Colombia Makes Progress Toward Peace

This Thursday marks the end of a 52 year long war in Colombia. The president of Colombia and the leader of the FARC rebel group held a ceremony in Havana, Cuba to sign a cease-fire. It lifts the last significant barrier to a comprehensive peace deal that will be signed in the coming months.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is a guerrilla group that began as the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party in 1964. Since then, it has led a Marxist-Leninist insurgency that has wreaked havoc on the country. Its members raised funds through kidnapping for ransom, and the chaos it caused helped turn Colombia into a haven for organized crime and the production and smuggling of illicit drugs.

In recent years, however, the situation in Colombia has improved. The effects of organized crime have been minimized, and the FARC has been largely driven into remote jungle camps. For the past three and a half years, negotiations have taken place in Cuba between the Colombian government and the FARC. These negotiations have culminated in unilateral ceasefire declared by the FARC last year which was made officially bilateral yesterday. Soon, the two parties will finalize their peace deal.

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The location of Colombia in South America

As a result, Colombia’s future is looking bright. The FARC will permanently lay down its weapons, ending the decades-long conflict and bringing stability to the region. The kidnappings that plagued the area will be sealed in the pages of history. The Colombian government will be able to better focus its efforts on the organized crime that benefitted from the chaos of insurgency.

Yet challenges remain. One condition of the peace deal is that most of the rebels will be granted amnesty or light sentences. Another condition is that the rebels, once disarmed, will be protected from their enemies by Colombian security forces. To many in Colombia, especially those who oppose the current government, these conditions do not sit well. They feel that the deal is not harsh enough.

Another challenge is that the FARC will now attempt to become a legitimate political party. For a group that has been militant organization for so long, the transition may be difficult. Many members of the FARC left their families for the jungle camps long ago and have made enemies since then. Thus reintegration will pose a challenge.

But the alternative to the deal would have been continued war. While war may seem far away to many in modern Colombia, it is war nonetheless. Thus this deal, despite its flaws, represents positive progress towards a safer and more stable Colombia. While Colombia still faces significant challenges, especially concerning organized crime, it can now divert more of its resources to pursue even greater progress.

What Border Clashes Tell Us About Eritrea’s Government

Breakups can be hard. Such is lesson that Eritrea and Ethiopia have learned over and over again as they have continued to exchange fire over seemingly insignificant border disputes. Despite having already fought a decades-long war of independence and a border war in which tens of thousands lost their lives, the two countries went at it again this week. While it may seem odd that Eritrea, the younger and much smaller of the two countries, has not yet tired of war, a state of perpetual tension is, in reality, extremely advantageous to the Eritrean government.

Ethiopia is a massive country and Eritrea a very small one. With over 90 million people, Ethiopia is the second largest country in Africa in terms of population. Favorable economic conditions have allowed it to maintain a high growth rate and significant development. Eritrea, on the other hand, has only about 6 million citizens. It is widely considered one of Africa’s most repressive countries and its economy has ground to a halt. As a result, its population is hemorrhaging and around 4000 of its people flee per month.

 

The location of Ethiopia in Africa
The location of Ethiopia in Africa
The location of Eritrea in Africa
The location of Eritrea in Africa

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eritrea was a part of Ethiopia for decades, but it fought for independence for much of that time. When most of the world’s communist governments collapsed in 1991, so too did Ethiopia’s. With the country plunged into chaos, Eritrea was finally able to claim its independence. The leader of the independence movement, Isaias Afwerki, became president.

Despite having recently secured peace for his country, Afwerki led it into yet another war. From 1998 until 2000, Ethiopia and Eritrea fought for control of disputed areas along their border. An estimated 70,000 were killed. After the war, the United Nations awarded most of the disputed territory to Eritrea despite a military victory by Ethiopia. With most of its demands met and thousands dead in a military defeat, the end of the war in 2000 may appear to outsiders as an appropriate time for the Eritrean government to seek an end to hostilities. Yet tensions have persisted throughout the 16 years since then.

While most leaders would try to avoid a state of perpetual military tension, the Eritrean government actively works to nurture one. To understand why, it is important to understand how the Eritrean government runs the country and maintains its power. At the center of Eritrea’s governing structure is its system of indefinite conscription. Under this arrangement, the vast majority of Eritrean youth are conscripted into the military as soon as they exit school. They are then assigned to various jobs around the country. An arrangement of mandatory conscription is not uncommon, but Eritrea is unique in that the conscription may last decades. 

The effect of this conscription is threefold. First, it is a means by which the Eritrean government can manipulate its labor force. Most work done in the country is done by conscripts. Second, it allows the government to remain in power with little opposition. Disloyalty is quickly identified and then repressed in violent prison camps that have been condemned by the United Nations. Third, considering that most conscripts work for little pay under conditions that the United Nations has described as slavery, the system is the primary reason why so many people are leaving Eritrea.

Forced indefinite conscriptions is a boon for Eritrea’s government, allowing Isaias Afwerki to maintain and iron grip on the country. Yet it is slowly destroying Eritrea. It is the foundation of an inefficient economic system that is enforced by human rights abuses, and it is driving the country toward economic and demographic collapse. In light of these terrible effects, Afwerki must somehow justify this system to a restless population and concerned international community. This need for justification is the root of Eritrea’s constant desire for military tension.

As long as Afwerki is able to claim that Eritrea is on the brink of war with the much larger and very menacing Ethiopia, he will be able to justify keeping his country on a constant war footing. Exploiting tensions with Ethiopia allows him to maintain the nationalistic spirit of the independence movement and to convince his people that conscription is needed to preserve the nation. In reality, however, all it is preserving is Afwerki’s repressive grip on power.

Thus the events of this week do not risk heightening tensions in the region. Instead, they are simply the byproduct of tensions that have been artificially heightened by Afwerki’s regime for decades. For as long as the tensions remain, so will the Afwerki regime’s primary claim to power. As a result, the tensions will remain as long as the Afwerki regime remains. And until the day when both come to an end, young Eritreans will continue to leave their slowly atrophying homeland and embark on dangerous journeys to across Africa to Europe.

 

On Death and a Forgotten Crisis

Algeria’s Tindouf province is one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Located deep in the Sahara in the westernmost corner of the country, summer daytime temperatures there rarely drop below 40˚C (104˚ F). It is difficult to imagine that anyone would choose to leave their home to migrate to such a forbidding place. Yet for the hundreds of thousands of Sahrawi refugees who left Western Sahara after it was occupied by Morocco in the 1970s, it is the only place that is truly their own. Having been displaced from their homes, they’ve now based their struggle for self-determination in a sprawling collection of refugee camps of low, squat buildings set against the blistering sands of Sahara. Unfortunately, that struggle has become significantly more difficult with the death of its leader, Mohamed Abdelaziz.

Abdelaziz had been the president of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the name of the Sahrawi state, since 1976. SADR claims sovereignty over Western Sahara, which was a Spanish colony until 1975. The colony was populated mostly by an Arabic-speaking people called the Sahrawis. After Spain decided to withdraw from the region, Morocco and Mauritania both attempted to annex parts of it while SADR fought for Sahrawi self-determination with support from Algeria. After a violent war that lasted until 1991, Morocco gained control of about 3/4 of the territory while SADR gained control of 1/4, most of which was uninhabited desert.

A map of Western Sahara with the Moroccan-controlled portion in blue and the Sahrawi-controlled portion in green.
A map of Western Sahara with the Moroccan-controlled portion in blue and the Sahrawi-controlled portion in green.

As Morocco gained control of more and more of the territory, it began to build a network of walls to prevent the displaced Sahrawis from recapturing their lost land. Thus the territory is crossed by a sand berm that stretches for hundreds of kilometers. Military installations pockmark the territory along the wall, and the wall is lined by kilometer upon kilometer of landmines. As a result, hundreds of the thousands of Sahrawis fled into the Tindouf province, where they established a network of refugee camps and have continued to fight for recognition diplomatically.

At the helm of that fight was Mohamed Abdelaziz. Despite the massive hardship faced by his people, he turned away from war and pursued political compromise. He supported a UN-backed peace plan in 2003, but Morocco refused to accept the terms of the compromise. He led his country to join the Organization of African Unity, which later became the African Union, in 1984. He also attempted to turn SADR into a secular democracy. Its constitution emphasizes the importance of human rights and outlines a plan to transition to a multi-party democracy. Under the rule of Mohamed Abdelaziz, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic has maintained its commitment to peace and and democracy even in the face of immense adversity.

His rule, however, came to an end after he succumbed to illness this week at the age of 68. Sahrawi politicians have announced a 40 day mourning period, after which a new leader will be chosen. They have vowed to continue the fight that Abdelaziz has led for decades. Unfortunately, though, their fight may continue unresolved. While Abdelaziz may have brought peace to his people, it came at the price of liberation. With a policy of peace, the international community lost interest and SADR lost its leverage.

But while shots no longer ring out across the desert, hundreds of thousands are still stranded in it. An entire nation has been driven out of its home, forced to live under the unrelenting heat of a foreign sun with little protection besides low huts and flimsy tents. An entire generation has grown up as refugees. Children have grown up separated from their country by a wall of sand and landmines. Armed conflict may have ended decades ago, but the humanitarian crisis has not.

The best way to honor Abdelaziz’s legacy of conflict resolution is to remember that the arrival peace does not allow us to forget and lose interest. Peace has arrived, but the humanitarian crisis remains. And a humanitarian crisis does not become any less dire simply because it has persisted for decades. If anything, the longevity of this crisis is all the more reason to insist on finding a solution. Let us allow his death to remind us of this, and, now that we remember, let us not forget.