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The Humanitarian Dimension in the Aftermath of a Peace Agreement: Proposals for the International Community Working in Colombia


Francisco Rey Marcos and Sophie Duval. This post is adapted from a recent report by the authors published by IECAH, in collaboration with UN OCHA and the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre (NOREF), available in Spanish and English.

The advances in the negotiation process between the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (People’s Army, FARC-EP) over the past two and a half years open up the possibility of a peace agreement being signed in the medium term. While the peace talks have had an indirect positive effect on some humanitarian indicators since they started — leading to a decrease in mass displacements and anti-personnel mine accidents, for example — new victims of violence appear in Colombia every day, especially among the indigenous and afro-descendant populations. Restrictions on mobility, strict social control measures, and pressures on communities are more frequent, as a result of the changing strategies of armed actors. The humanitarian situation in some areas of Colombia has remained critical — a bilateral ceasefire was not put in place — and the actions of the National Liberation Army (ELN), post-demobilization armed groups (PDAG), and other armed groups are increasingly having serious effects on the civilian population.

The root causes of the humanitarian crisis in Colombia are very deep, and a long-lasting solution will only be found if related problems such as weak state presence in some regions, drug trafficking and other illicit economies, land-tenure rights, the massive dispossession of land and assets suffered by millions of farmers, and the resort to violence to settle land-tenure disputes are properly addressed. While some of these issues are included in the negotiation agenda, their implementation will be a long-term challenge and could even trigger new conflicts. In addition, the urbanization of violence and the humanitarian consequences of the activities of the mining and extractive industries represent new challenges for Colombian institutions and their humanitarian counterparts.

Colombian authorities have made huge progress in the public policy for victims’ assistance and protection, especially by adopting the Victims and Land Restitution Law in 2011 and setting up the Unit for Assistance and Comprehensive Reparation for Victims (UARIV) as a lead and coordinating body. Despite this highly developed institutional and legislative framework and considerable allocated resources, certain weaknesses have been repeatedly highlighted, such as the central role of local entities, given the state’s limited capacity, resources, and presence in the most affected areas, which imply persistent response gaps. Because of this, international humanitarian organizations are still playing an essential role, and the possibility of the signing of a peace agreement also implies new challenges for humanitarian organizations. The international community has to face the major challenges of understanding these changes and being able to foresee and anticipate them, particularly in light of their humanitarian consequences.

Indeed, different types of regional dynamics are possible in a post-agreement setting (i.e., territories fully controlled by the state, contested by two or more armed actors, coexistence with two or more armed actors, or fully controlled by a non-state armed actor), bringing various humanitarian effects, depending on the presence or absence of certain conditions for peace (political and economic stability, the rule of law, institutional capacity, etc.) and inherited factors, or those associated with the conflict’s termination. Some critical factors will determine the levels of violence and humanitarian trends in a post-agreement scenario, such as the existence of illicit economies and previous active involvement of the FARC-EP in their control and management; the state’s capacity to seize control of areas abandoned by the FARC-EP, combat PDAGs, and avoid the proliferation of PDAGs; internal divisions in the FARC-EP and its Secretariat’s capacity to implement the peace agreement; the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) model agreed with the FARC-EP; and institutional response, socioeconomic opportunities, and capacities of local institutions.

This reality justifies and legitimates an international humanitarian presence that could offer added value not only in terms of humanitarian access but also by providing principle-based assistance and protection without political bias. The presence on the ground, experience, and expertise of humanitarian organizations developed since the mid-1990s for most UN agencies and national/international non-governmental organizations are strengths that will enrich the transition process, widen the scope of cooperation with public and private Colombian institutions, and underpin their capacities. In that sense, some recommendations for international humanitarian organizations have to be made to orient their actions in a more efficient and appropriate way in a post-agreement setting.

First, a single international community strategy should be developed, in coordination with the government, to frame peacebuilding, recovery, and assistance efforts. This has to involve humanitarian and development-oriented organizations with a view to contributing to the clarification of future roles and responsibilities for strategic and operational coherence. Second, humanitarian actors should continue to call for the inclusion of humanitarian considerations in a peace agreement and support the government in the implementation of relevant humanitarian provisions, accompanying and providing technical support to national institutions. Third, additional efforts should be made to strengthen local institutional capacities through the allocation of human, technical, and financial resources, especially in areas where the FARC-EP has a strong presence.

These general recommendations also include the monitoring of the evolution and performance of humanitarian indicators, with a set of information management tools shared with actors and the authorities to better monitor some dynamics, particularly restrictions on mobility and humanitarian access or social control, to analyze the evolution of armed conflict and new forms of violence, and to identify the capacities of national institutions and international organizations. Moreover, it implies the support of civil society organizations with the transfer of knowledge in the most affected areas, the promotion of capacity-building initiatives and community participation in projects, and a focus on social and community partner organizations that receive humanitarian funding.

However the peace negotiations end, humanitarian issues have to be part of the peacebuilding initiatives of national and international organizations. These recommendations are a set of guidelines for the future of the operations of the international community in the country and also a way of preventing an early withdrawal of humanitarian organizations, given the current and coming challenges Colombia has to face.

For more discussion of the changing role of humanitarian action during the transition in Colombia, tune in to the May ATHA Podcast.

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