International conflict analysis

Debating the role of conflict resolution: the case of Colombia


In October 2016, 37% of the Colombian population were consulted by referendum about a peace agreement with the FARC guerrilla group and their plebiscite came as a consternation at both the national and the international level. The agreement was then revised and ratified by the Congress and engendered notably a demilitarisation process of 15 000 combatants (ICG 2017, 1), which officially ended 52 years of internal armed conflict. The various peace processes engaged by the 12 successive presidents in power between 1964 and 2016, and particularly their efficiency is a subject of discussion between liberal political scientists and more realist historians. Moreover, Colombia is often presented in the historical scholarship as being ‘an important exception’ (Wickham-Crowley 2014, 216), ‘sui generis’ (ibid., 229), or “peculiar” (ibid., 237), which supports the pertinence of treating this case.

The three extended insurrections in Guatemala (1960-1996), El Salvador (1979-1992) and Colombia (1964-2016) resulted, after a long period of armed violence, in negotiated resolutions of internal conflict, whether total or partial. Historically, such experiences of institutional reforms are not only unprecedented in Latin American revolutionary guerrillas but are also affected by the historical situations to which these protracted insurrections have led. Studies on the causes, nature and consequences of war, such as the ‘new wars’ thesis (Kalyvas 2011, 215), consider that internal conflicts are refractory to a negotiated resolution, because they are highly bloody conflicts that deal with deeply-rooted structural issues. Moreover, most internal conflicts have ended with a military victory of one of the two sides, which ensured the cohabitation of both forces in society after the conflict.

One of the long-dominant approaches in political science, namely peace studies, was developed in the 1960s and instead of interrogating the causes of violence has considered it as a social process that could and should be resolved through dialogue among actors (Galtung 1996; Galtung & Jacobsen 2000; Barash & Webel 2013). Although at the intersection of the theoretical reflection and the proposed action, peace studies are nevertheless methodologically biased by their pacifist approach – i.e. based on the premise that peace must be obtained. Notwithstanding, it opened the debate between diplomatic historians and political scientists on the possibility of resolving political violence within a negotiated framework.

The Colombian conflict is one of the longest in history, therefore this paper will not only outline the root causes of the conflict and the intensity of the confrontations during the different periods, but will also focus on explaining the duration of the conflict and its general significance for the international order. To do so, this paper will first address the conflict from a political science perspective and refer mainly to the peace studies scholars who emerged in the 1960s in the Western hemisphere. Thereafter, it will examine how this idealistic approach has been criticized by authors from the history field, who reflected on the specific difficulties encountered during the implementation and on the role of the international community in peacebuilding.


  • Historical background

First of all, a brief historical background, paired with some basic explanations of the origins of the conflict itself, and of the peace processes would enable a greater comprehension of the overall context. The 1948 assassination of the main presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitan, who was opposed to the ruling oligarchy of Colombia, triggered a major popular reaction qualified in historical sciences as ‘the largest urban riot in Latin American history’ (LeGrand 2003, 172). The ensuing repression against Liberals and leftist militants resulted in their fleeing to the mountains where they organized themselves in armed groups.

Meanwhile, the 1959 victory of the Cuban guerrilla emanated from a doctrinaire production accompanied by the political will of the Cuban regime. The growing tensions with Washington and the consequent rapprochement with Moscow prompted Havana to adopt a foreign policy favourable to the Eastern bloc. One of the most immediate consequences was diplomatic isolation enacted by the US. Yet the 1962 missiles crisis was concluded by a deal protecting Castro from a US overthrow in exchange of USSR withdrawal of nuclear missiles (Best et al. 2008, 386). Thus, for the few years of the Détente, Cuba developed relatively autonomously from its US neighbour, which is reflected in the support of the foco group to other Latin American left-wing guerrillas. This context prompted the creation of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolutionarias de Colombia (FARC) in 1964.

However, the demands of the armed groups had fundamentally targeted an agrarian reform. This struggle over land and the decreasing demography resulted in the Colombian government’s failure to implement an organised and functioning territorial policy. Indeed, the state created minimum legislation and preferred ‘to either flout its responsibility for resolving social conflicts, leaving them to be settled by illegally armed groups or to respond itself using military repression’ (Thomson 2011, 10). Even nowadays, the influence of powerful landowners is still visible in the deeply backward and feudal organisation of the agrarian system. In response to the actions of the guerrillas, the great landowners began to organize, and to cultivate drugs to finance their defences. At this point, drug traffickers and paramilitaries appeared. The latter were born in the late 1960s as part of a policy recommended by US advisers to break any attempt at social transformation. In 1985, they became the armed-wing of narco-traffickers but also complemented and illegally seconded the army by operating outside regulations. They regrouped in 1997 within the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), and targeted mostly the real or supposed social bases of the guerrillas.

Thus, their main aim was to acquire as much land as possible to develop their trade and wealth and they implemented an agrarian counter-reform opposed to that wanted by the guerrillas. Their methods were very often ultra-violent and the paramilitaries alone carried out 80% of the massacres (Porch and Rasmussen 2008, 532). As a direct consequence of these armed long-lasting conflicts, Colombian society is divided into powerful groups defending different and opposed interests: the establishment that has power, the great landowners often associated with the paramilitaries or drug traffickers, themselves defending their interests through their wealth, and the guerrillas and the left forces defending agrarian reform. Therefore, the conflict led most key actors to fight over the same areas and resources, a situation which further complicates the negotiation process.


2) Negotiating the end of a civil war

This paper will now expose the predominant theoretical frameworks on contemporary conflict resolution and more specifically on how to negotiate and manage the end of an internal deadly conflict with international repercussions. What characterises the history of civil wars of the second half of the 20th century like the Colombian conflict is the involvement of external powerful actors, which is typically a legacy of the Cold War when proxy conflicts were omnipresent. Thereafter, US post-Cold War hegemony and the related disappearance of the communist actors from the international scene such as Cuba, China and Russia, led to the widespread recognition of neo-liberal democracies’ benefits. This resulted in the international community, and principally the United Nations (UN), getting increasingly implicated in peace-making and mediation of the Colombian negotiations since Uribe’s election in 2002 (Bejarano 2003, 245). Nevertheless, in the early 2000’s, several countries, namely Canada, the US, New-Zealand and the EU, included FARC onto their official list of terrorist organizations, which prevented them from developing any political contacts.

Clausewitz’ famous reflection on ‘war as a continuation of politics’ (Martins 2003, 99) analyses the armed conflict as the particular means to a political end. Even if not addressed explicitly, the question of negotiation is central since it is when the political objective pursued can be achieved. However, negotiations occur only after the armed confrontation and scholars have long focused on the diplomatic capacity to achieve political ends from the balance of power obtained on the military ground. The negotiation issue is therefore linked to conflict but signals a return to politics.

This Clausewitzian view of armed conflict marks the reflections by both historians and political scientists on wars, and especially on the possibility of reaching a negotiated agreement. Indeed, the question of the divisibility of the stakes of confrontation and possible gains at the end of the conflict has led some theorists, such as defence expert Fred Iklé (2005), to establish a fundamental difference between international and internal conflicts. International conflicts generally involve questions of power, and the issues and gains are therefore divisible (territory, population, natural resources, etc.). Internal conflicts, on the other hand, concern aspects of identity, for which the stakes and possible gains (status of a language, a religion, etc.) do not seem to be divisible. Moreover, a negotiated resolution would presuppose that the former adversaries find the means not only to put an end to the conflict, but also to cohabit in the same territory. It seems therefore relevant to explain the bloody nature of internal conflicts and the impossibility of thinking of a negotiated resolution in this case. Consequently, the historical analysis of internal conflicts has long been focusing on its causes, ignoring its possible overtaking. Thus, based on an analysis of political violence, few works incorporate a reflection on the end of internal conflicts (Gurr 1988).

An achievement of the quantitative approach has been to show that ​​fundamental differences between interstate wars and civil wars over the possibility of reaching a negotiated agreement were not verified in reality. Indeed, internal conflicts have been studied with the instruments of analysis of interstate wars. Authors have followed the methodological orientations of the “Correlates of War” (COW), a systemic analysis of civil wars particularly relevant considering that it was conducted by political scientist David Singer and historian Melvin Small (1982). An extremely quantitative approach is limited insofar as it is based almost exclusively on statistical processing of data and relies entirely on the criteria used to identify a war. For example, the COW definition of an armed conflict is one which has produced at least a thousand battle-related deaths per year and in which the weaker party has inflicted on its opponent at least 5% of the losses it itself suffered. Although the proportion of internal conflicts reaching a negotiated resolution is less important than that of interstate conflicts, this quantitative research has had the merit of questioning the idea that internal conflicts could not be solved within the existing theoretical framework.

As a result, political specialists in negotiation analysis (either in international strategic issues or national non-armed conflict themes) began to focus on resolutions of internal armed conflicts. For example, Licklider’s work (1995) is one of the first to compare several resolutions of civil conflicts (notably the civil wars in Greece, Colombia, Yemen, Nigeria, Sudan, and Zimbabwe) within a common theoretical framework. This theoretical approach emphasizes the role of leaders, rational choice and mechanisms to reach a concerted solution acceptable to all present parties (Mason & Fett 1996).

As in an interstate war, the end of the civil war is defined as the end of armed violence between the incumbent government and the insurgents leading to the existence of ‘divided or dual sovereignty’ (Tilly 1978, in Kalyvas 2011, 203). Five variables allow to understand the end of an internal armed conflict: the nature of the problems that led to armed confrontation, the policies of each camp, military equilibrium (i.e. both the perceptions of a possible military victory and the situation on the ground), the effect of external actors, and the nature of the political regime arising from the agreement (Licklider 1995, 303). Thus, the elements characterizing a negotiation in an international military conflict are re-evaluated in the light of the nature of the internal conflict.

Institutional inequality between government and insurgents is compensated for by unequal engagement, insurgents being solely defined by their military action while the government has other foundations and interests. This inequality has also led resolution studies to emphasise the role of external actors, such as mediators, negotiating parties and guarantors of agreements. In addition, international mediations can take the form of international armed interventions that seek to put an end to internal conflicts, although scholars have shown that it tended to protract them (Gray 2008, 68). Usually carried out by the UN, regional organizations or coalitions of states, these interventions led to a shift in focus from the negotiating role of external actors to the ability of multilateral institutions to impose peace and democracy in the name of the UN Charter.

The approach that consists in applying the analysis of negotiated resolutions from interstate wars to internal conflicts focuses on the forms taken by the conflict rather than on its causes (King 1997). The reasons for the internal conflict (revolutionary, secessionist, identity, religious, etc.) fade behind the identification of the mechanisms for its possible resolution, which focuses on negotiation. This approach is nevertheless relatively rare in the study of Colombia, where predominant analyses have focused on the reasons and modalities of the conflict, namely the transformation of a revolutionary insurrection into diversified forms of violence. It is thus significant that in both historical and political theoretical works mentioned above the Latin American cases are rarely studied in depth.

Applied research on negotiation and conflict resolution enables to understand the Colombian case by showing the limits of the sociology of violence, focusing on forms of violence rather than on its possible overcoming (Galtung 1996). Similarly, an analysis of negotiation strategies and government-initiated discussions highlight the lack of continuity of action and the succession of government strategies built on the denial of previous policies. Comparing Latin American cases makes it possible to review the negotiations’ structure and content, namely the main themes of discussion and of agreements, the internal and external elements of the historical context explaining the scope of the commitments made, and the procedural elements, such as mediation and verification.

This angle of approach has been rarely studied in-depth for Colombia and very rarely from a comparative perspective. However, it has a limit, as acknowledged by army Latin American specialist Jack Child (1992), who argues that understanding the different stages of the negotiation and the dynamics between them, is marked by a sequential description of normative tendencies, which tends to isolate the negotiation, especially the behaviour of actors and political leaders, from the rest of the process. It is therefore significant that comparative studies on Latin American peace processes incorporate the political aspect of negotiated resolution but also integrate the historical evolution of the conflict and its causes, institutional reforms and the construction of democratic rules.


3) Thinking of a peace process beyond the end of the armed conflict

The idea that an analysis centred exclusively on the negotiation process is insufficient to understand the whole process is confirmed by the particular difficulty in resolving internal conflicts. By ignoring the argument that it is impossible to find a negotiated arrangement in the case of armed conflicts because of the nature of the stakes (Licklider 1995, 20-34), quantitative studies have pointed out to the significant proportion of internal conflicts resolved through negotiation, but have also shown that, unlike interstates conflicts, achieving a negotiated settlement does not necessarily mean an effective end to the armed conflict.

For example, political scientist Barbara Walter (1997) identifies 41 civil wars worldwide between 1940 and 1990, based on the quantitative approach proposed by Singer and Small (1982) and their definition of ‘internal wars’. The conditions of negotiations are that ‘both sides had enough bargaining power to elicit important concessions from each other, if factions actually held face-to-face talks, if issues relevant to resolving the war were discussed, and if talks appeared to be undertaken in good faith’ (Walter 1997, 344). In 17 cases, negotiations were started, of which at least 13 led to the signing of a negotiated agreement, but only 8 of them resulted in the effective resolution of the conflict, among which Colombia after the 1948-58 Violencia period. It should be noted that some scholars such as historian Catherine LeGrand (2003) argue that La Violencia is part of the root causes of the protracted conflict, although policy-makers tend to refer to the creation of the FARC as the starting point. However, her broad definition contrasts with situations mentioned earlier, where the political resolution and the integration of revolutionary movements into political life are paramount, as is the case in Venezuela and in early-1990s Colombia.

An even more negative assessment of the post-Cold War history shows that numerous conflicts continued after the signing of an agreement. Indeed, 31 of the 38 formal peace agreements of internal armed conflicts between 1988 and 1998 did not last for more than three years (Darby & Rae 1999). The main factor of success is the fact that the agreement led to the end of the armed confrontation, ensuring that even after the withdrawal of the international guarantors from the mediation, the countries could enjoy lasting peace. On the other hand, several African countries are cases where a peace agreement did not stop the confrontation, or as in the Rwandan example where the 1993 agreement was followed by the massacre of more than a million people (Stedman, Rotchild & Cousens 2002, 463). Nevertheless, it should be noted that in the selection of their cases, the authors have favoured those in which external actors played an important role in the resolution.

Furthermore, a study considering a remobilization of former insurgents or an armed seizure of power, should lead to a historical reassessment of certain cases qualified as successes or as failures. For example, the sporadic remobilisations in Nicaragua since the 1989 disbanding of the Contras, the deterioration of the social situation and the continuity of political and social violence in El Salvador question the actual degree of pacification (Stedman, Rotchild & Cousens 2002). This shows that the construction of peace is accompanied by the imposition of a political and economic model, liberal democracy and a market economy, which augurs an increase in socio-economic inequalities and thus a growing insecurity. Therefore, research on resolution should go beyond considering the signing of an agreement as the conditions for successful negotiation, to rather show under what conditions the negotiated solution could effectively lead to lasting peace.

The low frequency of successful negotiations in history does not come from a lack of will from the parties at stake. Indeed, in many situations dialogues have been initiated, often resulting in the signing of treaties, but the end of the conflict has not been a reality. If there are many reasons for the failure of a negotiation (no real willingness to negotiate, prospect of a military victory, difficulty in sharing the possible gains of an agreement, maximalist claims) they do not allow to understand why successful negotiations do not lead to true peace. The diversity and heterogeneity of the actors involved could increase the risk that not all actors feel committed by the resolutions. One of the most developed aspects is based on loyal or unfair behaviour and the real will of the actors (Stedman 1997), but this is an issue of the characteristics of negotiation rather than of the difficulties of implementing the agreements.

Historically, one of the most sensitive aspects of the implementation of peace agreements concerns the demobilization. The peace agreement provides that the political and military relationship has resulted in de facto equality between the signatories. Implementation must not alter this balance and must be achieved without one party gaining ascendancy over the other and interpreting the provisions granted. In Colombia, this is particularly noticeable for the demobilization process of the FARC, during which the security dilemma is reversed, as the armed group must surrender its weapons and demobilize its combatants without the state being able to fully guarantee its security (Gray 2008, 85). Indeed, a demobilized group is vulnerable and likely to react to possible distortions to the agreement.

The aftermath of the signing of peace shows the difficulties of carrying the negotiated provisions through, and stresses the sufficient guarantees for effective implementations. Therefore, Hampson (1996) advocated for important international interventions, the only effective guarantee of the enactment of the negotiated modalities. Indeed, the most difficult stages of negotiations is not the discussion of the parties’ claims or the root causes, but the definition of credible guarantees by the parties to ensure the terms of the agreement follow through, particularly demilitarization and demobilization. In a similar approach, Walter (1997) emphasizes necessary security guarantees from both an important third party military presence and more institutional aspects, such as the establishment of new and neutral structures guaranteeing the political expression of both sides.

For these early works, a prolongation in time of the study of the negotiation is needed which must look at the dynamics specific to the implementation, and their difficulties. Nevertheless, they reproduce the focus on the negotiating framework, its outcome (the agreements) and its effects (their implementation), and thus relegate to a second level the importance of the local contexts. This desire for formalization paradoxically leads to practical and too general recommendations rather than being Colombia-specific.

As a response to these limitations, these studies were integrated into the wider framework of peace-building analysis, following the very strong involvement of the UN and its specialized agencies, as well as many NGOs in international mediations. Because of the research funds from national or international agencies, and the involvement of former leaders in research (Soto & Castillo 2016), these studies identified conditions for an intervention success, and particularly the international community’s role. Nevertheless, they have integrated an analysis of the political and social contexts which resulted in the resolution meaning not only the end of the war and the combatants’ demobilization but also the resolution of the root causes or factors that had favoured the extension of the conflict over time. In many cases, the demilitarization of society and the democratization of institutions take place in countries that generally have never experienced the conjunction of democracy and peace (Ball 1996; Cousens & Kumar 2001).

The disjunction noted above between the negotiation frameworks and analyses centred on the importance of contexts are also found in peace-building analysis. A first approach assesses the technical, logistical, financial and organizational difficulties of the mission and the effects of these dysfunctions on the construction of peace. This orientation of research corresponds to the UN’s functioning, by defining the tasks assumed by an international mission in accordance with the UN Charter, but also with the UN’s evolving institutional environment. As a result, peace-building operations would have tasks to perform independently of the situation. Nevertheless, analyses highlight barriers to implementation, notably the problems of spoilers, the responsible international bodies, or their relations with internal actors (Stedman 1997).

A second orientation has sought to go beyond this unilateral vision and concentrated on the conflict’s causes, hence prioritizing structural changes (for example, by promoting political pluralism, strengthening justice and economic reform). This approach also highlights the plurality of situations to avoid a fixed conception of intervention. Nevertheless, by concentrating exclusively on root causes, it underestimates the political and social developments during the armed confrontation, as well as the dynamics arising in the resolution context.

Going beyond these two initial approaches, the most recent work on peacebuilding has revisited the original objective, namely the consolidation of peace and not just the cessation of hostilities, as a priority of the political dimension even if the agreement’s provisions appear to be technical or logistical. Indeed, understanding the implementation’s specificities requires identifying recurring themes such as demobilization and demilitarization, setting economic priorities, organizing the first pluralist elections, the return of refugees, the construction of new civilian security institutions and new local authorities (Stedman, Rotchild & Cousens 2002).

Nevertheless, for all the themes identified, the overall priority is ‘building or strengthening mechanisms of authority, and possibly legitimacy, to resolve internal conflicts without violence’ (Cousens & Kumar 2001, 4), that is to say the acceptance of the norms, rules and institutions of society. This step does not involve practical tasks but a reflection on the predominantly political nature of both the conflict and its resolution which makes it possible to identify the priority areas for reconstruction. For this, it is necessary to conceive the agreements’ application, that is to say the construction of peace, as a dynamic process.

The application of peace-building reflections to Colombia is all the more useful as the UN intervention in El Salvador has long been regarded as a positive example (Munck & Kumar 1995). Moreover, the possibility of resorting to multilateral intervention is frequently part of the rhetoric, both within Colombian society and among multilateral agencies. However, this approach should not lead to a false parallelism about the nature of the conflicts that these mechanisms claim to solve. In Colombia, representative political institutions existed before the war, although with partial democratic functioning and no control over the whole territory. Revolutionary insurrections have been constructed against these central institutions, but the armed conflict did not mean the interruption of their functioning, or even their destruction. The challenge of their renovation was on the contrary prevalent throughout the armed conflict and central during their resolution.

Conflict resolution is therefore not conceived by the society or the international community and especially the US, as the construction of new institutions after the collapse of sources of legitimate political authority. For example, in Africa or the Balkans, multilateral interventions have focused on the pacification and the construction of new states, as shows the evolution from ‘peacebuilding’ towards ‘state-building’ in the case of failed states (Soto & Castillo 2016, 212-214). Rather, conflict resolution is the renovation of political institutions in order to affirm the unity of an already existing state vis-à-vis society. This institutional modality highlights a qualitative difference between Colombia and other resolutions of internal conflicts. In the Colombian case, the UN succeeded in developing a strategy for the gradual building of trust between the FARC and the government because there was an agreement that the process would lead to the reconfiguration of institutions, but in the already pre-existing framework. The existence of a liberal normative tradition, the integration of the region into the world economy, the regional presence of democracies supporting the negotiating processes are all factors that differentiate the Colombian case from other internal conflicts (Penceny & Stanley 2001).

Finally, the roles played by the US and accompanying NGOs during the armed confrontation and its resolution, notably in the attempts at regional co-operation such as the Alliance for Progress, were more important than in African and Asian cases. Nevertheless, the US has greater interest in Central America, where it either explicitly directly intervened or implicitly supported local dictators, whereas in Latin America only economic control was aimed at (Best et al. 2008, 393), which also impacted on the conflict’s duration. Thus, the Colombian case appears to be the perfect counter-example of a country where a strong historical legacy of the liberal norm has not been a propitious ground to the possibility of a generalized peace process.



In conclusion, both military and diplomatic historians tend to be pessimistic about peace processes (peacekeeping, peace-making and peacebuilding) and this also concerns the guerrilla war in Colombia. As the conflict extended over so many years, the international scene in which it occurred shifted recurrently, following the degree of US involvement, and the dominant regional power (Best et al. 2008). Nevertheless, the common trend in political science is the widely-recognised acceptance of the peacebuilding/democratisation/liberal economy nexus. This paper highlighted the practical issues involved when applying those theoretical frameworks, and thus presented some criticisms by historical scholars who study past events and hence have a rather realist position on the prospect for peace.

Reflections on peace-building have been widely applied to Latin American cases, and nurture the expectations of a comprehensive resolution in Colombia. Using the concept of ‘complex political emergency’ (1999, 51), Pearce highlights the difficulties arising when implementing the negotiated agreements rather than the resolution as such. This can be explained by the fact that Latin American cases are exemplary of both a successful resolution of the armed conflict and a problematic deepening of a lasting peace. Indeed, the signing of peace was accompanied by political and economic choices, such as the generalization of neo-liberal economic policies, structural adjustment and the reduction of the state, which jeopardized effective implementation tackling the reconstruction’s specificities and economic needs. The orientation of international aid and public expenditure for the most visible and generally short-term projects, have consequently delayed the necessary investments in infrastructure. Finally, the few socio-economic measures, especially for veterans, have generally been the last to be implemented, or even abandoned as in Nicaragua, provoking important mobilisations, sometimes peaceful, sometimes armed.

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