Bosnia and Colombia - Why a civil war does not end with the signing of a peace agreement

Bosnia and Colombia – Why a civil war does not end with the signing of a peace agreement



Peace in Bosnia is falling apart because politically encouraged separatist tendencies are thriving among the ethnic Serbs in the country, proving that the ulterior motives that originated the conflict have not been eliminated at all. Although the conflict in Colombia is not primarily an ethnic one, it shares with the Bosnian case that new conflicts are emerging despite the signing of a peace agreement. That is why we suggest the cooperation between European experts, Colombian journalists, local social leaders and the communities affected by the war with policy makers that can monitor the implementation of the agreed. This could be one way to make sure that the roots of the conflict are being reached in order to establish a positive peace.




Of all forms of violent conflicts except world wars, civil wars are probably one of the bloodiest and most destructive events that can occur to a country. In contrast to peace between two countries, reaching reconciliation between warring parties within a society is an extremely complicated process. The Dayton Agreements, which brought an end to the atrocious ethnic conflict in Bosnia during the 1990’s, have been internationally lauded and suggested as a blueprint for the resolution of other civil wars. However, tensions and instability are on the rise as their political leadership is actively encouraging secessionist tendencies amongst Serbs.

At the same time, a historic peace agreement has been reached between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrilla movement. Populist opposition and inconsistencies in the implementation of the agreement are, however, still pressuring the peace process. The purpose of this article is to determine what lessons can be learned from the EU’s approach to post-Dayton Bosnia and what actions can be taken by European institutions and policymakers involved with the Colombian peace process in order to prevent the re-emergence of war.


The Colombian case: from paper to reality


“Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace?”, this was the question that Colombian citizens were asked in the peace referendum of 2016. They had to either approve or reject the result of a four-year negotiation between the FARC guerrilla and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos.


After remaining in a civil war that lasted for more than 50 years, both Santos and Rodrigo Londoño (the FARC’s leader) signed a peace accord that contained the six main aspects of the negotiations: policies for agricultural developments, political participation, the end of armed confrontations, solutions for the drug-trafficking problem, reparation of victims and implementation of the agreed[1]. According to a study made by the Kroc Institute[2], it was the most complete peace agreement in the world because it met four essential requirements: it had a high number of political reforms, a good level of detail on them, it had been worked on in a long negotiation and it contained a wide number of guarantees for the implementation.


Nevertheless, the supporters of the No option won the plebiscite with 50.22% of the votes, whereas the Yes option received 49.78%. This outcome forced President Santos to modify some parts of the document in order to save it. But the results of the referendum showed the great polarization that remained after the cessation of hostilities.


Although it is a big step, an armed conflict does not end with a signing of agreements. The FARC disarmed and entered political life, but Colombia is now facing a post-conflict scenario in which new conflicts are emerging. According to Johan Galtung[3], a renowned peace studies theorist, negative peace is simply the absence of direct war and violence, while a positive peace involves going further: it requires the cooperation of different social groups to eliminate the root of the structural violence that perpetuated the war. In times of peace there may be conflicts, however, it is necessary to prevent them from becoming violent in order to ensure positive peace. Colombia is currently experiencing various obstacles to achieve this goal.


Firstly, the country is politically divided, as demonstrated by the electoral results of the plebiscite two years ago. These divisions have become deeper after the presidential race, when populist speeches had great reception, both from left and right movements.


One of the challenges of consolidating a positive peace is the triumph of the right, with Iván Duque as the new president. A large sector of Colombians and the international community are concerned by the announcements made by Duque and his party to introduce a series of reforms to the current agreement. Among them, the most important is to modify substantial elements of the Special Justice for Peace (JEP in Spanish). “The peace we long for calls for corrections. We are not going to tear down the agreements, but to guarantee that peace is for all Colombians”, said Duque in his possession speech[4].


A second difficulty of the post-conflict has to do with the fulfillment of the agreements. Two recent events have tested their solidity: on the one hand, Alias ‘Jesús Santrich’, one of the FARC’s top leaders, has been accused of having alleged ties to drug trafficking and could even be extradited to the United States[5]. On the other hand, there are indications that Colombia’s slow bureaucracy has made it impossible to carry out post-conflict social projects and programs[6].


A third obstacle are the remaining armed actors that still cause havoc in the country such as the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) guerrilla, the resurgence of paramilitary groups that were believed to be extinct and dissident FARC fighters, which is perhaps the most serious group because they have no visible leaders and are trafficking, kidnapping and murdering again.


These three barriers are manifestations of the deep roots that originated the war in the first place, such as political polarization (urged by populist speeches), an uncontrolled drug trafficking industry and multiple sovereignties that impose their will in various regions of the country. The conflict is smoldering again and actions have to be taken before it is too late.


Bosnia and the Dayton Agreements: a negotiated peace after a bloody civil war


In modern European history, the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s was the most violent military conflict since the Second World War. The war in Bosnia (1993-1995) was characterized by its bloodiness. What had started as a Bosnian struggle for independence from Yugoslavia, quickly turned into an ethnic conflict between Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, which was characterized by the occurrence of large scale ethnic cleansings and genocide, predominantly committed by Bosnian Serbs against Bosniaks. These atrocities led to an international intervention in the form the deployment of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) airstrikes against the Serbs. The latter forced the Serbs to the negotiation table which led to the signing in 1995 of the Dayton Peace Agreements, which officially brought an end to the war that had taken more than 100.000 lives[7].


The Dayton Agreements arranged the internal partition of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina into two ethnically based second tier political entities, being the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), predominantly inhabited by Bosniaks and Croatians, and the Republika Srpska (RS), which is predominantly Serb. The stability of this partition and the security of the Republic were initially guaranteed by NATO and the UN. Later on, the EU took over these tasks with the deployment of the EUFOR Althea military and EUPM police mission. Moreover, the EU has provided significant economic assistance and incorporated Bosnia into an integration process, with the goal of Bosnia becoming a full EU member state in the future. The effectiveness of this resolution to the conflict has been broadly recognized and allowed for a process of rebuilding and reconciling the war-torn country. In fact, a Dayton like approach has even been suggested by parts of the international community as a potential model for the establishment of peace in other sectarian conflicts such as the ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine[8].


The politically motivated resurgence of conflict


Nevertheless, after decades of peace and increased integration into the European system, ethnic instability is returning to Bosnia. Serbian nationalist and secessionist tendencies are steeply raising in the RS, being actively incited and encouraged by the entities’ President, Milorad Dodik. Dodik has been a central figure in Bosnian Serbian politics since the signing of the Dayton Agreements and is known for his nationalist and populist discourse, calling Bosnia and Herzegovina a “failed state” that poses “dangers to the Serb population” in the RS[9].


During recent years, this separatist discourse has escalated into concrete political actions. In 2016 Dodik organized an illegal referendum on the issue of the celebration of Day of Republika Srpska on January 9th, the date on which the Bosnian war had originally started. Notwithstanding national and international critique, the referendum was held and passed, providing legitimacy to the holiday, which since then has been celebrated with (para)military nationalistic parades. Furthermore, Dodik has repeatedly threatened with organizing an independence referendum[10], steering the Serbs in the RS towards an abolishment of the Dayton Agreements, which would most likely lead to a resurgence of war in Bosnia.


The Bosnian case clearly shows what the consequences of a negative peace can be on the long term. Instead of establishing a positive peace, the Dayton Agreements merely terminated military hostilities but the administrative division into different political entities put the ethnopolitical conflict in a deadlock position. The EU, for its part, only contributed to re-establishing security and economic activity and neglected the issue of political and social re-conciliation. President Dodik took advantage of this situation to encourage secessionist populist tendencies amongst the Serbs and undermine the peace process as a whole.


Although the civil war in Bosnia was an ethnical one and the conflict in Colombia has a sociopolitical background, the Bosnian experience provides lessons for policy makers in the South American country. If the parties involved in the Colombian peace process do not implement the reforms and policies they agreed upon to establish positive peace, the entire process with the FARC will be nothing more than a ceasefire that will most probably not withstand the populist and anti-peace tendencies that are already vibrant in the country.


Establishing positive peace in Colombia


The EU is a great ally in the Colombian peace process. It has been one of the largest contributors to demining projects in the country and the development of agriculture programs for almost 20 years[11]. In the current post-conflict scenario its role is even more pressing. Both the FARC and the government have had difficulties in implementing elements of the agreement. Are the resources of the Colombia’s Peace Fund being allocated to the projects equally? Do the projects contribute to the community? Are they adequate in the current Colombian context? The EU could help the country answer those questions.


Just as the community accompanied the peace negotiations, it is now necessary to be more involved in the current post-conflict situation. The EU has contributed with USD 15 million for post-conflict projects and right now is in capacity of guaranteeing, and even demand, that those resources are being well invested. It could monitor the effectiveness and transparency of the projects designed for the post-conflict development of Colombia, plans that have not yet been able to start. The EU has a voice that the Colombian government listens to and its experience with historical conflicts is of great value.

That is why it is necessary to create a bridge between European experts in conflict resolution and Colombian journalists who know how to tell the vicissitudes that are happening there. Such a Think Tank would connect the highest spheres of power with communities in war-torn areas. Via this construct, local issues, such as the problems in areas with presence of demobilized guerrillas, could be identified and dealt with in due time in order to prevent local public opposition to the peace process and opportunities for populist leaders to arise.


In order to prevent the Bosnian scenario from occurring in Colombia, it is essential that the EU, as one of the largest international supporters of the peace process with the FARC, puts additional effort in solving the socio-economical and political issues that caused the conflict. The EU could earmark the aid money and postpone economical investments in Colombia, if the government of President Iván Duque, which has significant ties the private sector, neglects the implementation of the peace agreement. Furthermore, storytellers are necessary to get into the regions and connect the communities and their social leaders (like local union leaders who are also victims) with the government, European experts and international aid. This bridge could empower and protect those who have been directly affected by the transition to post-conflict and aid them to exercise control over the resolution of their issues. True peace, a positive peace, will only be achieved if the structural and cultural problems that have legitimized violence in Colombia are solved. This is the real challenge.


[1] Oficina del Alto Comisionado para la Paz. (2016) ​Texto completo del Acuerdo Final para la Terminación del Conflicto y la Construcción de una Paz Estable y Duradera. Bogota: OACP (24 August 2018). (Accessed April 29, 2018).

[2] Redacción El Tiempo. (2016). Acuerdo de paz con Farc ‘el más integral’ del mundo. Bogota: El Tiempo (30 October 2016).  (Accessed 29 April 2018).

[3] Harto de Vera, F. (2016) La construcción del concepto de paz: paz negativa, paz positiva y paz imperfecta. Cudernos de estrategia (Nº 183): pp. 119-146. (Accessed 29 July 2018).

[4] Política. (2018) ‘No tengo ni tendré odios hacia ningún colombiano’: Iván Duque. Bogota: El Tiempo (17 June 2018). 29 July 2018).

[5] Redacción Judicial. (2018). Fiscalía captura a alias “Jesús Santrich”. Bogota: El Espectador (9 April 2018) (Accessed 29 April 2018).

6 Redacción Investigación. (2018). El laberinto de los dineros de la paz. Bogota: El Espectador. (7 April 2018). (29 April 2018).

[7]Zwierzchowski, J. & Ewa, T. (2010). The 1992-95 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Census-based multiple system estimation of casualties’ undercount. Berlin: The Households in Conflict Network and The German Institute for Economic Research (29 July 2018) .

[8] Gilbert, A. & Mujanovic, J. (2016). Dayton at twenty: towards new politics in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Southeast European and Black Sea Studies(29 July 2018)

[9] Surk, B. (2018) Milorad Dodik Wants to Carve Up Bosnia. Peacefully, If Possible. New York: The New York Times (16 February 2018).  (Accessed 26 April 2018).

[10] Bajrovic, R. et al. (2018) Bosnia on the Chopping Block: The Potential for Violence and Steps to Prevent it. Philadelphia: Foreign Policy Research Institute (29 July 2018)

[11] Delegación de la Unión Europea en Colombia (2016). Cooperación de la Unión Europea en Colombia. (11 May 2016) (Accessed 14 May 2018).





Paul is currently working as a Regional Analyst for the Americas and the Caribbean at the International Organization for Migration (IOM). As an alumnus of Leiden University in the Netherlands, Paul holds both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in Latin American Studies with specialisations in the areas of contemporary history, public policy and civil society. As a result of this background, in combination with previous experiences at the Embassy of Guatemala in The Hague and the United Nations Department for Safety and Security (UNDSS) regional office in Panama, Paul has a profound interest in the issues of governability and insecurity in the LAC region. Valeria holds Bachelor’s degree in Social Communication from the Pontificial Xaverian University in Bogotá. Her major allowed her to study both Journalism and Audiovisuals, as well as to pursue a semester abroad at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil, where she got in touch with the cinematographic tradition of the country. She gained practical experience as a research assistant in a group that analyses the digital media ecosystem during the 2018 presidential race in Colombia, a collaborative project with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society of Harvard University.