on the national conscience. Measures must be taken to protect them “so they do not need to fear for their lives when speaking up for their communities”.
He pointed to the lack of State presence in rural communities as another problem, stressing that these regions need teachers, doctors, roads, schools, investments and opportunities. The end of the conflict presents an opportunity for the Government to bring a State presence and investments. “Indeed, it is their duty,” he assured. Drug cartels take advantage of that vacuum to recruit children. Cocaine use — “including in many of your countries” — means that young Colombians pay the price in blood, tears and suffering. Eradication is not the solution as it leaves poor farmers with little recourse for their livelihoods; crop substitution and economic opportunities are needed. With the right tools and market access, coca-growing families would much rather grow coffee. “We should not need a pandemic to argue for the silencing of weapons,” he said, urging the Council to see COVID-19 as a reminder that “we are stronger when we are united”.
In the ensuing discussion, Council members agreed that Colombia must forge ahead with implementing the peace agreement and that violence — particularly in rural areas — must come to a halt. They also underscored the risks that the novel coronavirus outbreak holds for the humanitarian situation.
The representative of the United States said her Government is providing $8.5 million to help Colombia respond to the pandemic, aimed at monitoring the spread of the virus, providing water and sanitation supplies and managing cases. “The rise in COVID-19 cases is worsening an already fragile humanitarian situation,” she said, adding that it is further stretching available health and social services for vulnerable populations — including more than 1.8 million Venezuelan refugees and other displaced persons living in Colombia. Welcoming steps by the Government to ensure continued implementation of the peace agreement, she voiced concern that criminal groups have recently targeted high-profile leaders, coinciding with the onset of COVID-19. The United States remains engaged in efforts to reduce coca cultivation and cocaine production, extend State presence and promote integrated rural development, she said.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, speaking also on behalf of Niger, Tunisia and South Africa, welcomed the National Liberation Army’s ceasefire and Bogota’s decision to keep implementing peace-related programmes despite the COVID-19 pandemic. “The peace process is at a critical stage, and neither Colombians nor the people of the Latin America and the Caribbean region can afford for this process to relapse.” She underscored the paramount importance of holistic land and agricultural reform in the countryside, and welcomed progress in promoting transitional justice, reconciliation and sustainable peace. She expressed concern, however, that women, including former combatants, still face significant challenges in accessing education and training programmes. She went on to condemn the assassination of indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, as well as former FARC-EP members, and called for greater efforts to guarantee the safety of the most vulnerable segments of the population.
The representative of the Dominican Republic, Council President for April, spoke in his national capacity, welcoming progress made thus far in Colombia but also noting with regret that acts of violence are continuing in some areas of the country due to the presence of illegal armed groups. All parties should guarantee a safe environment for civilians, women leaders and human rights defenders. He underscored the need to push forward social and economic reintegration, particularly by improving security for some 9,500 former combatants residing outside former Territorial Areas for Training and Reintegration. In view of COVID-19 and the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire, he voiced cautious optimism about the National Liberation Army’s declaration of a one-month ceasefire and called for its continuation.
Belgium’s representative agreed that implementing the peace agreement remains the way forward, describing the commitment demonstrated by the new subnational authorities as a welcome development. Calling on the parties to make full use of the Agreement’s dispute resolution mechanisms, he said that, while COVID-19 presents additional challenges, the authorities in Colombia have put forward a strong initial response. However, he voiced concern about consistent high levels of violence against human rights defenders — emphasizing that their safety must be guaranteed — as well as recent cases of child soldier recruitment. Among other things, he called for more progress in operationalizing the Comprehensive Security and Protection Programme for Communities and Organizations in the Territories.
Germany’s representative similarly welcomed efforts by the Government to implement peace-related programmes against the backdrop of the pandemic, as well as preventative actions taken by both the Government and FARC-EP. “Balancing the consequences of COVID-19 is an extremely challenging task and the stakes are especially high with regards to the peace process,” he said, underscoring the need to “keep the political momentum alive and kicking”. Noting that social leaders and human rights defenders who support the peace agreement, indigenous leaders and women’s rights defenders — as well as former combatants — face high risks of violence, he said no efforts should be spared to protect them. Meanwhile, he joined other speakers in expressing hope that the National Liberation Army’s one‑month ceasefire will become a departure point for future engagement, leading to confidence-building measures and ultimately negotiations.
The representative of the United Kingdom, welcoming the National Liberation Army’s unilateral ceasefire, nonetheless registered serious concern about the rising numbers of killings of human rights defenders and other activists. A related action plan should soon become a reality, especially as people who rightly stay home to combat COVID-19 are potentially more easily targeted for attack. Similarly, protection measures for former FARC-EP combatants inside and outside former Territorial Areas for Training and Reintegration should be strengthened. Mechanisms to address implementation challenges already exist, including the National Commission on Security Guarantees, which should more often engage with civil society. He also called for ensuring community participation, from process design through to implementation and follow‑up, and from rural reform to crop substitution and security. As local authorities and civil society are a source of local knowledge, capacity and commitment, it makes sense that they are at the heart of efforts to secure and sustain peace.
France’s representative commended the Colombian authorities for reaffirming their commitment to peace in the current difficult context. She welcomed a positive attitude of recently elected local and regional authorities towards implementing the peace agreement, adding that a ceasefire among armed groups can renew the momentum for long-lasting peace. She agreed with the Secretary-General that the focus now must shift towards the sustainability of the peace process. The illicit crop substitution programme — a huge hope for thousands of families — must get the resources it needs for long-term success. She also emphasized that no effort must be spared to put an end to the tragic killings of social leaders, human rights defenders and former combatants, and to bring those responsible to justice. Special attention should be given to the rights and protection of women, children, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons individuals, and of persons belonging to minorities.
Indonesia’s representative said that implementation of the peace agreement depends on constant engagement between the parties, as well as with State institutions, civil society and international partners, pointing to the Commission’s 8 April videoconference as a sign that parties are adapting in the context of the 24 March quarantine. Underscoring the collective obligation to ensure implementation of the peace accord, he said the priority is to protect social leaders, rights defenders and former combatants, voicing particular concern at the situations in Putumayo and Cauca departments. He called for enhancing the National Commission on Security Guarantees, the National Protection Unit and the Special Investigations Unit. Second, it is important to ensure that the benefits of reintegration reach all former combatants, regardless of where they live, while the “reintegration road map” should be implemented in a collaborative manner. A third priority should be to ensure that communities — especially victims — remain at the centre of peacebuilding efforts. He called on all armed actors in Colombia to “put life above any other consideration” and work to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Estonia’s representative said that the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to make implementation of Colombia’s peace agreement “much more challenging”. Welcoming the Government’s efforts to combat the novel coronavirus, as well as the National Liberation Army’s announcement of a ceasefire, he said that victims of the conflict must remain at the centre of the peace process going forward. Welcoming also the firm commitment of most former FARC-EP members to the peace process, he said that a comprehensive transition is key to reintegrating former combatants into society with dignity. He urged the Government to do all it can to stop the tragic killings of social leaders, human rights defenders and former combatants, adding that protection measures for former combatants living in places outside the former Territorial Areas for Training and Reintegration need to be extended.
Viet Nam’s representative echoed support for recent positive developments in Colombia, including the National Liberation Army’s announcement of a one-month ceasefire in response to COVID-19. Urging other armed groups to follow suit, he called on the United Nations, Member States, international organizations and others active in Colombia to urgently take preventive measures to combat the pandemic. He voiced concern that FARC-EP and the Government still have differences regarding the compliance with their obligations under the peace agreement, and that human rights defenders, former combatants and social leaders continue to suffer violent attacks linked to criminal organizations and illegal armed groups. As the Government works to end those attacks, the root causes of failure of reconciliation and long-term peace must be unceasingly addressed, he said.
Claudia Blum, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Colombia, thanked Council members for their support during a reporting period in which her nation faced numerous challenges — not least among them the flow of 1.8 million Venezuelans into her country and the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Outlining efforts to fulfil Colombia’s commitment to victims, ex-combatants, communities and families, she said the Government has made progress in consolidating 16 different development plans in the 170 municipalities most affected by violence and poverty — efforts which are now also backed by the new regional and local authorities. There has also been significant progress in reincorporating ex‑combatants, including through a Government allocation of $4 million for the acquisition of their land.
Turning to the country’s biggest challenge — guaranteeing the safety of ex‑combatants, human rights defenders, social leaders and vulnerable communities — she outlined a range of protection efforts, many launched by presidential order. She described initiatives aimed at combating armed drug trafficking and illegal mining groups and suppressing the cultivation of illicit crops. Turning to the unilateral ceasefire announced by “terrorist armed group” National Liberation Army on 29 March, she said that measure is only “partial” in nature, as the group has expressed its willingness to launch attacks in certain cases. Implementing the peace agreement is a two-way process requiring commitment from both the State and FARC-EP. In that context, she urged the Verification Mission to request the latter to provide information on drug‑trafficking routes, help locate missing persons and hand over assets for victims’ reparation, among other pending matters.
The Russian Federation’s delegate said that, in today’s challenging times, all Colombians must do more for peace and dialogue. Noting the significant role that the United Nations is playing, he said that guaranteeing security for the population is the most pressing task at hand. The killings of former combatants and social leaders must be investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. Progress on the agricultural reforms, job creation and the reintegration of former combatants will require proper financing. Due attention must also be paid to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, he said, stressing that all attempts to influence that body should be thoroughly investigated.
China’s representative concurred with the three priorities for 2020 set out in the Secretary-General’s report. Strengthening the development aspects of the peace agreement is key to ensuring its long-term success. He expressed appreciation for the joint efforts being made by the Government and FARC-EP to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in reintegration areas and requested that the Mission take care of its staff as the pandemic unfolds. Noting that 2020 marks the twentieth anniversary of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Bogotá, he said that his country will continue to work with the Government and the Colombian people “in this extraordinary time”.
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.