By Laura Henao Izquierdo, Centre for Research and Popular Education/Peace Programme (CINEP/PPP)


In November 2016, a peace agreement was signed between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), following more than fifty years of armed conflict. Colombian civil society organisations and state institutions are over a year into the implementation of this agreement. In spite of many obstacles, such as the assassination of social leaders, an unsupportive Congress and uncertain political environment caused by the upcoming presidential elections, it has been recognised internationally as one of the most comprehensive peace agreements in the world.


In light of this complex context, we were very keen to learn from other contexts who had experienced the difficult transition to peace following a peace agreement. Thanks to a visit facilitated by the Social Change Initiative and Conciliation Resources, myself Laura Henao Izquierdo, and two colleagues from the Centre for Research and Popular Education/Peace Programme (CINEP/PPP) – Fernando Sarmiento Santander and Katrina French – were able to travel to Belfast to learn from some of the individuals, organisations and institutions involved in peacebuilding initiatives in Northern Ireland. CINEP is one of Colombia’s longest-standing civil society organisations, with a long history of defending human rights, promoting social justice and building peace. To this effect, it conducts a number of programmes on issues of land reform and distribution, engaged and inclusive citizenship, and building a culture of peace through education. CINEP is also advising the international component of the Commission monitoring and verifying the implementation of the peace agreement. Therefore, we were very interested to understand how actors from across Northern Irish society reflected on the Good Friday Agreement, and assessed the successes, challenges and failures of its implementation almost 20 years on from its signing.


We were privileged to talk to a range of inspiring and thoughtful people, many of whom had been personally affected by the conflict, but were committed to building a more tolerant and peaceful society through dialogue and engagement across political and social divides. Our conversations with them gave a fascinating insight into the possibilities for progress that an agreement provides, alongside a cautionary tale about the many contentious issues and long-held grievances, often left unaddressed by agreements, which hinder the possibility of a truly shared and peaceful future.


There are a number of key lessons from Northern Ireland that we felt were particularly relevant to the current Colombian context, most notably in relation to the issues of reconciliation, police reform, monitoring and mediation.


Without doubt, one of the greatest current preoccupations in Colombia is around reconciliation and how to rebuild a society so polarised and divided after over five decades of armed conflict. In light of this, a particularly interesting part of the trip was visiting the Peace Walls, to view the continuing physical divisions of the conflict, and then meeting with community organisations working to reduce tensions and build trust between Unionist and Nationalist communities on either side of these physical barriers. Whilst the nature and origins of the two conflicts are distinct, the Peace Walls were a powerful physical reminder that reconciliation in Colombia, as it continues to be in Northern Ireland, will be a long-term process. Despite this, the sustained work undertaken by those local activists we spoke to reminded us that reconciliation at its heart is a local process, and that progress can be made in transforming fractured relations even when high-level political relations are not constructive.


One of the relative successes of the Northern Ireland peace process has been the reform of the police service. Colombia can learn much from the Northern Ireland experience in this regard. During our conversations we heard that, despite the negative impact of recent cuts to funding, the Northern Ireland police service has been at its most effective when it invested heavily in community policing initiatives which worked hand-in-hand with community organisations to manage contested spaces and prevent the escalation of violence. In Colombia, after decades of armed conflict with guerrilla groups, police forces have to date largely provided a militarised ‘law and order’ role, but will need to transition to a civilian-oriented service which operates on behalf of local communities if they are to be accepted by local populations. Multi-actor dialogue initiatives in which local community leaders and police officers meet together to discuss issues of concern could be replicated in Colombia as part of this process.


This trip also provided the opportunity for us to discover how community organisations have developed monitoring and observation systems for events with violent histories, such as the parades, and how these groups play a key role in enforcing standards on the effective and even-handed de-escalation of situations of potential armed conflict. Implementation of the peace agreement in Colombia could lead to tense public mobilisations, some frustrated with a lack of progress in the agreement’s implementation, and others demanding the repeal of contentious components. Ensuring accountability through monitoring will be important to reduce violent interactions between the police forces and citizens engaging in political protest. In relation to CINEP’s upcoming work, monitoring mechanisms inspired by those in Northern Ireland could be part of an early warning system designed to prevent the escalation of community-level violence associated with the integration of ex-FARC combatants in rural and peripheral areas of Colombia. It could also monitor threats of assassination and retribution against local leaders advocating for the implementation of provisions in the agreement such as those relating to land restitution, for example.


Finally, the study trip provided us with fascinating insights into the role that mediators can play in the resolution of community conflict, particularly in relation to paramilitarism.  Here there exists an obvious parallel between the two contexts: just as Northern Ireland continues to tackle paramilitary violence within both Republican and Loyalist communities, in Colombia illegal armed groups other than the FARC continue to exist and operate; left-wing armed groups, including guerrillas such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and dissidents of the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), continue their struggle against the state whilst right-wing paramilitary groups carry out many politically-motivated assassinations. Rural communities in Colombia are particularly fearful of paramilitaries across the political spectrum – at risk of reprisals when trying to reclaim land which was forcibly taken from them during the armed conflict. It was interesting to note that in Northern Ireland, as in Colombia, armed actors are often heavily embroiled in organised crime, blurring the line between what can be considered politically and criminally-motivated activity. In both contexts, the need to understand the true motivations of armed actors’ activities is crucial for mediators to create new non-violent practices and improve security in local communities.  Learning about how mediators have managed to deescalate paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland, whilst encouraging new norms of community justice, moving away from the violent retributive justice dispensed by armed groups towards restorative justice, was particularly useful for us, as well as finding out how these mediators can be protected whilst carrying out such dangerous work.


A couple of more fundamental reflections to finish. We have been inspired by the commitment and adeptness with which civil society organisations in Northern Ireland have been able to adapt as conflict dynamics not anticipated or tackled as part of the peace agreement have emerged during the implementation phase. At the same time, we have been struck by the difficulty of resolving, or working through, deep-seated historic grievances which hinder people’s ability to invest in, or even in some cases conceive of, a shared future in Northern Ireland. The unwillingness of political actors in Northern Ireland, or “gatekeepers” as they were referred to, to compromise or make concessions in support of the peace process makes us nervous for our own peace process ahead of Colombia’s upcoming presidential elections in 2019. But the Northern Ireland experience also allows us to see that it is still possible to make a practical difference in local communities, despite a lack of political consensus and support.


Following the richness of this short trip, we look forward to continuing this exchange of ideas with the organisations who so generously shared their expertise during this visit, around how divided societies can learn to live side-by-side after periods of armed conflict.