“Peace is possible!”

31.08.2016 - Interview

Article by Foreign Minister Steinmeier on the successful conclusion of peace talks in Colombia, published in the Frankfurter Rundschau on 31 August 2016

The Brexit vote, the attempted coup in Turkey, refugees, war and displacement in Syria – there has not been a lot of good news in recent weeks. What is happening in Colombia is therefore all the more important and encouraging. This is a country that has suffered the scourge of civil war for decades. The conflict has driven more than six million people from their homes. Colombia has the second-largest number of internally displaced people in the world, after Syria.

But now there is hope. The Government and the guerilla movement FARC have concluded a “bilateral and definitive ceasefire” in Havana and agreed on the decommissioning of the rebels’ weapons. Just a few days ago, they signed the final agreement that they have been negotiating since 2012. Previously at risk of becoming a failing state, Colombia is back. With its massive potential, it can take on a significant role in regional politics.

That is positive and important in its own right. However, it is also important as a sign of hope for the rest of the world. This chance to have peace didn’t come from nothing; it is the result of determined and tenacious state policy and very difficult negotiations. For such a long time, the conflict seemed intractable. It lasted for more than half a century, claimed the lives of more than 340,000 people and robbed millions of their homes. The fact that it is coming to an end is proof that steadfast diplomacy, good governance and attentive, active civil society can resolve even the most difficult of conflicts and bring about peace. Fragile countries can be stabilised.

With this armistice, Colombia is sending a message for other violent conflicts around the world that appear quite impossible to resolve: peace is possible! This encourages us in the approach we are taking for Germany’s foreign policy, to focus more on better civilian instruments for crisis prevention, conflict resolution and post‑conflict peacebuilding. I received that message first‑hand in Colombia – for example, when I talked to two astonishingly open young people. They will have been about 18 or 19 years old, and they told me about their childhood. The FARC had recruited them, more or less with their families’ consent, when they were 11 or 12, and they had lived and fought for years in the Colombian jungle. I met the two of them at a demobilisation and reintegration centre on my last visit to Colombia. They plan to start a new life there. It is their first chance to lead a normal civilian life.

Germany supports demobilisation, integration and reconciliation. I appointed Tom Koenigs, Member of the German Bundestag and long-standing expert on the country, as my Envoy to the Colombian Peace Process. He is a sought‑after point of contact and communicates regularly with the various parties.

Like the EU and many of our partners, we have backed up that support with a lot of money. Development cooperation funds of 367 million euros went into the peace process over the last ten years, and we have been providing loans of 100 million euros a year since 2014. Our funds are used to clear mines in the conflict zones. Assistance is given to people injured by mines. The internally displaced are provided with accommodation and medical care. We run projects to help people find jobs and help companies in the places they have moved to create jobs. We fund development projects in rural areas. But we are also supporting the Colombian judiciary on delicate issues like criminal cases related to the conflict and the return of confiscated land. We have offered to provide suitable names if experts or judges for an electoral commission or special tribunal are required. We will also advance the establishment of the German-Colombian Peace Institute to provide the peace process with academic input and supply advisory services for projects.

The most important impetus is coming from Colombia itself. There are encouraging efforts to find compromise between former opponents and enemies, and admirable readiness on the part of victims to extend the hand of forgiveness to their oppressors. President Santos’ Government not only demonstrated great leadership over the course of the negotiations but also proved they had the perseverance required for a process that took many years and support from outside.

A milestone has been reached, but there is still a difficult road to be travelled before complete peace is achieved. Moral support will be required, and so will practical assistance. It is crucial for people to really see their situation improve now that a peace agreement has been concluded with the FARC. It is therefore important that an agreement be reached with the other guerilla organisation, the ELN, as well. Germany also stands ready to provide constructive support for that negotiating process.

We have many ties to Latin America: long-standing economic links, similar political and cultural values, beliefs and outlooks, and also close connections in civil society, not least between German and Colombian churches, as well as the legacy of European emigration throughout recent centuries. This may be a distant continent in geographical terms, but we are very close on many of the matters that will shape the world of tomorrow. And Colombia can serve us and many others as an inspiration – yet another reason for us to hope that peace finally prevails there.

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