Explaining Colombia’s Peace Plebiscite

Note: this post reflects our current understanding of the plebiscite situation, which is very complex and hinges on details of Colombian law. We may revise the text; if we do, we will indicate all revisions clearly. Any revisions suggested in the comments will receive serious consideration.

Throughout the nearly four years of Colombia’s negotiations with the FARC guerrillas, President Juan Manuel Santos has promised to submit a final peace accord to a vote, so that it could enjoy the legitimacy of a public mandate. This idea is commendable, but risky: polls have usually shown a solid but not overwhelming majority of Colombians supporting the peace talks, and strongly opposing key elements like alternative punishments for human rights abusers, or allowing former guerrillas to participate in politics. The possibility that a “No” vote could undo the entire peace effort is too great to be dismissed.

Santos’s proposal for a plebiscite to approve the eventual accord became law last December. The FARC accepted the idea in principle in May. It received a formal green light on July 18, when Colombia’s Constitutional Court completed its review of the law [PDF], making modest changes.

What happens next—and what might happen next—is confusing. Here, in question-and-answer form, is our understanding of how the plebiscite is likely to move forward, based on a close reading of official documents and media coverage, and conversations with Colombian experts.

When might the plebiscite happen?

It must take place at least one month, and no more than four months, from the date that President Santos notifies Congress of his intention to convene it.

But here the timetable gets cloudy. Several things must happen in a closely orchestrated way. In order to do that, though, the plebiscite’s implementers will have to cut through some circular logic, in which B can’t happen until A is completed, yet A depends on B being completed.

The timetable could look something like this:

  • Negotiators in Havana finalize the peace accord. This requires agreement on how ex-combatants will be reintegrated into society, and on several points of disagreement that the draft accords inked since 2013 had postponed for later. (One such point—how judges will be selected for the tribunal that will decide war-crimes cases—was resolved by an agreement announced on August 12.) Nailing down all of these questions could take several more weeks, in the most optimistic of scenarios. Once the accord is finalized, Colombia’s government must undergo a huge effort to ensure that citizens know what it says.
  • The FARC leadership meets somewhere to hold its “10th Conference,” where they will discuss and make a final decision about the accord. This is necessary to guarantee mid-level commanders’ buy-in.
  • Colombians vote in the plebiscite to approve or disapprove the peace accord. If Colombians vote “No,” this timeline stops. Meanwhile, in its July 18 ruling, Colombia’s Constitutional Court decreed that the amnesty law (the next step on this list) cannot be enacted unless citizens have first approved the peace accords plebiscite.
  • Colombia’s Congress passes a law that, as agreed in the December 15 accord [PDF] on Victims, would amnesty the political crime of “rebellion” (sedition). Without this law, FARC members will not begin to demobilize for fear of arrest. “If there is no amnesty law, there will be no final accord,” FARC negotiator Carlos Antonio Lozada said in early August. This will not be easy either, as Colombia’s Congress must decide to what extent guerrilla fundraising activities—so-called “connected crimes” like extortion and narcotrafficking—count as “rebellion” if their purpose was to raise money for the FARC’s war effort. It is also unclear whether, at this point, Colombia would have to release thousands of FARC members serving prison sentences for “rebellion.”
  • The government and FARC sign a final peace accord. This would happen at a celebratory ceremony, probably in Colombia, with many invited international delegations present.
  • FARC members begin to concentrate into 23 zones and 8 encampments around the country, where they will begin a six-month, UN-verified process of disarmament and demobilization. The June 23 accord [PDF] for a cessation of hostilities and disarmament calls for the FARC to begin concentrating its members within five days of the final peace accord’s signature.

These items may not necessarily occur in this order.

For one thing, the Colombian government would prefer to hold the plebiscite after the final accord signing, so that voters are motivated to choose “Yes” during the honeymoon phase following a national celebration of peace. But the signing triggers the FARC’s concentration into zones within five days, and the FARC understandably resists leaving its members concentrated and vulnerable if Colombians end up voting “No” and nullifying the peace accords.

Summary of the FARC-Government Ceasefire and Disarmament Accord

(This summary was updated and corrected on June 24 to reflect new information.)

The accord agreed today, for “A Bilateral and Definitive Ceasefire, Cessation of Hostilities, and Laying Aside of Weapons,” closes the fifth of five substantive items on the FARC-government negotiating agenda. It sets out a roadmap for disarming and demobilizing the FARC after a final peace accord is signed. It foresees a swift process: a full turnover of guerrilla weapons within six months.

This is a tremendous milestone. What remains between now and a final, conflict-ending peace accord are details. Some of these will be thorny, and may require weeks or even a few months to unravel. But the hardest parts of the FARC peace process are now in the past.

Here is a quick English summary of the remarkable agreement announced today.

Timetable

  • The bilateral ceasefire and “leaving aside” of weapons will begin at the date and hour of the signing of a final accord. This date may be weeks or months from now, as the draft accords reached since 2013 have at least a few dozen points on which the parties could not reach final agreement.
  • The day after a final peace accord, Colombia’s security forces will redeploy in a way that facilitates the FARC membership’s movement to the 23 “Temporary Hamlet Zones for Normalization” described below. The government and FARC will provide these zones’ geographic coordinates to the UN monitoring mission (which is also described below).
  • Five days after a final peace accord, the FARC’s units will begin to move to these zones, following routes agreed upon between the government and FARC. The monitoring and verification mission will oversee this process, including the movement of the guerrillas’ individual weapons.
  • Once the FARC turns in a list of the combatants present in each Temporary Hamlet Zone, the government will suspend all outstanding arrest warrants for them. Those who can be amnestied—who do not face allegations of serious human rights crimes—may begin their “process of reincorporation into civilian life.”
  • Between seven and thirty days after a final peace accord, the FARC’s weapons stockpiles, as well as guerrilla militias’ arms and all explosives, must be moved to the Temporary Hamlet Zones under the supervision of the verification and monitoring mission.
  • Within 180 days, as discussed below, the UN mission should have control over all of the FARC’s weapons.

Concentration of Guerrilla Fighters

  • The parties will establish 23 “Temporary Hamlet Zones for Normalization” (Zonas Veredales Transitorias de Normalización), with 8 encampments inside each and an additional 8 encampments elsewhere in the country. These zones’ location has not been made public, if it is even decided yet. These zones and encampments will be located in municipalities listed in a June 24 Defense Ministry communiqué and mapped out below.

  • Each Temporary Hamlet Zone will be as large as a hamlet or vereda, an administrative division that is usually quite small (most of Colombia’s 1,100 counties have a few dozen veredas). Each must be accessible by road or river. Each may be expanded or reduced by mutual accord if necessary.
  • Each zone will be surrounded by a 1-kilometer buffer zone, in which neither the security forces nor the FARC may be present (except for those participating in the verification and monitoring mission). Military aircraft may not fly below 5,000 feet above the zones.
  • The FARC will be responsible for its combatants within each zone. Any FARC members who leave the zone must do so unarmed and out of uniform.
  • The FARC cannot use the zones “for demonstrations of political character.”
  • Any unarmed civilian government authorities within these zones will be able to continue performing their duties without interference. They may enter any part of the zones, except for the encampments within them, where the FARC will be lodged. No civilians may enter the encampments at any moment.
  • If the police or other armed government authorities need to enter a Temporary Hamlet Zone for some reason, they must arrange it beforehand with the verification and monitoring mechanism.
  • The FARC may provide education and other orientation to its fighters within these zones, while the government may perform other services (like health care or issuing ID cards) necessary for their reintegration into civilian life.
  • During the period in which the FARC are concentrated in these zones, 60 guerrillas will have permission to travel anywhere in the country to carry out tasks related to the peace accord. For each Temporary Hamlet Zone, 10 guerrillas will be able to travel anywhere in that department (province) to carry out such tasks. While traveling, these guerrilla representatives will have protection. Before they do so, they much store their weapons in containers overseen by the verification mission.

Monitoring and Verification

  • Members of the government, the FARC, and a UN mission approved by a January Security Council resolution will make up a tripartite monitoring and verification mechanism. This mechanism will be divided into eight regions and a larger number of local units—including one for each Temporary Hamlet Zone. The mechanism will have unlimited access to each of these zones.
  • The international component will be a UN mission made up of unarmed political observers. It will mainly be made up of members of Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) countries. This international component will preside over all of the tripartite mechanism’s units, and will settle disagreements, issue recommendations, and publish reports.
  • This mechanism will verify that the parties are following the rules of the ceasefire. It will investigate incidents or violations, and will present recommendations to the government and FARC for how to prevent or correct them.

“Leaving Aside” (Dejación) of Weapons

  • The UN mission will receive the totality of the FARC’s armaments, which will be used to build three monuments.
  • “Leaving aside” weapons will consist of eight steps:
    • registration of the quantity and types of weapons brought into the Temporary Hamlet Zones;
    • identification of each individual’s weapons (the accord makes a distinction between the weapon each fighter carries, and additional weapons in guerrilla stockpiles);
    • monitoring and verification of weapons being carried by guerrillas in the encampments within the zones;
    • turnover of weapons to the UN mission;
    • storage or warehousing (almacenamiento) of the collected weapons, in containers within the zones that only the UN mission may access;
    • removal of the weapons from the zones; and
    • creation of three monuments built from the destroyed weapons: one at UN headquarters, one in Cuba, and one in Colombia.
  • 60 days after the signing of a final accord, the FARC must move its stockpiles (non-individual weapons), grenades and munitions to containers supervised by the UN mission.
  • By 90 days after the signing of a final accord, the FARC must turn over to the UN mission 30 percent of its individually carried weapons. Another 30 percent of individuals’ weapons must be turned over by 120 days after the signing of a final accord. The remaining 40 percent must be turned over by 150 days after the signing of a final accord. By 180 days after the signing of a final accord, the UN mission should have all guerrilla weapons.
  • The FARC must contribute to efforts to remove mines, improvised explosive devices, unexploded ordnance and other explosives.

Security Guarantees for Demobilized Guerrillas

  • The government will encourage political parties and other sectors throughout the country to sign a “National Political Pact” committing all to abandoning the combination of arms and politics and the promotion of violent organizations like paramilitary groups.
  • A National Security Guarantees Commission, presided by the President, will develop and oversee policies to dismantle such violent organizations.
  • A Special Investigative Unit in the Prosecutor-General’s Office will concentrate on the dismantling of organized crime and paramilitary groups and support networks.
  • A “mixed protection corps” to guarantee the security of demobilized FARC members will be created within the Interior Ministry’s National Protection Unit.
  • An Integral Security and Protection Program will be established to protect organizations, groups, and communities in historically conflictive territories.

Ratification of Peace Accords

  • A brief paragraph in the June 23 communique commits both sides support what Colombia’s Constitutional Court decides should be the proper procedure for a public vote to approve the contents of the peace accords. (The Court is currently deciding on a plebiscite in which voters would vote “yes” or “no.”)

English Translation of the ELN Peace Talks Agenda

On March 30, after more than two years of exploratory conversations, Colombia’s government and second-largest insurgent group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), reached agreement on an agenda for formal negotiations. This “public table of conversations” will take place in Ecuador, Venezuela, Chile, Brazil, and Cuba. Here is the negotiating agenda. This document’s Spanish original is here, in PDF format. This is a rush translation; feel free to suggest edits in the comments.

Accord for Dialogues for the Peace of Colombia Between the National Government and the National Liberation Army

The government of the Republic of Colombia (National Government) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), henceforward “the Delegations,” as a result of exploratory and confidential dialogues, and given their manifest disposition for peace, have agreed to install a public table of conversations to take on the points that have been established on the agenda, with the goal of signing a Final Accord to end the armed conflict and agree on transformations seeking a Colombia in peace with fairness.

The exploratory dialogues took place between January 2014 and March 2016 in the Republic of Ecuador, the Federative Republic of Brazil, and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, whose governments acted as guarantors along with the Government of Norway; during this phase the governments of the Republic of Cuba and the Republic of Chile officiated as accompaniers. The National Government and the ELN express special recognition and gratitude toward all of them. The international community’s continued accompaniment is essential.

Recognizing that peace is a supreme good in every democracy, and with the objective of putting an end to the armed conflict, eradicating violence from politics; placing the treatment of victims’ situation at the center; and advancing toward national reconciliation through society’s active participation in the building of a stable of long-lasting peace, the Delegations have agreed:

  1. To install a public conversations table in Ecuador.
  2. The table’s sessions will take place in Ecuador, Venezuela, Chile, Brazil, and Cuba. These countries, together with Norway, are the guarantors.
  3. To carry out direct and uninterrupted conversations between the Government and ELN Delegations.
  4. To execute the agenda with the greatest speed and rigor.
  5. To develop the following agenda:

I. Agenda

1. Participation of Society in the Building of Peace

The participation of society will be:

a. That they make peace viable through initiatives and proposals in the course and context of this process.

b. On the themes of the agenda.

c. A dynamic and active exercise, inclusive and pluralistic, that permits the building of a common vision of peace that encourages transformations for the country and its regions.

2. Democracy for Peace

Democracy for peace is the purpose of this point of the accord:

a. To carry out a debate that permits examination of society’s participation in, and decisions about, the problems that affect its reality, and that can be channeled into constructive elements for society.

b. Treatment of conflicts with an eye toward building peace.

c. Review of the normative framework and guarantees for public demonstrations. Treatment of the legal situation of those accused and convicted for actions taken in the development of social mobilizations.

d. Participation of society in the construction of citizenship.

3. Transformations for Peace

The purpose of this point is to agree on transformations for peace, taking into account:

a. The transformative proposals elaborated by society, upheld by the results of point 2 of this agenda (“Democracy for Peace”).

b. Transformative programs to overcome poverty, social exclusion, corruption and environmental degradation, while seeking equity.

c. Alternative integral plans with a territorial focus, which constitute economic and productive options that benefit communities.

4. Victims

In the construction of a stable and lasting peace, the recognition of victims and their rights is essential, as is the treatment and resolution of their situation based on truth, justice, reparations, and commitments of non-repetition and not forgetting. These elements, taken together, are the basis of forgiveness and lead toward a reconciliation process.

Why Colombia’s Negotiators Couldn’t Manage a Cease-Fire by March 23

(2,686 words / 11.5 minute read time)

It sounded over-ambitious when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced last September 23, during a historic handshake meeting in Havana with the FARC guerrilla leadership, that both sides’ negotiators would sign a final peace accord in just six months—that is, by today, March 23, 2016.

The slow-moving FARC-government negotiations still had a lot of ground to cover. It then took nearly three more months just to finish the talks’ “Victims” agenda item, of which the September 23 agreement, on transitional justice, was only a part. During that period, several FARC spokespeople warned that the March 23 deadline would not be met.

A more realistic hope was that the negotiators could agree by March 23 on something more modest than a final accord, but still tremendously important: a bilateral ceasefire. This would be a genuine, full cessation of all hostilities—all forms of violence, from extortion to recruitment of new fighters—with UN verification, as laid out in a January Security Council resolution).

The “ceasefire by March 23” scenario had seemed likely. When WOLA staff visited Bogotá during the first week of March, a strong majority of experts and officials we interviewed saw the sides as “almost there” on the details. “Something will be signed on March 23,” Colombia’s foreign minister said earlier this month. President Santos warned on February 19 that if a ceasefire and precise timeline for laying down arms weren’t ready by March 23, he would see it as evidence that “the FARC aren’t prepared for peace.”

A ceasefire by this week would have been important enough for President Obama to alter his Cuba visit schedule to appear in the photo frame, along with Santos, Raúl Castro, and FARC leader “Timochenko,” at a triumphant signing ceremony. Such a photo could have had huge symbolic value for U.S.-Latin American relations, a break with a history punctuated by gunboat diplomacy, cold war proxy conflicts, and the war on drugs.

But there was no ceasefire accord, despite last-ditch efforts by President Santos’s older brother to break an impasse. So there was no photo opportunity by the time President Obama boarded Air Force One bound for Argentina on March 22. Instead, on March 21 the negotiators got the “participation award” of separate meetings (and photos) with Secretary of State John Kerry.

Secretary of State Kerry meets with FARC negotiators.

So, what happened?

In order to protect guerrillas during a ceasefire, and to guarantee both sides’ compliance, it is necessary to gather FARC fighters in specific zones around the country. Colombia’s security forces would be absent from these zones (though they would guard the perimeter), and the government would suspend outstanding arrest warrants for all guerrillas assembled there.

Agreement on these “concentration zones” remains elusive. They are the main point standing in the way of a ceasefire. In fact, the parties may be more distant on the concentration zones issue today than they were two months ago.

On January 23, the negotiators’ “End of Conflict Subcommittee”—an expert group made up of five senior active-duty military officers and five of the FARC’s most battle-hardened commanders—submitted a confidential consensus document recommending how these zones would operate. Things appeared to be on the right track.

The UN Verification Mission’s Essential Role in Colombia’s Long-Awaited Ceasefire

By Adam Isacson, Senior Associate for Regional Security

As soon as this week, though perhaps later, Colombia’s government and the FARC guerrillas may agree to a bilateral cessation of hostilities. As discussed in a previous article, this would involve guerrilla fighters beginning to concentrate themselves into special demilitarized zones around the country.

Within 30 days of signing this agreement, according to a January 25 Security Council resolution, details should be worked out for a UN mission to Colombia. We don’t yet know what that mission’s name will be, but we know the following.

It will be charged with monitoring and verifying the FARC’s “laying down of arms.” The guerrillas will not be handing over weapons to Colombia’s government. This would be seen as symbol of surrender. Any such proposal would run contrary to the spirit of the negotiations, and would have been rejected by the FARC. In addition, recent Colombian historyleads FARC members to worry about their own protection after they demobilize. As a result, disarmament will happen slowly (as it did in Northern Ireland), and will be the responsibility of the UN mission.

The UN will be part of a “tripartite mechanism” to verify the cessation of hostilities, along with Colombia’s government and the FARC. The UN mission will be present near the as-yet-undetermined guerrilla concentration zones, which most likely will be guarded by Colombian military personnel. The mission will have full access to these zones. There, it will play a sort of “referee” role. Along with government and guerrilla representatives, the mission’s members will deploy quickly to investigate any claims that one side has violated the terms of the ceasefire, or that such a violation appears imminent. The tripartite body will have to decide whether a violation happened, report it, and recommend steps that must be taken to avoid a repeat.

Officials interviewed by WOLA colloquially described the tripartite model as “three people in a jeep”: investigator teams with representatives from the FARC, the Colombian military, and the UN mission. (The teams are actually more likely to be made up of six, not three, people.)

It is likely to be made up of 350 unarmed international military personnel, plus support staff. These will not be blue-helmeted peacekeeping troops: this is a political mission, not a peacekeeping mission. (This also means that the mission is likely to be far less generously funded than a peacekeeping mission.) They will be active-duty or retired personnel most likely wearing civilian clothes.

Its personnel will come from around the world, though the Security Council resolution “looks forward to the contributions of Member States of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), a body of all Western Hemisphere countries except the United States and Canada. However, according to UN custom, countries that share a border with Colombia (Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Venezuela, and—due to a maritime border—Nicaragua) cannot participate. There may be some flexibility on this custom, though, as these neighboring countries plus Colombia comprise more than half of the combined population of CELAC member states.