The FARC’s Unilateral Truce Offer: Good News, But New Questions

The FARC today released a potentially historic statement. The key sentences:

“We have resolved to declare a UNILATERAL CESSATION OF FIRE AND OF HOSTILITIES FOR AN INDEFINITE PERIOD, which should transform itself into an armistice. For the achievement of its full success, we aspire to count with the oversight of UNASUR, CELAC, the ICRC, and the Broad Front for Peace. This unilateral cease-fire, which we hope to prolong over time, would end only if it is proven that our guerrilla structures have been the object of attacks from the security forces.”

A full cease-fire and cessation of hostilities would be very welcome. Even just a cessation of force-on-force combat would be welcome. Since 2012, the FARC’s declarations of unilateral holiday and election-season cease-fires have reduced tensions and strengthened confidence in the peace process. To prolong this indefinitely—as long as government forces halt offensive operations—would give hundreds of communities a chance to know peace, in some cases for the first time in their citizens’ lifetimes.

The FARC statement, though, does not define the key phrase “cessation of fire and of hostilities.” What are “hostilities?” It’s virtually certain that the FARC intends to halt attacks on military and police targets, and presumably on civilian populations and public infrastructure. But what about other hostile acts?

  • Does the term cover extortion, perhaps the FARC “hostility” that Colombians feel the most?
  • Does it cover guerrilla recruitment (especially of minors)?
  • The laying of anti-personnel mines and IEDs?
  • Coca cultivation and cocaine production? Illegal mining? Illicit arms purchases?
  • Does a “cessation of hostilities” mean an end to threats against civilians? Does an individual threatened by FARC fighters—for instance, one whom the guerrillas accuse of being a “snitch”—suddenly have nothing to fear from them?

To cease committing these “other hostile acts” would be to bring an unprecedented level of tranquility to vast areas of Colombia. But doing so is far harder to verify than a more basic cease-fire, in which both sides merely abstain from attacking military targets. No organization has the capacity to investigate and certify that all guerrilla extortion, laying of landmines, and forced recruitment have truly ceased throughout the country.

If the FARC’s announcement does not cover all “hostilities,” though, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos will find it politically more difficult to respond in kind. Faced with opposition on the political right and tepid support for the peace talks (at best) within the military, President Santos would most likely prefer a de facto cease-fire in which attacks simply do not occur, rather than be forced to declare formally that he is reining in the armed forces.

Consider this hypotherical scenario. The Colombian military has specific intelligence about a FARC front leader’s location in a jungle encampment. Currently, there are strong reasons why President Santos might quietly discourage the military from attacking. Such an operation might weaken a key FARC structure’s support for the peace process. Also, destroying FARC command and control could make an eventual post-conflict demobilization far more difficult.

Santos can abstain quietly from targeting that guerrilla leader or encampment. It would be far harder for him to issue a blanket order to “leave the FARC alone,” especially if the FARC continues to extort, lay landmines, and carry out similar “hostilities.”

There is middle ground here, though it is not necessarily stable ground. One possible counter-proposal would be to desist from offensive operations against FARC personnel detected at encampments in rural zones, while insisting that FARC members detected “in the wild” — on patrol, in population centers — are assumed to be engaging in “other hostilities” and still subject to capture.

Even this, however, may prove unacceptable to both the FARC and to Colombia’s security forces. The ball, for now, is uncomfortably in President Santos’s court.

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