posted on Sat 6 May 2017 4:50 PM
Dispatches from the Field: Visit to a Regrouping Zone and Local Team Site

On Friday (5 May), Council members visited the Transitional Local Zone for Normalization of “La Reforma”, in the Department of Meta in Colombia. This is one of the 26 locations (zones and points) where the members of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP) are regrouping and laying down their weapons. Council members had the opportunity to tour the local team site of the Monitoring and Verification Mechanism (MVM) of the ceasefire and the cessation of hostilities and learn about its activities.

Council members travelled to La Reforma by helicopter from Villavicencio, where they had arrived by plane from Bogotá. Most of the zones are in remote areas and this creates logistical difficulties, which were highlighted by members of the local MVM team with whom Council members met. They were joined for this visit by government representatives (including Foreign Minister María Ángela Holguín, High Commissioner for Peace Sergio Jaramillo and Colombian Ambassador to the UN María Emma Mejía) and three members of the FARC-EP Secretariat (Iván Márquez, Pastor Alepe and Mauricio Jaramillo). Regional and local authorities were also present.

The MVM team in La Reforma comprises 15 UN observers, 10 members of the Colombian armed forces and 10 members of the FARC-EP. There are 448 UN observers, 360 government representatives, and 322 FARC-EP representatives comprising the MVM nationally. During a presentation by the MVM, Council members learned about the limited number of verified ceasefire violations nationally (30 since November, with only five considered serious). The construction of the camps, which is the responsibility of the government and is monitored by the MVM, is behind schedule. However, members were told by the MVM that the pace has accelerated since March, and improvements have been made over the last few weeks regarding the delivery of provisions and access to health care for the FARC-EP in the zones and points.

The visit to La Reforma was particularly symbolic given the fact that this area was the epicentre of the El Caguán peace process, which led to the establishment of a demilitarised zone of 42,000 square kilometers in the area in 1999. When that peace process failed, the area was taken over by the Colombian armed forces in February 2002.

More than 50 years of armed conflict have left a devastating legacy in local communities. In their interactions with Council members, community representatives of La Cooperativa, near the zone, noted that the absence of armed conflict has not resulted in an end to the violence against community leaders and human rights defenders. Along these lines, a March report of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights raised concerns about the high level of impunity for such violence in Colombia’s rural areas. The establishment of paramilitary and other armed groups in the areas vacated by the FARC-EP was also raised at the meeting – a problem that had already been conveyed to Council members by other interlocutors they had engaged with during the visiting mission.

While government representatives enumerated efforts to bridge the gap between urban and rural Colombia, community leaders described limited state authority in rural areas, complaining about the lack of economic development, infrastructure deficiencies, and limited access to education and health care. La Cooperativa is in a department with a significant amount of illicit crop cultivation, and many community representatives criticised the forced eradication efforts, advocating crop substitution policies that take into account the peasants’ voices. They urged the engagement of the Council and a second UN mission in verifying longer-term implementation of the agreement-in other words, engagement focused not only on security considerations but also on the far-reaching transformations needed to ensure rural reform.

Council members also held a meeting with the FARC-EP members in the reception area of their camp. Ambassador Elbio Rosselli (Uruguay) highlighted the inspiring precedent of the Colombia’s peace process for the region and the world. The FARC-EP leadership and government representatives accompanying the Council highlighted the good climate of cooperation in discussing the implementation of the agreement and recognised the unprecedented nature of the joint meeting with Council members.

During the meeting, the parties to the peace agreement engaged in a frank dialogue about the agreement’s implementation. The FARC-EP members urged progress on legal and security protections for the guerrillas as well as guarantees for their socioeconomic reintegration, reiterating calls made to Council members earlier in the visit. They also expressed impatience that they are being asked to meet tight deadlines for the laying down of weapons, while progress continues to lag behind on key areas of the agreement regarding their security and overall social justice for communities. In response, the government representatives accompanying the Council had the opportunity to convey some of the measures being taken to address these requests, particularly regarding the implementation of the amnesty laws.

Addressing the media at the end of the visit, Ambassador Matthew Rycroft (UK) emphasised that peace is irreversible. “We have spoken in detail about some of the challenges of implementation, but what we have seen is determination and trust between the parties that convinces us that this process will move forward and come to culmination”, he said.

During the visit, Council members conveyed a message of unanimous support for the implementation of the agreement. In this context, Council members are expected to remain engaged on Colombia in the potentially divisive lead-up to legislative and presidential elections in 2018.

The co-leads of the visiting mission (the UK and Uruguay) will brief the Council on 16 May. As has happened in other instances, it is possible that Council members may agree on an outcome building on the conclusions of this visiting mission.