A plea for help and peace, from Colombia’s communities to the UN Security Council


The small plane bobbed through the clouds as my Peruvian colleague and I looked out onto the green mountains of Colombia below. It was July 2019 and we, then policy leads at the UK and Peruvian Missions to the UN, were co-organizing the UN Security Council’s visit to Colombia – including this field visit outside Bogotá to Caldono, Cauca. Today, at this crucial time for Colombia and with the Security Council last week renewing the mandate of the UN Verification Mission (UNVM) in Colombia for another year, key insights from that visit continue to resonate and to offer important considerations for bringing about peace and security for all conflict-affected communities in Colombia.

Amid widespread security risks, human rights defenders in Cauca expressed fear and frustration that they were being targeted in attacks by armed groups. At the same time, local and national authorities and former combatants from the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP), who signed a peace agreement with the government in 2016, revealed the successes and challenges of “reincorporation” programs that support former combatants in their transition to civilian life. The following day in Bogotá, transitional justice representatives added further color to the Council’s understanding of Colombia’s conflict. This included a strong call for UNVM verification of sentences to be handed down by the transitional justice system that was established to address crimes committed during the conflict. 

More than a year later, the human rights defenders’ fears are more acute; the former combatants more dispersed and the need for UNVM verification support to the transitional justice system even greater. Since Colombia’s peace agreement, the Security Council has responded to these three issues in a variety of ways – repeatedly calling for increased efforts to improve regional security and to strengthen the reincorporation process, and reaffirming the need to uphold the independence and autonomy of the transitional justice system.

As the UNVM mandate now enters its fourth year, it is important to ensure that these stakeholders’ concerns continue to shape the Council’s conceptualization of the peace agreement, recognizing each issue and the interlinkages between them and how they impact community and ex-combatant trust in the government and the peace process.

Attacks on human rights defenders must be seen as attacks on communities. Human rights defenders and social leaders carry out crucial local work to implement the peace agreement and advocate with regional and national authorities to correct historic injustices to ensure fulfillment of human rights in some of the most challenging contexts in Colombia. The peace agreement promised these communities improved security conditions, so when those who fight for justice are brutally killed, hope is lost and the credibility of efforts towards peace is diminished.

Furthermore, as transitional justice becomes ever more controversial in Colombia, sentences for those who fall under its jurisdiction will come under increased scrutiny. The transitional justice system created by the peace agreement has, since inception, been criticized by sectors who consider it to enable impunity. Tensions around the who, what, and why of justice and sentencing in Colombia have since risen, and will mean that the system’s decisions come under an even more critical microscope. In its recent extension of the UNVM mandate, the Security Council signaled its willingness to add the requested task through which the Mission would verify the system’s sentences. This sustained support, in addition to the Council’s continued impactful statements on the topic, will be essential to the system’s ability to weather the storm of controversy and continue to work independently. The new task should therefore be added to the mandate as soon as possible, to allow the UNVM time to prepare before the first sentence is decided.

Insecurity combined with increased controversy will intensify stigmatization of former FARC-EP combatants and aggravate their mistrust of the institutional architecture of peace, potentially pushing them out of the reincorporation process. The UN’s shared vision of reintegration “success”, part of a project of which I am part at United Nations University Centre for Policy Research, sets out the importance of tackling stigma and trust in order to ensure that former combatants are able to transition into productive and sustainable civilian lives. To ensure former combatant trust in the reincorporation process and, by extension, in the government, security measures must be strengthened in order to protect them as they reincorporate back into communities.

Evidence of the importance of comprehensively addressing these issues abounds at the local level – there is no good reason to look further than the human rights defenders, community leaders, and former combatants for information that can motivate an effective response. That is why the Security Council should place the voices of those most affected by violence at the forefront of its work on Colombia, and act on their fears, frustrations, and calls to action during this year of the mandate and beyond.

Cristal Downing
Cristal Downing
Cristal Downing is the Colombia Case Study Manager for the Managing Exits from Armed Conflict project at United Nations University Centre for Policy Research. The views expressed are those of the author.