Breathing Life Into the Colombian Peace Process? The EU’s Strengths and Weaknesses as a Peacebuilder

30 November, 2020

The EU is an important promoter of peace in Colombia and has successfully taken on a role as a strong supporter of the implementation of the Peace Agreement. This article highlights the EU’s contributions to the Colombian Peace Process, but it also identifies three problems in the EU’s approach to peacebuilding in the region. Weak positioning in sensitive questions, unsustainable corporate governance, and lacking support for human rights and sustainable development in trading relations all risk to counteract and ultimately undermine the EU’s positive impacts in Colombia.


Colombia is home to one of the longest standing and most complex internal conflicts in the world, featuring a multitude of combatants (military, paramilitary groups, guerrillas, drug cartels etc.) and intertwined lines of conflict over political power, territorial control, illicit drugs, and illegal mining. For decades, these complicated dynamics stumped mediation attempts. Therefore, the international community was pleasantly surprised when President Santos, between 2012 and 2016, took important steps towards finding a negotiated end to the conflict with the largest guerrilla group, FARC. In September 2016, the parties signed a historic Peace Agreement (from now on ‘the Agreement’), which led to President Santos being awarded the Nobel Peace prize the same year.

However, signing a peace agreement is one thing; achieving sustainable peace is another. In 2018, President Duque was sworn in on a platform based on scepticism towards the Agreement. Without outright renouncing the Agreement, Duque has stalled the implementation of its provisions on rural development, political participation, substitution of illicit crops, victim reparations and reincorporation of ex-combatants in civilian life. Rural areas, many of which were previously controlled by FARC, are undeveloped and Colombia remains one of the most unequal countries in Latin America. The state presence in rural areas is still weak and the power vacuum has now been filled by other illegal armed groups. The government has also failed to protect the ex-guerrilleros that sought to be reincorporated in civilian life, leading to hundreds of killings. This situation has in turn led to discontent among some FARC ex-combatants. In August of 2019, former FARC commanders announced a “new phase of armed struggle” in response to the unsatisfactory developments since the signing of the Agreement. Although the vast majority of ex-guerrilleros still abide by the provisions of the Agreement, these high-profile defections have put serious pressure on the peace process.

The instability in Colombia has only been further exacerbated by the great number of migrants that are fleeing poverty and political violence in neighbouring Venezuela. Colombia is both a destination and a transit country and is the main hosting nation of Venezuelan migrants. Furthermore, the coronavirus outbreak has hit hard on Colombians and migrants alike. On October 24th, Colombia became the eighth country in the world to reach 1 million confirmed cases. The once promising peaceful development in the country has therefore taken several blows in the four years since the signing of the Agreement. In this context, the EU has played an important role in fostering political willingness to implement the Agreement, promoting human rights and transitional justice and supporting sustainable development. However, the EU’s approach is being challenged by that of the U.S., and some of the EU’s own policies risk undermining the peaceful progress that it seeks to achieve in the region.

EU Contributions to Peace in Colombia

Since the Peace Agreement was signed, the EU has been one of the leading promoters of its implementation – both in discourse and through economic and political incentives. The EU’s stated aim is to support the Agreement through a comprehensive approach of international cooperation and development, humanitarian aid and diplomacy. In 2015, the EU appointed a Special Envoy for the Peace Process in Colombia to convey the Union’s political support, especially in the implementation phase of the Agreement. This was meant to ensure a coherent and well-coordinated response from the EU and its Member States.

Regarding development cooperation, the EU set up multi-million euro aid funds to support Colombia in the post-conflict phase. The EU established the ‘Instrument for Stability and Peace’ which focuses on access to justice, the transitional justice system, reducing the social, economic, and environmental damage of mining, and reintegrating minors from both the FARC and from other armed groups. Furthermore, it established the ‘EU Trust Fund for Peace’, which directly supports the implementation of the Peace Agreement.

Moreover, the EU has sought to use political dialogue to contribute with a connective impact by bringing different actors together. The EU has supported both the negotiation process and the subsequent implementation phase, not only through its Special Envoy, but also by declaring Colombia a strategic partner, which opens up deeper cooperation. The EU also took diplomatic action by removing FARC from its list of terrorist organisations; an essential decision “showing to the ex-fighters that indeed a new beginning was possible”, according to the then Commissioner for Humanitarian aid and crisis management, Christos Stylianides. Furthermore, already in 2009, the EU and Colombia initiated an institutionalised bilateral dialogue on human rights with the aim of exchanging information and good practices that can improve the human rights situation.

The EU has therefore been an important partner for the proponents of the Agreement. However, in recent years, the EU’s approach has been diametrically opposed to that of the most influential power in the region: the United States. The U.S. has long been an assertive sponsor of the Colombian government. In recent years, the American-Colombian partnership has focused on military cooperation, resistance against the Maduro regime in Venezuela and harsh crackdowns on the cultivation of coca plants. These measures risk to increase the tensions in a region that is in need of demilitarisation due to high levels of distrust in the military as a result of a long history of state violence.

Another example of American influence is that, under U.S. pressure, the Colombian government has taken steps towards aerial spraying of toxic chemicals in order to wipe out plantations – a practice that has been heavily criticised both out of health concerns and for lacking effectiveness. Strangely, the EU has not been one of the vocal opponents to aerial spraying. This brings us to the first of three weaknesses in EU foreign affairs (in general, and specifically in Colombia) that I want to highlight: vague and weak positioning in sensitive questions.

Problem 1: Weak Positioning

At the time of writing, the EU has not made a public statement on the Colombian Government’s plans to restart the aerial spraying of herbicide, despite the threat to the health and livelihood (the toxic chemicals of course wipe out legal crops too) of the local communities. It is hard to say whether the lack of declaratory action stems from an unwillingness to anger the U.S. or whether the topic of glyphosate (the chemical being sprayed) is still too sensitive in Europe after the heated debate on its use in European agriculture. Regardless, it provides a good example of the recurring problem in EU foreign policymaking of failing to take a strong, unified position.

The EU’s unwavering support for the Agreement should mean that it is in favour of the provisions in Chapter 4 on the substitution of illicit crops. This includes trying to reach agreements with farmers for a voluntary substitution of crops, followed by measures for poverty reduction and productive opportunities for the cultivators. In cases where there is no agreement with the communities, the Government will remove the crops. The negotiators failed to reach a common stance on aerial spraying as the final text holds that the Government reserves the right to use aerial spraying, while the FARC consider that the removal must be done manually. However, the Agreement does stipulate that manual removal should be prioritised where it is possible, while bearing in mind respect for human rights, the environment, health and well-being. On top of that, the UN Special Rapporteurs on the right to health, rights of indigenous peoples and the right to food, have expressed concerns about aerial spraying. The EU should be able to do so too in order to remain a credible and consistent promoter of a fair implementation of the Agreement.

Problem 2: Unsustainable Corporate Governance

A similar problem arises when one starts to look outside of the EU’s direct actions. While the EU has praised the importance of human rights in Colombia, European corporations have disregarded those same rights in several instances. One prominent example is that of Vattenfall, a Swedish state-owned energy company, whose customer relationship to mining companies in the north of Colombia was the subject of a scandal in 2016. These mining companies were shown to have employed private armies and provided a key source of financing for a paramilitary group which had killed over 3,100 people in the region between 1996 and 2006. A year after the scandal, Vattenfall’s own report acknowledged that coal mining in Colombia had occurred in a context of violence, and in 2019 Vattenfall removed one of the mining companies from their list of suppliers. It is clear that during the many years before this decision, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the company’s own code of conduct were not enough to prevent serious human rights abusers from playing an important role in Vattenfall’s supply chain.

The case of Vattenfall is symptomatic of how European companies can easily turn a blind eye to irregularities in their partnerships in Colombia. In turn, the EU can also turn a blind eye to the potentially shady dealings of its companies and hide behind plausible deniability. As mentioned before, the situation in Colombia is complex. That goes for companies as well; they have to navigate a complicated political context. It takes a lot of resources to continuously make sure that the whole supply chain stands up to scrutiny. It is therefore important that transnational corporations find due diligence to be a competitive advantage over purposefully neglecting human rights abuses. By setting clear, binding, legal obligations, the EU could protect sustainable businesses from unfair competition by those who profit from exploitation.

Problem 3: Trading with Non-Renewables

The third problem is a structural one, which stems from EU-Colombian trade relations. As the world’s largest trading bloc, the EU has a responsibility to promote sustainable trade. However, the EU’s current trading relations with Colombia risk undermining the progress that the EU seeks to achieve in the areas of environment and human rights. In turn, this runs the risk of hampering Colombia’s transition into a more macroeconomically stable and sustainable economy.

When the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the EU, Colombia, and Peru entered into force in 2013, the parties had failed to include binding mechanisms to ensure compliance with environmental, human rights and labour standards. Title IX of the FTA includes beautiful wording on the recognition of the benefits of sustainable development. Nonetheless, Colombia’s systematic failures to meet its constitutional obligations for the granting of permits and licences for projects that will impact local communities have gone largely unpunished. For example, the extension of the El Cerrejón coal mine in La Guajira, one of the country’s poorest departments, would involve privatising the water in an area where there was already a shortage because of its widespread usage for industrial purposes, to the detriment of human consumption. A report from the European Parliamentary Research Service states that: “These signs of socio-environmental conflict could call into question whether the [Free Trade] Agreement is actually intended to be an instrument that promotes sustainable development”.

The lack of mechanisms in the FTA to control the mining of non-renewable resources for export to the EU risks prolonging mining practices that should have been phased out long ago and tying more investments to an unsustainable industry. The Colombian economy is heavily dependent on the export of non-renewables: in 2019, fossil fuels represented more than half of total exports. The country would be greatly benefitted in several ways by rigorous support in the transition to a more sustainable model. An economy based on the extraction of primary resources has many detrimental local spillover effects (as exemplified above), but it is also very vulnerable to price shocks on the global markets. For example, after a steep fall in coal and oil prices between 2012 and 2015, the value of Colombia’s exports in this sector fell by nearly 50 per cent and the national debt spiked. Therefore, the EU’s policies on human rights, environmental protection and peacebuilding cannot be disentangled from its trade policies. In its role as an economic giant, the EU’s trade policies must contribute to producing the structural opportunities needed to create lasting peace.

Going Forward

The EU is a strong actor for peace and human rights in Colombia. However, at the moment, it pursues a set of policies that are either too weak or contradictory. As a conclusion, I will propose three recommendations that would not only strengthen the EU’s role as a peacebuilder in Colombia, but which would also be beneficial for the development of the EU’s foreign policy as a whole.

Firstly, regarding the problem of weak positioning, the EU’s inability to take swift, affirmative action in sensitive questions is a fundamental problem for the EU as an international actor. It was most recently brought to the spotlight by the tardy EU sanctions on the Belarusian autocrat Lukashenko. In her State of the Union Address, Commission President von der Leyen called for qualified majority voting in foreign policy matters concerning human rights and sanctions. The idea is not new, but several Member States have fought to preserve their veto on foreign policy issues. However, if the EU is ever to be seen as a credible and consistent player in international relations, it needs to rid itself of the constraints of unanimity when it comes to the protection of human rights.

Secondly, regarding the problem of unsustainable corporate governance, the EU is in need of a strong legal framework for the due diligence obligations of business and the access to remedy mechanisms. The European Commission has launched consultations for a legislative proposal in the area, which is expected to be tabled in the first quarter of next year. In parallel, the European Parliament is working on an own-initiative report in an attempt to set the agenda for the Commission’s proposal. This is a great opportunity for the EU to lead the way when it comes to transnational corporations’ respect for human rights, and it is important that the proposal is not watered down. An ambitious proposal would also set the tone for the ongoing drafting of a legally binding UN treaty on human rights and transnational corporations. It could also help mend EU’s damaged reputation among civil society organisations who have accused the EU of hindering the process for a UN Business and Human Rights Treaty. The EU needs to take this opportunity to redeem itself and participate constructively in the negotiations for an effective treaty.

Lastly, regarding the problem of the EU-Colombian trade relations, the EU needs to include stronger mechanisms for control and conditionality in its trade agreements when it comes to human rights and environmental protection. If the EU is serious in its aim to promote peace in Colombia, it must take advantage of its economic strength to create the right underlying conditions for sustainable development. In the current FTA, human rights are included as an ‘essential elements’ clause, which allows parties to partially or fully suspend an agreement unilaterally in case it is breached. The EU should put great emphasis on the regular monitoring and assessment of the human rights situation in partner countries and use the prospect of suspending the agreement as a way to put pressure on the respective partner countries’ governments to ensure that they are respected.

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