Humanitarian Action and
the Politics of Transition

The Context of Colombia

Photo: © Pedro Szekely/Creative Commons

Executive Summary

What challenges are inherent for humanitarian practitioners when operating in a context of transition from protracted conflict to peace? This paper examines this question, focusing on Colombia as a case study. As a result of the decades long conflict in Colombia, as well as natural disasters, a host of serious humanitarian concerns persist in the country. The ongoing peace process between the government and the largest anti-government armed group in the country—the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC—while certainly a welcome development, yields an environment not only of protracted conflict but also of protracted transition. This paper discusses four particular issue areas relevant to operating in this context: grappling with the politics of denialism; the gap between the political negotiation agenda and the humanitarian issues facing the country; interactions between humanitarian actors and national transitional justice measures; and building linkages between humanitarian organizations and actors operating in other fields, such as development and peacebuilding.


This paper examines key challenges arising from humanitarian action in transitional settings, focusing on the context of Colombia. In many ways, Colombia is distinct from the various “Level 3” emergencies that garner the majority of international donor and media attention. While the country struggles to emerge from decades of armed conflict, the presence of a relatively strong central government in Colombia has meant that the role of humanitarian organizations is primarily to “support,” rather than to “substitute,” the activities of the state.[1] Furthermore, peace talks between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have been underway since 2012, and the government has already instituted certain transitional justice measures, providing the sense that the country could be on the precipice of a transition to a post-conflict phase. At the time of this writing, the transitional justice accord announced by government and FARC negotiators in September 2015 represents a historic turning point, raising hopes of a possible near-end to the conflict.

However, in light of the fact that peace talks have been taking longer than initially anticipated and that hostilities have escalated even as talks have continued, humanitarian actors are left to grapple with an environment defined not only by a protracted armed conflict but also by a protracted peace process with mixed prospects of success. Serious humanitarian needs persist, but the situation in Colombia has been dubbed a “forgotten”[2] or “invisible” crisis.[3] This paper aims to contribute to understanding the dynamics for humanitarian practitioners of operating in such an environment, with a specific focus on the challenges that arise from the politics of the prolonged transitional process.

What challenges are inherent for humanitarian practitioners when operating in a context of transition from protracted conflict to peace?

Click here to view a timeline of
the recent Peace Process

October 2012

Colombian government and FARC adopt six-point agenda for negotiations. Formal peace talks begin in Oslo, Norway.

November 2012

Peace talks continue in Havana, Cuba.

May 2013

Colombian government and FARC sign agreement on agriculture.

August 2013

FARC issues statement recognizing its responsibility towards victims of the conflict, and requesting the creation of a historical commission on the conflict and its victims.

November 2013

Colombian government and FARC reach agreement on the political participation of ex-guerrillas (the 2nd agenda item).

May 2014

Colombian government and FARC reach agreement on illicit drugs (the 3rd agenda item).

June 2014

The FARC and Colombian government announce principles for discussing victims (5th agenda item), and announce the creation of a commission to discuss the end of the conflict (3rd agenda item).

August 2014

The Historical Commission of the Conflict and their Victims is established as the first truth commission in Colombia.

September 2014

The FARC and Colombian government announce comprehensive victims' rights for peace and national reconciliation plan.

February 2015

FARC announces it will end the recruitment of children under the age of 17, and discharge fighters under the age of 15.

May 2015

Colombian government and FARC reach agreement on de-mining program.

June 4, 2015

Colombian government and FARC announce agreement on structure and mandate of “Commission for Clarification of the Truth, Coexistence, and Non-Repetition.”

July 2015

Joint de-mining efforts begin with participation of Colombia military, FARC and international representatives; Government and FARC agree to establishment of truth commission to investigate war crimes.

September 2015

Colombian government and FARC announce agreement on transitional justice. Both sides pledge to sign final agreement within six months, and FARC pledges to begin disarming within 60 days after a final agreement.

About the Authors

Rob Grace is a Senior Associate at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Julia Brooks is a Legal Research Associate at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. The authors would like to thank Anaïde Nahikian, Gregg Greenough, Phuong Pham, and David Alejandro Schoeller-Díaz for useful comments made to earlier drafts of this paper. They would also like to thank Thomas Stevenson for his support in conducting the research. Any existing errors of course are those of the authors.

Rob Grace

Julia Brooks
Julia Brooks