Colombia Peace Process Update (May 20, 2013)

The first bit of news to emerge after our last Colombia Peace Process Update (March 27) gave cause for concern. The seventh round of talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas had ended with no agreement on the first of five agenda points, land and rural development. The eighth round, originally scheduled to begin April 2 in Havana, Cuba, was then delayed for three weeks. The reason given was a need for “separate work on sub-points” of the agenda, while negotiators’ support teams “continue joint work.”

In fact, the “break” between April 2 and the next round’s April 23 launch turned out to be a period of intense activity.

One reason for the delay soon became apparent: the FARC chose to add new representatives to its negotiating team. This required complicated logistical arrangements to extract them from remote areas of Colombia and bring them to Havana. The most prominent addition was Pablo Catatumbo, chief of the FARC’s Alfonso Cano (or Western) Bloc. With Catatumbo’s arrival, the guerrillas now have two members of their seven-member Secretariat in Havana. Lead guerrilla negotiator Iván Márquez has been there since November; he replaced Mauricio Jaramillo, head of the Eastern Bloc, who was present during the talks’ preparatory phase.

Analysts speculated that the addition of Catatumbo, a “heavyweight” within the guerrilla leadership, might speed the pace of talks by simplifying the FARC’s decision-making. Some also speculated that adding Catatumbo, a battle-hardened military leader, might give more voice to the FARC’s field commanders, who had been less represented among the negotiators. The FARC’s powerful Southern Bloc, which has not been represented in Havana, issued a communiqué denying persistent rumors that the guerrillas are divided about the handling of the talks, with the more militarily active units being most reticent.

Other members of the guerrilla negotiators’ support team (Victoria Sandino Palmera, Freddy González, Lucas Carvajal, and others) traveled to Cuba as part of the same operation, which required a temporary suspension of military activities in parts of Cauca and Tolima departments. In a separate operation, two more FARC negotiators (Laura Villa and Sergio Ibáñez) were extracted from a zone in Meta department.

Before this latter operation occurred, former President Álvaro Uribe, a constant critic of the peace talks, posted the coordinates of the pickup zone to his Twitter account. It is believed that a member of Colombia’s armed forces leaked this information, known only to a small number of officials, to Uribe. This individual remains unidentified.

The “coordinates” episode raised alarm that Colombia’s military – or elements within it – might be quietly opposing the peace process. Citing anonymous military sources, Colombian journalists reported that active members of the armed forces have two chief concerns about the possible aftermath of a peace accord. First, that the armed forces may be forced to cut their numbers and budget during a post-conflict phase. And second, that human rights violators from the military might serve prison sentences while guerrilla human rights violators are amnestied.

FARC negotiator Andrés Paris sharpened the first concerns when he told reporters in mid-April that a peace accord could bring “an eventual drastic reduction of the official military forces of Colombia,” adding that this is an issue “that we will surely bring up” in the Havana talks.

On several occasions, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has sought to reassure the military on this subject. On May 9, for example, he told a military audience, “On the [negotiating] agenda there is no topic that has to do with the Colombian armed forces, this topic is not on the agenda and as a result it will not be discussed, period. It is not negotiable.” In his speech to a military audience before the April 9 peace march discussed below, Santos promised, “We are not going to diminish the presence of our forces in any corner of our territory” after a peace accord, adding, “to the contrary, we will need more presence.”

On the second topic of military concern, Santos and other government officials have pledged that any arrangement that offers leniency to FARC human rights violators will also apply to the military. A “peace framework” constitutional amendment, passed in June 2012, already holds out this possibility. A scenario frequently mentioned is a transitional justice model that requires judicial trials, followed by suspended sentences and reparations to victims, for guerrillas and officers allegedly involved in crimes against humanity.

This proposal (or something similar) is favored by Colombia’s Prosecutor-General (Fiscal), Eduardo Montealegre, a vocal defender of the “peace framework” constitutional amendment. Montealegre proposes that those accused of crimes against humanity be banned from politics, though they may receive suspended sentences. Colombia’s more conservative Inspector-General (Procurador), Alejandro Ordóñez, challenges the validity of the framework law, opposing an arrangement that allows FARC rights violators to stay out of prison. Ordóñez has also held out the possibility that extrajudicial executions committed by the armed forces might not count as “crimes against humanity” and might thus be eligible for amnesty.

The FARC, meanwhile, remains defiant on the issue. In a May 3 statement, the guerrillas rejected the idea of facing Colombia’s justice system after a peace process concludes: “The assassins and their tribunals have no moral authority to judge us.” FARC negotiators have repeatedly weakened public support for the talks with statements that minimize and even deny that the group has abused human rights or must make amends to victims.

The FARC’s post-conflict future as a political movement was a principal topic of an April 28-30 forum, hosted in Bogotá by Colombia’s National University and the UN Development Program. At this event, 1,265 participants presented about 400 proposals on “political participation,” the second item on the FARC talks’ agenda. As occurred after a December forum on the first agenda item, these proposals will be presented to both negotiating teams. Topics include electoral reforms, guarantees for opposition parties’ security, women’s participation in politics, and similar issues. “Everything is possible once peace is signed,” said a former guerrilla who is now president of Uruguay, José Mujica, in a recorded video message to the forum participants.

An even greater show of public participation took place on April 9, the 65th anniversary of the assassination of populist politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, which triggered an outbreak of nationwide violence that has never fully abated. Pro-peace and victims’ groups, the “Marcha Patriótica” political movement, and the Bogotá mayor’s office convened a large march in Bogotá in support of the peace process. Estimates of the number of participants ranged from 200,000 to over a million. After giving a speech before the armed forces, President Santos joined the marchers for several blocks.

The April 9 march was part of a general shift in public opinion in support of the talks. A mid-April Ipsos Napoleón Franco poll commissioned by several prominent Colombian news outlets found 63 percent of Colombians favoring the peace process, up from 57 percent in November. 37 percent disapproved. 52 percent still believed that the process won’t successfully reach an accord and a guerrilla demobilization, while 45 believed that it will. 69 percent opposed an arrangement in which FARC rights violators do not go to prison. 67 percent opposed allowing FARC members to participate in politics after a peace accord.

Colombia’s Catholic Church, which had been largely quiet about the talks, voiced support with a statement from the Episcopal Peace Council of the Colombian Catholic Church Episcopal Conference (PDF).

Some important expressions of support came from the United States. 62 members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry expressing support for the government-FARC dialogues, urging a greater role for victims, and encouraging the U.S. government to take steps to support the talks and a possible post-conflict transition. The FARC wrote a letter back to the members of Congress on April 25. This letter was the first time that the FARC clearly mentioned the possibility of a truth commission to investigate human rights abuses, including their own “kidnapping, forced disappearance, recruitment, use of explosives of all kinds.”

Fifty-six U.S. and Colombian faith leaders signed two letters to President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and President Santos supporting the peace process and “calling for a U.S. policy that prioritizes peace and human rights in Colombia.”

On a late April visit to Colombia, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Rajiv Shah, said, “On behalf of the United States and of President Obama, we want to reaffirm our commitment for economic support, and to be one of the principal allies for Colombia in its peace process. … As we discussed with the President [Santos], in the government of the United States we are very optimistic that the process is going to be very fruitful, and we are going to continue lending our support. … We are going to respond to all requests that President Santos makes to help and develop this process.” (This is a translation of the Colombian Presidency’s Spanish transcription of Shah’s remarks.)

At the conclusion of a lengthy visit to the United States, meanwhile, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said, “In my Washington meetings I have found a desire to support President Santos’s process and a will to strengthen the armed forces to accelerate it.”

With new guerrilla negotiators in place, the eighth round of talks began on April 23. “We want results,” said chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle. “That is the instruction that we have received from President Santos. This is a process that cannot be prolonged indefinitely.” When the round of talks ended ten days later, De la Calle told reporters, “The pace of the conversations has been insufficient, inconstant. We could have progressed much more.”

FARC negotiators disagreed. Lead FARC negotiator Iván Márquez said, “We’re advancing. The peace delegation of the FARC feels satisfied with the gains we are making.” FARC negotiator Jesús Santrich dismissed De la Calle as a “picturesque” figure “who speaks to the gallery.”

The joint communiqué released at the end of the talks’ eighth round indicated that the government and guerrillas have a draft agreement on the first agenda item, land tenure and rural development. This document is still under revision and will not be made public. “Partial accords can easily be manipulated or wrongly interpreted to poison the process,” President Santos told reporters, repeating the oft-used phrase, “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

Colombia meanwhile continued to see indications that talks between the government and a smaller guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), may be near. On April 22, Colombia’s La FM radio network reported that the Colombian government might launch dialogues with the ELN guerrillas during the second week of May. That timeframe has passed because of the ELN’s January kidnapping of a Canadian mining company employee in Bolívar department. If the ELN wishes to begin talks, President Santos said on May 9, it “has to free its kidnap victims, above all the Canadian [Jernoc Wobert] it is holding.” A day earlier, the ELN had said it would not release Wobert until his company cedes mining rights to local communities.

While visiting the Vatican, where he heard words of support for the talks from Pope Francis on May 13, President Santos said that Colombians are not “totally optimistic” about the FARC talks, but that “a moderate optimism exists.” In a speech (English PDF) (Spanish) at Bogotá’s Universidad Externado, by far his lengthiest public statement, High Commissioner for Peace Sergio Jaramillo portrayed an eventual peace accord not as the end of a peace process, but as the beginning of a larger, rather ambitious transition to governance in Colombia’s historically conflictive territories. A FARC statement at the outset of the ninth round of talks, meanwhile, indicated the group’s “full expectation and desire to take up the second [agenda] point very soon,” but went on to voice concerns about land tenure and rural development, the first topic.

As they pass their six-month anniversary, the talks are proceeding in an atmosphere of increased, though still moderate, optimism. This will grow dramatically if the ninth round makes clear that the agenda has moved beyond the first item, and if the FARC, in its public statements, more explicitly addresses its responsibilities to its victims.

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