Guest Post: Peace in Times of COVID: The Colombian Experience
This is a guest blog post from the Kroc Institute’s Colombia Barometer Initiative, which Humanity United supports. Tasked with gathering data on the peace accord implementation and offering comparative understanding to improve peacebuilding, the Kroc Institute’s Peace Accord Matrix forms part of the monitoring structure of the Colombian Accord signed in late 2016. The Institute’s latest report points to the critical juncture in this fourth year of the agreement where much of the implementation must now make headway at local and territorial levels but faces an unforeseen challenge: COVID-19.
The Kroc Institute´s latest report on implementation of the Colombian peace agreement points to the critical junction facing the process. Now in its 4th year of implementation, the accord encounters one of its greatest unforeseen challenges: COVID-19.
At the beginning of March, Colombia had three cases of COVID-19, by June 24, there were over 42,000 cases. The country continues in different modes of lockdown. All this comes at a time when implementation of the agreement faces the challenges of shifting increasingly toward the local and territorial levels, places that face the brunt of historic violence and COVID vulnerabilities.
As the Kroc Institute has highlighted, the question now is how will peacebuilding in the country be affected and shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic? Is it possible to align the response to COVID with the implementation of the peace accord? And what is the impact on vulnerable communities and particularly on women and their visions of peace in this new context?
COVID-19 and Colombian peacebuilding
While it is still too early to assess the full impact of the COVID pandemic on implementation, some programs and activities have had to be deferred already.
The need to take immediate measures has resulted in the rescheduling or suspension of activities, which in some cases may have direct effects on the timing and extent of the mandate of implementing institutions. For example, the Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-repetition, has closed its territorial offices and had to concentrate on the processing and analysis of the information already collected. This will affect the collection of testimonies and participation of civil society, an area where the Commission gained the trust of social and grassroots organizations (as the Barometer Initiative pointed out in the Kroc Institute´s fourth report) and that is a fundamental for preparing the Commission´s final report.
The already precarious security dynamics in many regions of the country have been further impacted by the pandemic. While violence against activists is not new, there have been further killings of human rights defenders since lockdown. Illegal armed groups opportunistically exploiting the lockdown measures to consolidate territorial control.
In areas of Colombia where a minority of the population has internet connection – in Chocó, for instance, where only 15% of households have some type of connection to the internet and mobile phones is the most common access method – there are serious concerns about how democratic participation in decision-making on local planning can take place.
Fears are also spreading particularly among vulnerable indigenous communities who were already disproportionately impacted by the armed conflict and marginalized from centralized power and decision-making. Women from the Wayuu community, for example, have expressed that they cannot rely on local health services, that access to clean water is intermittent, and that there are increasing threats against leaders of their communities.
Finally, there is concern among communities, ex-combatants, academics, and civil society that funds for the implementation of the peace accord will be redirected to address the COVID emergency; although, heads of government institutions, former ministries of economy and others think that implementation can actually boost the post-pandemic economy.
Women, peace and COVID-19
The conflict and COVID-19 have both had different impacts on women and girls.
So far, the immediate impacts have been seen in the burden of unpaid care work; the disproportionate impact of economic informality and unemployment; and gender-based violence. In the first 15 days of lockdown in Colombia, 12 women were killed. In Colombia, as in many parts of the world, staying at home is not necessarily safe.
Applying the lens of women´s rights and focusing on women´s leadership provide valuable guidance for responding. COVID-19 is exacerbating and exposing existing vulnerabilities in social and economic structures and therefore a focus on inequalities and the differential impact of the emergency measures is critical – for women and for indigenous and black women in Colombia.
Considering how the militarization of the lockdown across the country and the restriction of movement impact on women´s rights is crucial. For example, in the Pacific coast city of Tumaco women´s groups have denounced armed groups controlling the different neighborhoods that declare those with COVID-19 or suspected of having COVID-19 as military targets. Identifying COVID-19 as a potential trigger for increasing social conflict and distrust – like social control by illegal armed groups, conflict between vulnerable groups for limited humanitarian aid, and stigmatization of those with COVID-19 – requires civil society to ensure the establishment of peaceful and reconciliatory measures.
Considering the long-term impact of COVID19, implementation and peacebuilding cannot be “paused” while the pandemic is addressed.
In the report released by the Kroc Institute in June, the implementation of the Final Agreement includes structural reforms and different economic, social and healthcare packages, which will be useful for responding to the emergency. Effectively implementing the peace accord and addressing the COVID-19 emergency acknowledges that both situations are opportunities to address structural vulnerabilities in the Colombian countryside.
Despite the complexity of the current situation, the work of implementing the peace agreement must not only continue but become a priority. Many commitments in the agreement can reduce the negative impacts of the pandemic on populations and territories in vulnerable situations, including improving access to rural health care; connectivity and electrification for schools and students; food security; and sanitation. Focusing on those communities historically marginalized and affected by armed conflict can lead to reducing poverty and ensuring local authorities can provide services for their populations.
The Barometer Initiative has identified various opportunities to strengthen peace while responding to the current pandemic. Firstly, it is absolutely vital to invest in local capacity. The vulnerability of territories and populations outside of the main cities can be reduced by redirecting a centralized implementation to locally led initiatives. To advance, it is important to secure funding for intersectional responses and ensure that local actors, local governments, grassroots organizations, ethnic leaders, women and ex-combatants, lead implementation.
Local state building is at the heart of territorial implementation. Finally, by prioritizing programs that support both peace and COVID-19 mitigation, resources can be focused on strengthening fragile communities. An example of this, addressed in the Kroc Institute´s report, are the Territorial Development Programs (PDET) that includes initiatives on: access to health, sanitation, electricity and connectivity and food production for vulnerable communities.
COVID-19 presents a huge challenge for Colombia and highlights the structural fragility of the country in areas addressed by the peace agreement such as rural health care. By ensuring responses put women and local communities at the center of decision-making and injecting resources into strengthening local authorities´ development plans to provide basic services for their populations, pushing ahead with implementation of the 2016 peace agreement could provide a robust response to the pandemic.