• Stefan Szepesi

Colombia's Donut Mediation

After millions of victims and decades of fighting between the FARC and the Colombian government, peace talks were concluded in 2016. There are interesting lessons for mediating conflicts elsewhere; especially perhaps, around the hole in the center.


A lot has been said about Colombia’s historic peace agreement with the FARC and the domestic backlash the agreement has met. In contrast to worldwide support, the Pope’s blessing and a Nobel Peace Prize for President Santos, the Colombians rejected the initial agreement in a referendum (see PIN articles on that rejection here) and last year voted in a new President much opposed to the 2016 accords. Colombia’s peace process, including subsequent talks with the ELN group, is heading for a difficult time.

Wherever one stands on the outcome of the 2012-2016 talks, the process itself deserves far more attention by negotiators and mediators. Prior to its rejection in the referendum many referred to Colombia-FARC talks as the new gold standard for peace negotiations. Luis Moreno Ocampo, the former President of the ICC, referred to it as “a work by Van Gogh that only gained public recognition after he died”.

Its most striking feature may have been what was absent: the international mediator.

For four years the two sides engaged in talks in Havana without a third party managing, co-directing or facilitating the process. No doubt the political context was of tremendous influence here. As Renata Segura and Delphine Mechoulan describe in their excellent piece Made in Havana; How Colombia and the FARC Decided to End the War, the conflict was ‘ripe’ for transformation from violence to ballot box. Both parties wanted talks and neither was pressured into them by third parties.

And yet, after five decades of violence leaving 220,000 Colombians dead, 80,000 missing and 7 million displaced one would not expect the two sides to manage the challenge amongst themselves: discretely working through proposals resulting in hundreds of pages of text on land reform, political integration, justice and reconciliation, disarmament, illicit drugs and a formal end to the conflict; refraining from walking out of the talks; and maintaining the discipline to not leak details prematurely to their own constituencies and the press.

One possible explanation is that the talks featured a great number of third side actors who collectively had a strong mediating impact, even without a central mediator present.

In Third Side parlance, actors served, and some still serve, the roles of provider, teacher, bridge-builder, healer, witness and referee, some in multiple of these roles. Here follows a brief list, not meant to be exhaustive:

  • Bridge-builder.Colombian economist Henry Acosta was the trusted early intermediary of messages between the FARC and President Santos (and before that with President Uribe, who later became the national nemesis of the accords); he had been a trusted messenger by both sides for many years.

  • Provider. Many agencies took on this role. The ICRC played a crucial role as the discrete transport agency for FARC operatives to and from talks in Cuba. Canada and other donors provided financial support for international experts, such as the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) and the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD), to advise the parties. The UN and several universities facilitated a range of technical, citizen and think tank fora providing formal and informal input to the negotiation table.

  • Witness. The role of Cuba and Norway as Guarantor Countries has been praised by all sides as provider (financial and logistical support) but also as witness. In the latter role, Cuban and Norwegian diplomats attended the secret and public talks throughout the process (though their representatives did not speak and had no direct mediating role). Accompanying Countries Venezuela and Chile had similar roles, albeit more distant from the process. The Kroc Institute for Peace Studies was given responsibility for technical verification and monitoring the agreement’s implementation and can be viewed as another external witness.

  • Referee. At the invitation of the parties the UN Security Council Resolution 2261 established the UN Mission in Colombia to monitor and verify the laying down of arms as well as the definitive bilateral ceasefire (and to some extent politically locked in the accords beyond the Santos government although it remains to be seen how deeply).

  • Teacher. Both parties used external advisors, not only for specific technical and legal elements of the talks but for the process as a whole. While mostly hidden from public view they functioned as advisors on “negotiation grand strategy”. Most interestingly, they were practitioners rather than professionals or academics, coming in with significant “street cred” from their own conflicts. See a separate piece on their work here.

  • Healer. The involvement of Pope Francis towards the end of the process can be seen as functioning to listen to the grievances of all constituents and encouraging the nation to come together.

The wide array and number of third side roles came at the request of the parties, not from the outside. Though none of these took on mediation in the explicit sense of facilitating consensus on the actual substance of the agreement, many of these third side actors had some indirect mediating function during the process, and this may in part explain why the absence of a central mediator endured.


In this sense, the Colombian Peace Process could be described visually as Donut Mediation: with significant mediation practice around the Colombian parties but none at the center.

The Colombia-FARC process deserves far more attention than it has had. With implementation of the agreement in peril, there is a chance that it will be brushed aside as lacking political sustainability and ultimately unsuccessful. That could mean wasting important lessons and innovative approaches for peace talks elsewhere.

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