Find Mediators Near You:

After the Handshake: Forging Quality Implementation of Peace Agreements

This post first appeared on Humanity United’s blog on July 18, 2016.

On Wednesday evening August 25, 2016 the long-awaited handshake finally took place.

After nearly four years of negotiations the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) and the Colombian government publicly released a 300-page peace agreement ending the half-century war, the last armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere.  While the agreement must navigate through a plebiscite scheduled for October and will need to face both the challenge of smaller armed groups still engaged in fighting and a potentially strong political opposition, this peace process holds many innovations.  For Colombian peacebuilders, and for those of us who have accompanied them for decades, the delivery of the agreement that seemed impossible marked a truly extraordinary moment.

I had the privilege of working with the High Commissioner for Peace, Sergio Jaramillo, and his team over the past few years.  One of the chief architects of the process Sergio helped open the secret phase of talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), and along with Humberto de la Calle, led the government’s negotiation team in Havana with the excellent facilitation of Norway and Cuba.  In the past few years we accompanied his office and team in developing the early design of what he has called ‘territorial peace’ —  a set of initiatives focused on invigorating local and regional peacebuilding in parts of the country that have suffered a great deal of violence in this protracted war.  This more integrated vision is one of the many innovations of this agreement.  These include a robust victim-centered approach that brought delegations of victims directly to the table and into discussions with negotiators; detailed agreements on responding to illicit drug trade that has fueled the conflict; engagement with land access and reparations for campesinos; and careful negotiations around participation, including a strong focus on women’s rights. Our colleague Kristian Herbolzheimer at Conciliation Resources describes some of these innovations in his recent blog.

In the last days of the formal talks the teams on both sides negotiated the implementation structure to verify and monitor the agreement.  Among other elements they created the Commission for implementation, monitoring, verification, and resolution of differences of the Final Peace Agreement (CSVR).  Embedded within that overarching structure, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies was formally requested to provide technical assistance in the process of accord monitoring and review.  For the first time within an agreement a peace studies program was included, and in the stroke of a pen several of my practitioner-scholar peacebuilding worlds came together.

More than a decade ago, Northern Irish colleague John Darby and fellow professor at the Kroc Institute, initiated a small research project focused on comparing peace agreements.  This research grew and became known as the Peace Accord Matrix (PAM), a fully digitized database and data set, now openly available following approval and publication in a peer reviewed journal.  This tool compares the implementation record of 34 comprehensive peace agreements since 1989.  The research systematically documents and studies more than fifty provisions found in the agreements.

The implementation status of each provision is then assessed year-by-year for a full decade.


Early in the research John and I soon discovered that the evidence-based patterns and insights could make significant contribution, in real-time, to on-going negotiations in peace processes like those in Nepal, Myanmar, and the Philippines.  Over these past years, the research teams supporting the Colombian negotiators consulted the database regularly to address dilemmas and questions emergent in their many rounds of deliberations.  This past year with a seed grant from Humanity United, the Kroc/PAM team proposed the development of a ‘barometer’ approach that would permit contemporaneous data gathering linked to comparative evidence with other agreements in the matrix as a contribution to a more toward the robust implementation of the Colombian accord.

In this blog series I explore the question: How does humanity unite?

One specific way emerges when we achieve greater success at transforming war into lasting peace through negotiations.  With the research published from the Peace Accord Matrix we now have a better understanding about what provides for more durable processes of change following the handshake. The most significant finding may seem overly simple:

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 quality implementation.

Digging deeper into the research we know that most peace agreements face far more difficulties and a slower implementation pace than originally proposed by the signatories. These agreements also face emergent and unexpected challenges that combined with the predictable slow-downs suggest that sustainability requires an ability to recognize dilemmas, early signs of negative cascading, and create space for creative adaptation.  Consider several challenges identified from the study of the thirty-four comprehensive agreements.

In the first two years, 30% of the agreements faced renewed violence at the level of minor war, meaning at least 25 battle deaths.  Violence, and the potential for new formations around violence will remain part of the landscape in early implementation.  However, when we examine the long-term patterns we find that gradually but surely comprehensive agreements ended armed conflict in the country as a whole.  Even with early challenges and failures they often put the country on a pathway toward politics without violence.

When we look at implementation patterns over a ten year period the research suggests that the provisions related to security and political issues, like demobilization or proposed political elections, are implemented more robustly and on a faster pace than provisions in agreements related to social and economic reform, or human and minority rights.

While security issues are paramount in the shift away from violence, the ability to address the concerns of victims, face the deep challenges of social and economic reform, and engage in local peacebuilding are all needed to generate an ethos of peace with justice that minimizes impunity and solidifies social cohesion and political change with dignity.

The PAM longitudinal research on implementation suggests that a peace accord comprises a complex system of interdependent change processes.  However, far too often, individual provisions like a demobilization program or a truth commission become isolated and envisioned as if they exist independent of each other.  Ironically within accords, while ‘verification’ mechanisms often emerge around specific provisions, whole accord reviews aimed at responding to wider systemic implementation patterns and adaptations have not existed.  So here another innovation within the Colombian agreement:  The barometer approach will facilitate regular, contemporaneous assessment across the strategic elements of the agreement, compare that data with existing implementation patterns from other peace accords, and will suggest ideas for improvement in a space that would permit pro-active adaptations and decisions among key political actors and signatories.  The CSVR with the technical Kroc/PAM support includes the mandate that this ‘mechanism should be precise enough to allow for real time decision making and needed adjustments, in order to continuously improve implementation capacities and peacebuilding.’

Four years ago, our good friend John Darby died of ALS, or what we in the U.S. call Lou Gehrig’s disease. He taught his last classes at Notre Dame using a voice machine where he could type his lectures and conversations.  By the end he was nearly immobile.  I am sure he is now dancing an Irish jig with the news of the Colombian accord and the efforts to innovate around review mechanisms.

The Colombian pact is an enormously complex agreement.  We do not know at this point whether the implementation will work as conceptualized on paper.   We do know that when empirical evidence and comparative curiosity combine with intentional spaces for careful reflection, sustained dialogue, and creative adaptation we have a better chance that system shifts can happen.



John Paul Lederach

John Paul Lederach is Professor of Practice for International Peacebuilding with the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.  He works as a practitioner-scholar, providing facilitation, mediation and training/education, with extensive experience at national and community levels in North and Latin America, Africa,… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


Eldercare Mediation: A New Way To Make Decisions Regarding Aging Parents

"Mother should live in a retirement home where she can get help if she needs it." "No way! Mother wants to stay in her house, and if you'd just help...

By Janet Mitchell

Legal Battle Continues After Arbitrator Upholds Suspension of Dallas Cowboys Running Back

Disputing Blog by Karl Bayer, Victoria VanBuren, and Holly HayesThe legal saga over a National Football League (“NFL”) running back’s controversial six-game suspension has continued on in various federal courts. ...

By Beth Graham

More on the Greening of ADR

In early May, I wrote an article inviting mediators and other ADR professionals to “go green” and offering some starting resources for the greening of your office and your technology:...

By Tammy Lenski