Viewpoint by Hobeth Martinez Carrillo*
LONDON (IDN) – Four years after the UN-monitored peace agreement that was intended to end more than five decades of civil war in Colombia, the communities that suffered most during the armed conflict may finally be gaining places at the political table.
The members of the UN Security Council welcomed in a press statement on Colombia (SC/14081) continued progress by the three components of the Integral System for Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Non-repetition, with the participation of victims. They reaffirmed their full support for the critical role of these components in the peace process and stressed the need for them to be able to work independently and autonomously.
Could the access promised by 16 new “special seats for peace” in the country’s House of Representatives help address the inequalities faced by rural, indigenous and Afro-Colombian people?
The “special seats for peace” initiative is only one of many commitments enshrined in the peace agreement between the state and the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), but it is potentially one of the most significant.
The main function of the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the country’s Congress, is to represent the interests of Colombian regions and “special populations” (indigenous, Afro-Colombians and Colombians living abroad).
These 16 extra seats, to be added to the current 171 seats for two legislative terms, were intended to allow victims of the armed conflict and rural communities to have a voice in formal electoral structures.
Like so many elements of the Peace Agreement, the realisation of this initiative was by no means swift or easy. In 2017, a constitutional amendment adding the special seats to the House was proposed, but it was shelved in the face of strong resistance by political opponents of the peace agreement, who claimed the seats would not be for victims, but “for the FARC”.
But at the end of January 2020, Lidio Garcia, president of the Colombian National Congress, confirmed he would reinstate the amendment’s legal path to ratification: passing through the office of the President, who would sign it, and then through the Constitutional Court, to check its constitutionality.
Although it is too soon to tell if this amendment will be effectively implemented, the announcement that the project will be revived has reopened an important debate in Colombia about the role that the special seats could play in building a lasting peace and social justice.
In particular, rural areas may see some progress made on the political and social inequalities that have been their reality for many years. Although many of these communities have vibrant grassroots political ecosystems, their aims and proposals have gone unheard in the wider electoral system.
Congressman Ivan Cepeda, an advocate of the seats, hailed the move, saying: “The possibility has been opened that the victims in territories afflicted by violence and armed conflict will now have direct representation in Congress. It is a momentous new step for peace.”
The 16 new seats will be allocated to rural areas that have suffered the most in the long-running armed conflict between Colombian governments and the left-wing guerrillas of FARC.
Economically impoverished, politically excluded, and with high civilian death tolls during the conflict, most of these regions have also been severely affected by the Colombia’s so-called war on drugs, and illegal mining and deforestation.
These areas were targeted by Colombia’s previous government, led by Juan Manuel Santos from 2010-2018, when it created most of the 16 new zones in which communities were given the power to draft their own “development plans with territorial approach“ via a democratic and participative process.
The new House of Representative seats could help make these development plans a reality by giving access to resources and political power, and countering the longstanding lack of will on the part of established political parties and local elites to addressing these communities’ needs.
The special seats would thus serve as a complement within the formal legislative system to an already rich democratic process at local level, where social movements and organisations have been working to advance progressive political agendas.
Because established political parties – even the FARC party – will be barred from putting forward candidates for these 16 seats, representatives of popular movements will be able to run for office on more equitable grounds.
This could help Colombia overcome, at least temporarily, the obstacles to electoral participation that are all too common around the world, for rural, indigenous and other marginalised communities.
Another hoped-for outcome of the special seats for peace initiative is a better distribution of institutional and economic resources that would integrate excluded zones into national social and economic processes.
This could help to close the country’s rural-urban inequality gap: currently, poverty is 9% higher in Colombia’s rural areas (36.1%) than in its cities (27%), and rural extreme poverty (at 15.4%) is twice as high as in urban centres (7.2%).
By forging alliances with existing political parties in Congress, a new political force led by and working for the victims of Colombia’s conflict could do crucial work in challenging the economic policies responsible for these inequalities.
Although the creation of the 16 new seats is first and foremost part of the Colombian state’s obligation in fulfilling the 2016 peace agreement, it is also an unprecedented opportunity to challenge inequalities via a political system that has long favoured socio-economic elites over rural communities.
By giving increased opportunities and resources to the vibrant democratic processes happening at grassroots level, these seats of peace could also become seats for equality. [IDN-InDepthNews – 22 March 2020]
* Hobeth Martinez Carrillo is an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity and a principal researcher in transitional justice based in Bogotá. He has spent the past two years working on the implementation of the peace agreement signed by the Colombian government and FARC-EP in 2016.
Photo: (left) Collage of images of rural residents discussing a new territorial development plan at a meeting in Ovejas, in the Montes de María region in the north of Colombia, December 2017 and (right) map of the Montes de María region. Credit: Hobeth Martínez Carrillo.
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