Time is running out for Colombia’s government to establish the legal framework for implementing a peace agreement with the now-former insurgents of the FARC guerrilla group. Failure to do would be a severe blow to the peace process that risks further destabilizing an already volatile post-conflict underworld.
On November 2, Colombian Interior Minister Guillermo Rivera issued a statement calling on congressional leaders to hold plenary sessions five days a week instead of the normal two during November in a final push to establish the legal framework for the peace accords with the Revolutionary Army Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
The reason for the urgency is the impending expiration of a special “fast track” regime, designed to overcome the turgid pace of Colombia’s congress in order to more efficiently put into place the legal foundations for the implementation of the peace agreement. If the senate and lower house fail to pass the legislation related to the peace deal before the end of November, it is possible that the approval of key measures could be delayed for months.
Nine laws and constitutional reforms related to the peace process are currently making their way through congress. However, even with the fast track process, progress has been grindingly slow. Not a single law has been passed since the current session began in July, and four projects have not even been debated yet, according to El Tiempo.
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The pending legislation includes key laws to establish the transitional justice system known as the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz – JEP) and a reform designed to facilitate the FARC’s formal participation in politics.
Opponents of the peace process have attempted to stymie the progress of legislation related to the accord through numerous avenues, including failing to show up for votes. However, pro-peace deal politicians have also been heavily criticized for a lack of leadership in the legislative process.
The government is still hoping to extend the fast track deadline until the end of December, and is currently awaiting a decision from the Constitutional Court on the issue, reported Semana. However, even with an extension, it seems unlikely that all the peace process laws could be passed by the end of the year.
The government has been facing an uphill battle to pass peace process legislation since the Constitutional Court watered down the fast track procedures in May, creating an opening for opposition members of congress to use delay tactics to slow down the process.
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The legal side of the peace process has now reached a critical moment. Failure to establish the legislative framework for the peace accords before the end of the fast track process and the current congressional session could represent the biggest political setback to the peace accords since voters unexpectedly rejected an earlier version of the agreement in an October 2016 plebiscite.
Laws that are not passed under the fast track will be submitted to the normal legislative process, which can be brought to a virtual standstill by determined opponents. It is also possible that the government’s promises to the FARC could be changed in congressional debates to the point where they lose their substance.
In addition, congress is scheduled to be out of session from mid-December until March 2018 — just months before Colombia’s next presidential election, meaning the peace accords will almost certainly become a political football batted around for electoral gain by candidates. Furthermore, at least two of the frontrunners in the election openly oppose the accords. If either one wins, they could capitalize on the lack of a supporting legal framework to sabotage the agreement.
Such a situation would lead to a failure on the part of the government to deliver what it promised in the peace deal, and the impact of that failure on the Colombian underworld could be dramatic and dangerous.
The FARC would be left in a highly vulnerable limbo with no confidence in the guarantees for their judicial situation, security, reintegration into civilian life and political participation. Under these circumstances, the likelihood of dissident groups forming or of ex-fighters returning to the underworld would be severely heightened.
In addition, the failure to deliver on promises to help develop abandoned rural areas will increase the likelihood that these regions will continue to depend on illegal economies — above all, coca cultivation. This would mean that many would remain criminal fiefdoms wracked by violence and outside the control of the state.
The disintegration of the peace process due to a lack of supporting legislation could also have a devastating impact on the fragile peace process with Colombia’s largest remaining insurgent group, the National Liberation Army ( Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN).
If the ELN leadership, or leaders of the several ELN factions at risk of breaking away from the process, see that the state has completely failed to enact its promises to the FARC, it will undermine the credibility of any promises made to the ELN. This could make the ELN leadership reassess whether now is a prudent time for the guerrilla group to make peace.
If the government and its fragile congressional coalition can make one last push, they could still pass at least the most critical laws, like the transitional justice and political reform legislation. However, it is looking increasingly likely that the peace process that was promised will not be the one that is eventually delivered.