Colombia’s new government proposes to replace military service with ‘Service for Peace’

Since its election in June, Colombia’s first progressive government has promoted a policy known as ‘Total Peace’ in which it proposes to enter dialogue with the multitude of armed groups that remain active in the country today. That has now moved a step closer with the congressional approval of new legislation, known as the Public Order Law No. 418, that permits negotiations with armed groups aimed at their disarmament in return for certain legal benefits.

Despite right-wing opposition, a plenary session in the lower house of congress, the House of Representatives, yesterday voted to approve proposed reforms to national military service created in the new law. This would offer young people the opportunity to carry out ‘Social Service for Peace’ rather than be conscripted into the army. The vote is a victory for the governing Historic Pact coalition, which has needed to build congressional alliances after it failed to win a majority in legislative elections.   

Social Service for Peace would be served in one-year terms as an alternative to military service while providing similar accreditation and benefits, including an income. Young people would carry out roles designed to strengthen peace, particularly in communities long impacted by conflict and structural inequality. These could involve literacy programmes, support for conflict victims, environmental protection and working with victims of sexual violence.

Almost six years since the historic signing of the peace agreement with the FARC, many regions of Colombia still suffer from violence due to the presence of armed groups. Next month, the Petro government will open formal negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s largest remaining guerrilla movement, to reach a peaceful settlement. This retakes a path previously initiated under the government of Juan Manuel Santos (2010-18) following four years under the hard-right president Iván Duque, whose administration rejected dialogue with the ELN despite support for peace talks from the United Nations, European Union, opposition parties and even ELN guerrilla leaders themselves.

Although the ELN talks have been welcomed by the UN, several other armed groups are active in many parts of Colombia. Competing over lucrative illicit economies such as drugs trafficking and exploitation of natural resources, they have come into direct conflict with one another, security forces and the communities that inhabit the territories they covet. Paramilitaries and other groups are believed responsible for the majority of killings of social activists, with over 1,300 murdered since the signing of the historic peace agreement with the FARC in November 2016.

Although the 2016 agreement contains security measures to dismantle armed groups and secure volatile territories, the Duque government’s failure to advance these contributed majorly to the country’s human rights crisis. As such, Petro has pledged to properly implement the agreement under the policy of Total Peace. This will be alongside the strengthening of other core points of the 2016 agreement that address root causes of conflict, particularly rural development and community-led eradication of illegal crops.

With killings of activists and former FARC guerrillas continuing on a regular basis – 149 activists have been murdered in 2022 alone (up to 22 October) – the new government faces a huge task to tackle the shocking violence impacting much of the country.