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3 things you should know about the new Colombia peace agreement with its rebels

Members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) stand during a ceremony at a camp in the Colombian mountains on Feb. 18. (Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images)
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Colombia has been fighting the longest-running civil war in the world, and it may finally come to an end very soon.

Here are three things you need to know about the state of the peace talks:

1. The Colombian government has reached a bilateral cease-fire agreement with the country’s largest insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The agreement effectively marks the end of hostilities between two parties at war since 1964. The government and the Marxist guerrillas of FARC have been in talks since 2012 and have reached agreements on each of the five negotiation pillars.

The demobilization agreement, announced Thursday, was the final and most difficult that the talks addressed. This is a particularly positive sign that an overall agreement will be adopted.

The other pillars, already negotiated, focus on political participation, rural development, the illicit economy, and victims. Though the details of each agreement are still unknown, the parties have issued summaries of each. Taken together, the pillars aim to address some of the FARC’s historical grievances as well as steps to transition out of war:

  • Political participation helps ensure that the FARC will be able to gain seats in Colombia’s legislature through mechanisms such as special districts carved from areas that the FARC effectively ruled during the conflict. It also guarantees security for the government’s political opposition and aims to increase citizen participation generally.
  • Agrarian development protects property rights and offers development assistance to small-share landholders, who now have trouble getting formal title to the land they’ve been farming and getting their crops into markets. One key step is to update information on land and property, as there is no reliable, centralized register of real estate in the country.
  • Illicit economy offers rural investments and legal crops so that farmers have fewer incentives to grow illegal crops. It also includes steps to fight corruption, such as the bribes drug traffickers rely on to get officials to overlook their illegal activities.
  • Victims includes transitional justice mechanisms such as truth commissions, special courts to hear crimes, and reparations.
  • Demobilization will involve the FARC gathering its roughly 7,000 fighters into various centers to turn in their arms to a United Nations commission. Some leaders will be tried and punished. Most of the rank-and-file will be granted amnesty and enter a program to reintegrate into their communities.

2. Some of the details still to be negotiated are tricky. And there’s a referendum to come.

As Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America notes, all of the agreements reached are still drafts, and several details remain.

One of the thorniest is how the FARC will participate in the political process. This subject is especially fraught, because political killings by criminal groups that oppose peace have been increasing. In the past, the government and the FARC have miscalculated; their agreements resulted in more violence rather than less. For instance, in 1985, the government announced it would legalize a FARC political party called the Patriotic Union. But counterinsurgent militias and their political allies targeted the party’s civilian supporters and candidates. In other words: The war escalated when the country became more democratic.

Apparently there is still debate about when the FARC can begin organizing politically — before, during or after the FARC disarms.

Once the details are worked out, the Colombian public will vote in a referendum on whether to affirm or reject the peace accords. Right now the “yes” sentiment seems to be ahead of the “no,” even though many Colombians are frustrated by how long the talks have carried on.

3. What comes next: reintegration, reparations and restitution, and state-building

Reintegration. The good news is that Colombia has experience at demobilizing armed groups – so much so that it has a standing government agency, the High Commission for Reintegration, to manage the process.

In 1989, the M-19, a FARC splinter group, negotiated peace. Many M-19 leaders became successful politicians, such as former Bogota senator and mayor Gustavo Petro, and former Narino governor and current senator Antonio Navarro Wolff. Three smaller insurgencies demobilized to participate in the constitutional assembly in 1991, with more mixed results. And from 2003 to 2006, several right-wing paramilitary blocks demobilized, as well.

The bad news is that many individuals and smaller groups did not demobilize but instead joined other armed groups or criminal networks. That will probably happen with the FARC, too. Some members will either remain at large or rearm down the line, particularly given the lucrative options in the drug trade.

In addition, the National Liberation Army (ELN), a smaller insurgent group, is also in talks with the government but has not yet reached an agreement. Some committed ideologues from the FARC may continue with that embattled group.

Reparations and restitution. Colombia has adopted transitional justice mechanisms to provide reparations and land for victims through the Victims’ and Land Restitution law of 2011. People who suffered violence are eligible for reparations, and those who were forced from their land by any armed group or the military are entitled to have their property restored or to receive compensation for it.

But that’s going to be challenging. Armed groups forced an estimated 6 million people from their homes and land during the war. Colombia ranks among the countries with the highest number of internally displaced people in the world. The people who benefited from profitable land grabs will not give up their gains easily. Many are likely to use violence to protect what they’ve got.

State-building. Finally, the government itself will have to move into territories where the rule of law is weak and insecurity is high. Some of these regions have been essentially governed by the FARC. In others, both the FARC and the paramilitaries captured institutions to steer benefits their way.  Paramilitaries even managed to elect a substantial proportion of the congress.

State-building is difficult and messy, and the government will have to ramp up its presence in areas it abandoned in the past. As with demobilization and reparations, the Colombian government has already started its effort, with mixed results. The tasks should be easier without the FARC to contend with.

Despite the challenges, this is the most promising step the parties have arrived at since the war began. Let’s hope that the next few months lead to an enduring agreement.

Abbey Steele is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam and author of “Unsettling: Democratization, Collective Targeting and Political Cleansing in the Colombian Civil War,” which is forthcoming from Cornell University Press.