This post originally appeared as a feature piece for the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford.
Dr. Annette Idler is the Director of Studies at The Changing Character of War Programme, based at Pembroke College, and Research Associate at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. Her research looks at violent non-state actors and security, with a particular focus on borderlands and the fusion of security threats —from rebel, paramilitary or terrorist groups to transnational organized crime
From your study of Colombia,what lessons have you learned that might help explain the ongoing peace negotiations in Colombia, and the complexities of ensuring peace more broadly?
In the research I looked at the post-conflict strategy: what does the government (and other actors) need to do to create conditions for a sustainable peace. Specifically, my research shows that government and the United Nations, have to account for many different violent non-state groups. The current Colombian negotiations are with FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army), but the ELN (National Liberation Army) is also present, and while announced peace talks on March 30 this year, their continued hostilities violated conditions set out by President Santos, demanding the group quell practices like kidnapping before negotiations would begin. Broadly, there are many different interests and groups involved, including right wing groups, drug cartels, and criminal organizations. If this peace is to last, once it's signed, which isn’t yet the case, then all the different stakeholders have to be effectively addressed.
What you see in the border regions, which is where I focus, is that the state is simply not present. Without these governance structures, non-state groups begin to replace the state. The government has promised that they will address these border regions, and expand formal institutions —a process they call the “territorial peace”— but they haven’t yet shown how this is going to be implemented. In sum, there are many details that have to be sorted out before they can create that sustainable peace.
Recognizing the lack of government involvement in these regions, what does the stated process of demobilization look like?
There will be several options. First, some rebels will be able to reintegrate to civilian life. In those demobilization zones, which will be created for six months, rebels will be offered capacity building programs intended to develop individual job skills. I would assume that some of these individuals would be able to re-integrate, but it will depend on their social skills as to whether they will be able to reintegrate and whether they will be welcomed by the local communities.
Second, some rebels, unfortunately, will opt to join the ELN, not least, because the group hasn’t started the peace negotiations yet. In regions where the FARC and ELN are in strategic alliances, where they share intelligence and information, the local community members might not even know which individuals belong to either group. The fact of these relationships between groups, informal or otherwise, between groups is a major finding in my research. These dynamics make it easy for rebels to change their label: they might not call themselves FARC anymore, but they act like them all the same..
Third, we’ll likely see some rebels join criminal groups to preserve their role in the drug trade, the gasoline trade, and in human smuggling, all of which are particularly acute in those border areas. In part, these groups will take advantage of the lack of competitors and because these illicit activities are considered to be legitimate (they are a product of these informal borderlands) and, at times, appear to be the only means to make a living.
Fourth, and finally, we will see some rebels simply crossing the border, shifting their operations to Venezuela which is in a particular economic and social crisis at the moment. Many of the rebels have already moved their properties and families to the Venezuelan side of the border. This allows the rebels to “officially demobilize”, but continue their operations, or business as usual, in Venezuela.
In what ways are borderlands a central factor and characteristic of your work, and what is the broader policy relevance?
Borderlands are spaces of impunity. This fact is not only relevant to Colombia, but to a range of conflict regions —from Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In these areas, where one country is embroiled in armed conflict and the other still registers significant levels of violence, these borderlands become critical for a range of actors and interests. Most notably, they are crucial for economic activity. The benefits that people get from illicit, cross-border activities are very high, relatively, and the absence of legal or judicial consequences of this trade are very low. This imbalance makes criminal activities very attractive for both local communities and for criminal or conflict actors, who will then use these transnational organized crime dynamics to fuel continued conflict as well. Impunity, in part, is derived by proximity to sovereign borders, as criminals can slip across to avoid capture or other law enforcement measures. In addition, borderland dynamics are particularly acute in countries with weak state governments, especially in countries in the global south, which can lack basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity, and other basic services.
Your research practices take advantage of something the academy is calling “knowledge exchange”. What is this concept, and how does it fit into the work you do?
Knowledge exchange means, in my case, working together with policymakers. My project has two components. The first component is working with United Nations Colombia. In the last few research trips to the country, I’ve had discussions with key members in their office in Bogota, and also collaborated in the field on joint missions. Basically, we approached these interactions as an exchange. I would share findings of my research, which offered them a look at how their programs looked on the ground. This material would then help shape the post-conflict strategy in those areas.
The second component is my work with the UN System Staff College, which educates and trains UN staff around the world. This past May, I joined the UN System Staff College program in Jordan where we trained staff on how to analyse and better understand the context of violent non-state actors. And, importantly, what it means practically for those on the ground. Using the Colombian case as an example, I highlighted ways in which practitioners can better understand that conflict cannot only be viewed through the prism of civil wars, for instance (with state and non-state actors) and that the lines between conflict and crime are blurred. This raises questions about whether we are allowed to engage with criminal actors, whether we can talk to them, and how to engage them in this context.
Is there consensus on whether, and to what extent, UN or other agencies/actors can engage with these criminal elements?
These questions are becoming increasingly relevant, especially with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and UN Peacekeeping Operations, but in the context of conflict there is a lack of clarity regarding how to act. This is something that the international community is beginning to think about, but there aren’t yet any clear guidelines.
This is even more complex if you come in as a development aid or post-conflict actor, as it is often easier to convince the local population, and others, that you want to have peace, to quell the conflict, than address clawing issues around crime. For instance, addressing transnational organized crime usually impact local community members who are somehow involved in this illicit, or informal, economic system. This doesn’t mean than they want to be, of course, but that they have few alternatives. In these moments, anti-crime programs can actually harm civilians and their livelihoods. Because of the sensitive nature of this balance, policies are often framed in terms of development issues and not that of transnational organized crime.
What impact might your research have on something tangible like the peace negotiations?
First of all, field research is crucial to the kind of work I do. I’m on the ground and speak to local stakeholders. Since my research began, I have conducted more than 500 interviews and feel I understand the local perspectives and perceptions. In the case of the Colombian peace talks, the formal proceedings usually take place among the elites in Bogota or Havana, and they are very disconnected from the realities on the ground. What I can bring to the table are the testimonies of civilians in these marginalized areas. I can bring these testimonies to interviews with the elites —from the traffickers to the state ministers. Bringing these distant perspectives together, I can serve as a bridge and I can do this because I am an independent researcher. Secondly, my research shows how various types of arrangements among violent non-state groups result in distinct impacts on security. Even if the FARC sign peace, other armed groups will continue to do business with each other, to form alliances or share territory without actively fighting each other. My research helps identify the exact security dynamics in each of these contexts and what can be done to protect civilians. It shows where an upsurge in violence is likely, once the FARC is no longer present, and it also shows where people are likely to continue to be governed by a non-state actor rather than by the state.