Under-Secretary-General Jeffrey Feltman ended on 15 November 2017 his fifth visit to Colombia in less than three years by hailing the progress made in ending more than 50 years of conflict in the country.
Mr Feltman also emphasized, however, that more must be done to ensure that the remarkable gains of the first phase of the peace process are maintained, and appealed to Colombians to rally behind the accord, especially to ensure that former combatants are reintegrated into civilian life and to bring security t communities in the conflict-affected areas. Mr Feltman said he was conveying a sense of growing concern about how the peace process has been evolving over the past several months.
Prior to his trip, we spoke to Mr Feltman about UN support for the Colombian peace process, which, despite recent difficulties, remains as an outstanding example of successful peacemaking and mediation.
Politically Speaking: How do you assess the Colombian peace process, which has hit a bit of a rough patch lately?
Jeffrey Feltman: The United Nations places high hopes and expectations on the Colombian peace process. The ending of one of the world’s longest lasting armed conflicts through a political, negotiated settlement is rare good news against a relatively bleak global panorama. There is still much challenging work ahead to turn the agreement into sustainable peace, but the UN remains fully committed to supporting the Colombian parties in the implementation of their agreement.
The two UN Special Political Missions for Colombia were established relatively quickly and following requests from the parties to the conflict. Is this unusual for the UN?
It is important to understand that these Missions do not follow a cookie-cutter approach. Rather, they were the outcome of a process of exploration by the Colombian parties of their options in terms of third party support to their agreement – and of an extended dialogue between Colombia and the United Nations.
Our work with Colombia has challenged us to respond very quickly to requests for assistance to a peace process that has at times been unpredictable. On 4 September 2017, the Government had suddenly announced that it had achieved a cease-fire with the other Colombian guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). The cease-fire was to take effect on 1 October. This did not give us anywhere near the usual time to plan, seek Security Council authorization for and deploy a peace operation. But we adapted quickly and organized ourselves in only a matter of weeks to carry on this new mandate as an additional task of the Mission that was already deployed on the ground.
Just as the missions in Colombia were not the result of a cookie-cutter approach, Colombia is not the typical country hosting a UN peace operation. How has the UN adapted to that reality?
The UN Verification Mission in Colombia (which succeeded the UN Mission in Colombia) is a Special Political Mission operating under Chapter VI of the UN Charter relating to the peaceful resolution of disputes. This contrasts to operations that are essentially imposed by the Council under Chapter VII of the Charter. The course taken on Colombia is the appropriate response in a situation in which two parties to a peace agreement make a sovereign decision to invite the United Nations to deploy a verification mission.
Working with a country like Colombia that fully took part in the design of the UN presence challenged us to put aside standard templates and provide a carefully tailored form of assistance to its peace process. As a middle-income country with strong institutions and capacities, that differs greatly from the “failed state” paradigm, and that is part of a region both proud of its progress and its sovereignty – Colombia would not have had it any other way.
In tailoring our assistance, we have insisted on achievable mandates backed by the necessary resources to succeed on the ground and to uphold the values and standards of the UN and the expectations on our shoulders.
What did this ‘tailoring of UN assistance’ look like?
The mission is composed of unarmed observers (military, police and civilian), thus marking a difference from the classic “blue helmet” formula of our peacekeeping operations. Whereas the latter are employed with formed units of armed troops or police who carry out security functions, the Colombia parties did not see the need or the desirability of having foreign troops on Colombian soil enforcing their cease-fire and replacing the security functions of the national state. The mission is there exclusively to monitor agreements and to help the parties overcome obstacles to implementation.
Furthermore, the Colombian parties did not seek a UN role in the monitoring of all chapters of their peace agreement, as has been the case elsewhere around the world. The object of the verification is only the cease-fire and disarmament (in the case of the first mission), followed by the reintegration of the FARC (in the case of the current mission).
Because of this highly focused mandate, the Mission in Colombia has been organized, in UN terms, as a “non-integrated” mission. It exists alongside -- but cooperating closely with -- the rest of the United Nations system in Colombia rather than joined with it, as is the more common arrangement now in post-conflict settings.
A third unique feature in the case of Colombia was the deployment of the first Mission not as a stand-alone operation but rather as one leg of a three-legged stool – the Tripartite Mechanism that also involved the Government of Colombia and the FARC. This meant that our verification teams in the field lived and worked out of the same locations, and that we shared offices around the country. We issued joint reports, and worked together to overcome difficulties in implementation of the cease-fire.
The cost of such an arrangement might theoretically have been a loss of UN autonomy and its independent voice; that was not our experience, however. We were able to maintain that critical independence while benefiting greatly from the close working relationship with the parties and their deep knowledge of the terrain. The Tripartite Mechanism was also a way to build confidence between these former adversaries, which is, additionally, a small step toward reconciliation in Colombia.