President Trump, Colombia’s peace is in your hands
© Colombia

History is littered with cases of peace agreements that don’t actually generate peace. From the Dougia Accord in Chad to the Honiara Declaration in Papua New Guinea, countries are more likely to have returned to violence than be at peace within five years of signing a peace treaty. About one-half of agreements barely last more than two months. Even implemented agreements often fail to end conflict and violence in the long run. 

Colombia’s peace agreement is a case in point. Reached in August 2016 between the government and the FARC rebel group, the agreement was rejected in a popular referendum in early October. Congress approved a revised accord at the end of November, days before President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. 

Despite the false start, the new agreement has held for nearly six months  — well above the low two-month bar that the first accord and so many others failed to clear. That's an important step forward. But will peace hold?


The recent US budget compromise, by approving $450 million promised by President Obama as part of the peace agreement, represents another important step forward. Why? Research has shown that outside support for the peace process is one of the critical elements to understanding if peace prevails.

The aid package aims to support the peace deal signed between the Colombian government and leftist guerilla group known as FARC. This comes amidst a recent unofficial meeting between President Trump and former Colombian presidents Alvaro Uribe and Andres Pastrana that lead to speculation that they were seeking Trump’s support against the historic peace deal Santos brokered with the FARC rebel group.

So when do peace deals create peace? Colombia has begun the treacherous journey towards stability in creating a strong agreement that includes political participation, transitional justice, rural development and demobilization. Political scientist Page Fortna’s research shows that strong agreements create stronger peace, even when the circumstances on the ground are challenging. 

Direct attempts to form a strong and lasting agreement include creating demilitarized zones to separate troops, monitoring by international observers, and third party guarantees. When peace accords include measures proactively preventing violence, like creating commissions to resolve disputes and demilitarized zones, fighting is less likely to recur. What are the chances Colombia’s measures create a lasting peace?

My work on the topic of conflict resolution and lasting peace shows there are important trends that can help us identify if peace is likely to hold. Involving actors outside of the conflict in the peace-building process has consistently been shown to prevent violence.

Research on civil war settlement highlights the important role outside states can play in rebuilding trust after a violent conflict. Civil war expert Barbara Walter shows the involvement of countries outside the conflict can provide important assurances that bolster peace. She shows former warring parties consider these factors in deciding whether to negotiate or return to fighting.




Several other scholars have shown agreements last longer when outside states act as guarantors to an agreement since they reassure people against violence. Scholars Caroline Hartzell, Matthew Hoddie and Donald Rothchild demonstrate that civil war settlements last longer when there are third party guarantors.

What do outside states do that fosters peace? Experts Michaela Mattes and Burcu Savun provide more specifics. If there is an outside state that can enforce an agreement, this reduces fears that the other side will resort to violence and raises the costs of further fighting. Third parties can also reduce uncertainty about the military capabilities of the other side, which is important since civil wars are more likely when the sides do not have accurate information. International actors can act as monitors, encourage the parties to share military information and provide other verifications that build trust.

But Colombia is not an “easy” case.

Crafting a stable and just country after a civil war is especially challenging in mediated agreements, like Colombia’s, as mediators may pressure the parties into an immediate agreement that cannot be sustained in the long run. For mediated agreements to last, the mediator must be patient and avoid heavy-handed pressure. Once a strong agreement is in place, there can be political settlement and the consolidation of peace.

To be sure, the Colombian peace process involves much more than the government and FARC rebel group. While FARC is Colombia’s largest rebel group, there are the additional challenges of peace talks with ELN, which uses kidnapping at its main financing tool, and the ongoing violence associated with narcotraffickers and paramilitaries. These additional factions make peacebuilding more difficult and international assistance even more important.

Even the process of re-integrating FARC members in the political process is not straightforward, as Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioStudents gather outside White House after walkout to protest gun violence Overnight Energy: Senate confirms Bridenstine as NASA chief | Watchdog probes Pruitt’s use of security detail | Emails shine light on EPA science policy changes Senate confirms Trump’s pick to lead NASA MORE (R-Fla.) highlighted in April. There is concern about rebel leaders becoming members of congress, as well as the implications of the deal for the narcotics industry. Overcoming the challenges of distrust and creating credible commitments between formerly warring parties requires power sharing. Distributing political power and resources can address security concerns.

Outside actors can support this process in important ways.

As Colombia’s strongest ally in the Western Hemisphere, the US can play a critical role in Colombia’s effort at peace, as it did with Plan Colombia, its often-celebrated security aid package begun nearly two decades ago.

Colombia is at a new crossroads. Whether it goes the way of Mexico’s drug wars, experiences renewed violence with splinter groups, or becomes a beacon of post-conflict stability depends greatly on the support of the international community. When Colombian President Santos visits Washington this week, Trump has the opportunity to reaffirm US commitment to Colombia’s peace process. Doing so can ensure a lasting peace and prevent a future strategic threat in the Western Hemisphere. Failure could lead to regional instability, reduced trade and additional violence.

Lasting engagement in conflict resolution is likely when outside states have interests as stakeBoth the US and Colombia stand to gain if Colombia’s future is one of peaceful political reconciliation.


Molly M. Melin, PhD is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Loyola University Chicago and Public Voices Greenhouse Fellow. She is an expert in international conflict resolution and has published in International Studies Quarterly, the Journal of Conflict Resolution, and Conflict Management and Peace Science.

 The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.