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Implementing peace agreements: Supporting the transition from the negotiation table to reality

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Authors: Felix Colchester (CR), Laura Henao Izquierdo (CINEP) and Philipp Lustenberger (swisspeace)

“The quality of a peace agreement is only equal to the quality of its implementation. While the handshake symbolizes the conclusion of a process, it simultaneously opens a new one, the need to forge a quality implementation.”

1. Introduction

When the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) was signed in 2016, many observers emphasized that the real challenge had only just begun. In the quote above, Jean Paul Lederach argues for the “need to forge a quality implementation” – a perspective that requires enhanced attention in peacemaking. To date, conversations on best practice in mediation support and peace promotion have tended to focus primarily on efforts to bring about the signing of a peace agreement. This includes both advising mediators and negotiating parties in a structured negotiating process, as well as supporting other stakeholders, like civil society actors, to access, contribute to, and approve of the content and process of peace negotiations.

Yet the challenges in realizing the often ambitious provisions of a peace agreement are considerable: popular expectations of an immediate and tangible manifestation of peace are high; new power relations and unexpected conflict challenges emerge; and decisions made in structured and confined political negotiations are devolved to bodies and institutions to be carried out under significant public scrutiny. Implementation begins at the negotiating table, when the parties discuss how to ensure the realization of their commitments, and remains a challenge years after the signing of a peace agreement.

This paper aims to make a modest contribution to the discussion on how mediation support actors and peacebuilders can contribute to quality implementation. Doing so, it draws from the discussions during the Mediation Support Network (MSN) meetings 2018 in London and 2019 in Bogota. During these meetings, MSN participants and guests discussed the dynamics of implementation, identifying opportunities and challenges, and explored how third parties can play a constructive role in promoting effective implementation. In particular, they looked at how third parties can support good preparations for implementation during the negotiations phase, and how they can help further peaceful outcomes during implementation.

When choosing the topic for its discussions, the MSN considered the recent experience of Colombia, where a peace agreement had been reached in December 2016, and where the nature of the process, and the support to it, had evolved with the shift from ‘agreeing a deal’ to ‘implementing a deal’. As a case where the bulk of the implementation only started after the peace agreement was signed, Colombia showed the challenges of transitioning from the negotiation table to reality and demonstrated the opportunities for dialogue and mediation in the post-agreement context. The annual meeting in London in March 2018 also marked the eve of the 20th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s landmark Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, signed on 10 April 1998. Northern Ireland provided a useful longer-term reference point in light of more recent developments in Colombia, offering important insights on the long-term nature and impact of implementing a peace agreement.

Part Two of this paper elaborates on some key dynamics observed during the implementation of peace agreements. These eight dynamics range from high expectations, unresolved issues, lack of institutional capacity, the emergence of new security threats, the changing nature of contestation, the opening of new political space, social polarization, and waning international support. For each dynamic, the paper provides a few examples in different contexts. In Part Three, the paper identifies lessons for mediation support actors and other third parties on how they can support the implementation of a peace agreement during its negotiation phase and after its signature. The paper ends with concluding remarks on the importance of the transition from the negotiating table to the implementation of an agreement.