Enduring Denialism: A Threat to Sustainable Peace in Colombia

Enduring Denialism: A Threat to Sustainable Peace in Colombia
Colombia Fighting for Peace” by Leon Hernandez is licensed under CC 2.0.

The 2016 peace deal between the FARC-EP guerrilla and the Colombian state has proven domestically polarising. Recently, the release of the final report of the Truth Commission has highlighted denialism as an important cause of persistent violence. Massive contestation of the report on behalf of the Colombian right thereby shows that this denialism is far from overcome. Rather, it poses significant challenges to the newly elected Petro administration as well as Colombia’s peacebuilding prospects more generally.

Colombia: A Polarising Peace Process 

In 2016, the Colombian government and the FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army) guerrilla signed the “Comprehensive Peace accords to create a stable and lasting peace”. The agreement seeks to put an end to more than five decades of internal armed conflict, where violence particularly hit Colombia’s rural and most impoverished territories and further cemented massive urban-rural inequalities. The agreement is not only remarkable because of the sheer length of the war, but because it also figures among the most comprehensive and inclusive to date. The Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, in charge of the technical verification of the peace agreement’s implementation, affirms “that the agreement is very well designed” and “develops in a very broad and balanced way, key issues” that offer a real chance “to end armed violence”. Likewise, the international community applauded the deal and then-President Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Yet, the peace deal has proven domestically polarising. While the agreement was overwhelmingly supported in the most violence-ridden territories of Colombia and the more than 9 million victims, the Colombian right heavily contested the peace process since negotiations first became public. In particular, opposition has been triggered by the political participation of the FARC, and ‘too light’ punishments for committed crimes. Most strikingly, a narrow majority of eligible voters rejected the original agreement in a popular referendum that was characterised by a historically low voter turnout of 37.5%. While voter turnout in the most war-affected and overwhelmingly pro-accords regions was partially suppressed by a hurricane hitting on referendum day, the turnout does show that large sectors of Colombian society did not deem the accord as particularly important – demonstrating a disparity between domestic and international receptions of the accord.

Denialism and the Persistence of Violence

Meanwhile, the polarisation between supporters and opponents of the peace accords continues unabated. The release of the final report of the Truth Commission demonstrates this further. Celebrated by the United Nations as “a milestone of the utmost importance for peace in Colombia and for the world”, Iván Duque, the outgoing president and opponent of the peace accords, did not even attend the presentation of the report on the causes and consequences of the Colombian armed conflict. Simultaneously, his Democratic Centre party issued a press release in which it rejected the report as inappropriate and dogmatic, “given that there are multiple versions of what happened”. 

In doing so, they visibly foreground the pertinence of one of the findings of the Truth Commission report: That is, the persistence of denialism among conservative politicians and state officials. Denialism, “the practice of denying the existence, truth, or validity of something despite proof or strong evidence that it is real, true, or valid”, is not unique to Duque and his administration. His political mentor, the still popular former president Álvaro Uribe achieved the highest number of votes in Colombian presidential elections with a discourse based on the denial of the very existence of an armed conflict. According to hardliner Uribe, Colombia was facing a terrorist threat rather than a political conflict with the state. On this basis, he not only ruled out negotiations but militarily escalated the conflict, provoking the most violent phase of the war as well as human rights violations on behalf of the Colombian state.

The ongoing negotiation of the origins and the interpretation of violence in Colombia is not a mere political debate but likely directly affects the nature and the extent of violence. For example, the Truth Commission highlights that the denial of the well-evidenced collaboration between right-wing paramilitaries and politicians–the Colombian military and state institutions–worked to create a culture of impunity, facilitating human rights abuses. Importantly, this denialism continues to facilitate the persistence of paramilitarism. The consequences of this are severe: With the demobilisation of the FARC-EP, successor organisations of the formerly unified paramilitaries are actively trying to consolidate their control of the territories that had already suffered the most from the armed conflict. For example, recently, the Gulf clan successfully imposed a curfew on the rural community of Palmor in Magdalena department as a demonstration of its strength, despite then-President Duque’s declaration of “the end of the Gulf clan cartel” following the detention of its leader in 2021. Likewise, combats with other armed groups continue to forcibly displace entire communities, whose leaders face high assassination rates as well. Meanwhile, denialism not only creates additional obstacles to finding adequate political answers to these challenges, it also diverts attention away from the responsibility of the Colombian state for their very existence. 

Challenges Ahead: Outlook

The newly elected leftist government of Gustavo Petro aims at bringing violence to a definite end. Opposed to the denialist attitudes of the Colombian right, it has already announced its plans to negotiate with all the armed groups that have triggered a worrying escalation of violence in Colombia since 2021. While it is too early to predict sustainable steps towards peace, it is clear that his administration faces massive short, medium and long-term obstacles, with denialism only being one of them. As such, Petro’s peace agenda will face fervent opposition from right-wing parties who are still strongly represented in Congress. Likewise, his four years in office are unlikely to suffice to bring peace to a Colombia that is not only deeply polarised, but facing multiple armed groups and regionally specific dynamics of violence.

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