Swallowing the toads of Colombia’s peace process

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The fighting has been going on for so long that few remember why it began. It has taken place near some of the largest oil reserves in the world. It has also been fuelled by retrograde ideologies, making the conflict a fertile theatre for terrorists and international drug traffickers. This, though, is not the Middle East. It is Colombia – in many ways, the Americas’ Palestine.

Unlike the Middle East, though, in Colombia serious peace talks are in train. Furthermore, after two years of negotiations between the Colombian government and Marxist Farc rebels, these talks may be entering their final stage. Juan Manuel Santos, the Colombian president, is this week on a European tour to drum up support and obtain reconstruction financing. Reaching a peace deal, and then implementing it successfully, will require international help. He should get it.

There are three main reasons why the international community should support Mr Santos. First, the end of the western hemisphere’s longest-running conflict creates an opportunity to improve regional cohesion. That is especially so as Venezuela and Cuba, two countries with poor relations with Washington, are involved. Cuba has hosted the negotiations in Havana, while Venezuela helped to bring the Farc guerrillas to the table.

Second, a successful peace process would, in time, bring improved governance to distant areas of Colombia that act as a safe haven for terrorists and drug traffickers. Peace could therefore improve regional security and staunch the flow of illegal drugs, especially into Europe and South America where drug use is increasing.

Third, ending a 50-year conflict that has claimed more than 200,000 lives and displaced millions would provide a valuable fillip to a country that only 20 years ago was in danger of becoming a failed state. Now it has grown to become Latin America’s third-largest economy. Even critics allow that Colombia is slightly richer, less unequal and less unjust than it used to be.

Everyone, of course, is always in favour of peace. Yet achieving it is never easy. Mr Santos has even compared the process “to eating toads”.

Domestically, the process faces at times intense opposition. That is not because Colombians dislike peace. Polls regularly show that most support the process. But after so many years of fighting, many are understandably sceptical that the Farc, a Stalinist outfit that has financed itself with drug-trafficking and kidnapping, will lay down its arms. Their misgivings are regularly stoked by Álvaro Uribe, the former president – although it would be wrong to see his often manic ravings as only conjured out of thin air.

Internationally, the peace process may also sometimes prove difficult to swallow. In Northern Ireland and Guatemala, for example, human rights offenders won amnesty in exchange for demobilisation; in South Africa, after public confessions. But Colombia’s peace process would be the first by a country that is signatory to the statute of Rome. This established the International Criminal Court, which can demand fresh trials if it deems insufficient punishment has been meted out to offenders – be they guerrilla leaders or military men – for crimes against humanity. Everywhere, balancing the needs of peace and justice is hard.

Peace is more difficult to wage than war, as Mr Santos likes to say. But Colombia is now closer than ever to a peace deal. If it does reach one, Europe and the US should give all they can in terms of political support, which is free; and what they can afford in terms of financial aid. Every bit helps if you have to swallow toads.

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