Update 2:00PM: Negotiators in Havana have just announced that the peace talks will formally resume on December 10. Colombia’s El Tiempo reports, “Starting on December 10, they will dedicate themselves to discussing the issue of de-escalation of the conflict.”
On Sunday, FARC guerrillas released Gen. Rubén Darío Alzate and two others whom they had held for two weeks in Chocó, in northwestern Colombia. On Monday, the Colombian government ended its suspension of peace talks, sending four senior negotiators to Havana to meet with the guerrillas for two days. The sides met for four hours Tuesday, in “an atmosphere of cordiality and respect.” They are meeting again Wednesday.
But they are not picking up where they left off, continuing their discussion of “Victims,” the dialogues’ fourth agenda point. Instead, President Juan Manuel Santos explained, the negotiators are in Havana “for a couple of days to evaluate where the process is, where we’re going, and to do a cold, objective evaluation of the process, to see how we can continue.”
This probably means that we can expect some rewriting of the ground rules that have governed the peace talks since 2012. These specified that although the FARC had to abandon its practice of kidnapping civilians, the conflict could otherwise continue while talks proceed. There would be no cessation of hostilities, and what happens on the battlefield would not affect what happens at the table.
Dialogue amid conflict has not been easy. In July, after the FARC bombed several civilian energy infrastructure targets—a violation of International Humanitarian Law but not a violation of the talks’ "ground rules”—President Santos warned, “Keep this up and you are playing with fire and this process can end.” (The attacks died down.) And then on November 16, guerrillas captured Gen. Alzate. While this was an unplanned event—Gen. Alzate wandered, dressed as a civilian, into a town where FARC fighters were present—and although capturing enemy prisoners is a common act of war, the General’s capture proved too much for the Colombian government, which immediately suspended the peace talks.
The government has made clear that “negotiating amid conflict” has tacit limits. These limits have become tighter as the peace process has progressed. Today in Havana, the government likely wants to make them more formal.
The guerrillas likely agree with that, in broad terms. They probably expect some guarantees, or restraint, from the government in return for releasing Gen. Alzate. If capturing military officers is now “against the rules,” they will seek new rules that are more favorable to their fighters in the field.
“Those who suspended the conversations cannot return with the intention of imposing the date of their re-initiation, as though nothing has happened,” reads a FARC communiqué issued Monday. “The rules guiding the process will have to be re-made, since the government broke them, damaging the bridge of trust that we had built.”
The FARC wants a full, bilateral cease-fire. That is unlikely. The government argues that the FARC would use the resulting respite to re-arm and strengthen itself. It would be hard to get the Colombian military to go along with a bilateral truce. And it would be nearly impossible to verify: the talks’ agenda could be derailed as negotiators in Havana argue over reports of bombings, ambushes, killings and similar alleged cease-fire violations.
Instead, the word we are hearing most often right now is “de-escalation.”
“We can no longer wait for gestures that demonstrate to Colombians on the ground that we are nearing the end of the conflict,” chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle said on Monday. “For months we have been discussing de-escalation measures with the FARC. Again, it is time to pass from discussion to action.”
“De-escalation” is a welcome word to hear. But what might it look like? Above all, it would have to be easily verifiable. While a ban on all violations of International Humanitarian Law would be a huge step, it would be a difficult pre-condition for dialogues. Allegations of child recruitment, anti-personnel mine use, extortion, and similar activities could be frequent and too hard to verify. They could derail the talks.
What, then, are some verifiable methods of de-escalation?
- The FARC could commit to no longer capturing members of the security forces.
- The FARC could commit to ceasing bomb attacks on civilian infrastructure like energy and pipelines.
- The government could commit to ceasing operations that intend to kill members of the FARC high command (Secretariat and General Staff, 30 people total). President Santos already stated earlier this year that, if he had intelligence indicating the location of top FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez, he would “think twice at this stage of the process” before ordering an attack.
- The government could accede to the FARC’s repeated calls for improved conditions for guerrillas in Colombian prisons. The FARC has raised the volume of these calls since the group agreed to release Gen. Alzate. In a November 23 statement, FARC negotiator Jesús Santrich called for “rapid solutions to cases of prisoners, or adequate attention for several of our members who are in the regime’s jails in lamentable conditions of health and overcrowding.”
- Both sides could commit to “restricting operations in special zones like indigenous reserves, or in black communities that have been hit so hard in recent months, or in places with a large campesino population,” Semana magazine columnist León Valencia wrote in late November. Valencia, director of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation think-tank, also suggested “temporarily inhibiting bombings and [aerial herbicide] fumigations over key zones of territory.”
- It may also be time to add a “rule” prohibiting deliberate extra-judicial killing of civilians. This one is complicated, though. When the FARC killed two indigenous leaders in Cauca department on November 4, the outpouring of anger and condemnation caused the guerrillas to issue an unusual statement expressing “grief and concern” for what happened. The episode showed that future killings of civilians on the battlefield would bear a big cost at the negotiating table. However, the FARC’s later protestations that the shooters felt menaced by pursuing (unarmed) Indigenous Guard members shows that a “no civilian killings” requirement could be tricky to implement, as talks could be distracted by conflicting accounts of whether a violation of the “ground rules” occurred.
There is no way to know whether these possible steps are receiving serious consideration in Havana today. If they come to agreement, the parties could even adopt entirely different ones.
Either way, though, verifiable de-escalation of the conflict would be a positive step at this stage in the talks. It would allow them to go forward in an environment of reduced tensions. It would build public support for the negotiations as Colombians feel the first real benefit of the Havana process: an increase in their own security. De-escalation would also offer formal recognition of some de facto conditions for talks to proceed, like “it is prohibited to capture a general.”
The downside of de-escalation is that it creates more rules and pre-conditions governing battlefield behavior. It adds new categories of standards that, if violated, could stall the talks in Havana. Nonetheless, the process has probably reached a level of maturity that reduces the risk of such impasses—especially if the new ground rules are clearly spelled out.
One thing is certain: at this fragile moment, an escalation of battlefield conflict could do great harm to the peace process. Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón recently warned that the FARC is planning to increase the frequency of its attacks in December before calling a temporary Christmas truce. The FARC has neither confirmed nor denied this. If Pinzón is right, the FARC would be well advised to abandon these plans and focus on de-escalation.