A man carries the flag of Colombia during a march protesting FARC. How can lasting peace be achieved in Colombia? Photo by: AlCortés / CC BY

An agreement to end the longest civil war in Latin America’s history is within reach. There is now every expectation that, after 50 years, a final agreement can be signed between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia before a March 23, 2016, deadline.

Following what will certainly be a well-deserved celebration of a final agreement, the global community will quickly shift its attention towards Colombia’s public and justice sector institutions, which will be expected to implement the agreement’s historic terms and aspirations.

While international attention this week has correctly focused on the application of a historical transitional justice approach, the joint communiqué of May 26, 2013, committing to comprehensive rural reform was every bit as exciting. Land and justice sector reform and management are increasingly recognized by the international development community as closely, if not intrinsically, linked. Two of the agreement’s four topics demonstrate this link by explicitly recognizing that both land reform and transitional justice will be required to achieve a lasting peace in Colombia.

If current Colombian justice and public sector institutions provide any lessons, it is that implementing a final agreement will be a difficult — but not impossible — task. While the justice sector is still viewed as inefficient and subject to valid criticisms, the constitutional court validated the legal framework for peace by finding that a transitional justice approach was consistent with the constitution.

Moreover, improvements have been achieved in recent donor projects from the expanded use of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, decentralization of services, and the introduction of an oral accusatory system that has helped reduce case backlogs in several jurisdictions.

The experience of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Restitution Unit also provides a useful guide in terms of the agreement’s land access and use provisions. Despite best efforts, the unit’s adjudication of a very small percentage of the total number of current land claims demonstrates the challenges that will be faced by any existing or new entities tasked with resolving the ownership of 9.9 million acres of land that various groups estimate was seized from small landowners during the conflict.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that nearly 6 million people have been internally displaced and during a Thomson Reuters Newsmaker on Sept. 30, President Juan Manuel Santos noted that approximately 500,000 landowners lost their property rights. Irrespective of the final numbers, once legal claims have been adjudicated, Colombia’s national cadaster and land registry will face a daunting challenge identifying owners, validating land rights and recording property titles.

When asked during the news event about this challenge, Santos assured the audience that all land claims can be accommodated without expropriating land and that a new process will be established so that those displaced can “go through the system very quickly.”

With few exceptions, donor agencies and the multilateral lending institutions have traditionally conceptualized and implemented land and justice sector assistance projects according to their own internal organizational structures as separate operations. But, by all indications, the Colombian agreement will require a new comprehensive approach that will in turn require the careful integration of land ownership judgments with accurate cadastral maps and registration documents.

Given the billions of dollars of assistance required, it is also unlikely that one organization — or type of organization — will be able to provide all funds, technical assistance or management tools that will be required to assist implement the final Colombian agreement. For this reason, coordination between all parties and information sharing before and during implementation will be as important as actual project designs.

The terms and challenges of the final peace agreement will offer not only a unique opportunity for Colombia, but also for donor organizations and their partners working to help resolve this and other intractable conflicts throughout the world. It mandates resolution of land reform and justice sector issues in an integrated way. For this reason, Colombian government institutions will be called to task, as will the international donor community’s approach to support this historical approach. Moreover, just as the private sector is being called to assist the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, companies including Thomson Reuters would be able to support the Colombian peace process with modern and integrated analytical, justice sector and land management tools.

Santos began his Newsmaker interview by noting that “making war is easier than making peace.” Here’s hoping that donors heed this observation and seek ways to develop an integrated approach to support a comprehensive peace 50 years in the making.

To read additional content on land and property rights, go to Focus On: Land Matters in partnership with Thomson Reuters.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Robert Buergenthal

    Robert M. Buergenthal is senior director for Thomson Reuters Tax and Accounting, Government, International. He offers more than 25 years of international program development and implementation experience and has worked in private sector and non-profit service sector organizations and with the world’s leading donors to support sustainable and socially responsible international development in over fifty countries worldwide.

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