Bilateral Cease-Fire: What Must Be Negotiated?

President Santos last night, announcing his intention to negotiate a bilateral cease-fire with the FARC.

“I have given instructions to the negotiators that they start, as soon as possible, the discussion on the point of the bilateral and definitive cease-fire and cessation of hostilities.”

That was Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, making a rather surprising announcement in the first moments of his televised 2015 new year’s address.

In the nearly two and a half years since peace talks began, the Colombian government had refused the FARC guerrillas’ calls for a bilateral cease-fire, insisting on fighting while negotiations proceeded. Now, one month after the FARC declared a “unilateral, indefinite” but conditional cease-fire, President Santos is talking about making it bilateral. The talks are in such a mature phase, it seems, that the guns and bombs may soon go silent as both sides abstain from offensive actions.

This is a transcendental step. But one might reasonably ask: “If the FARC already wants and has declared a cease-fire, what is there to negotiate?”

There is much to define. “Cease fire” and “cessation of hostilities” are vague terms. When they return to the table on January 26, negotiators—especially the “end of conflict subcommittee” made up of Colombian military personnel and FARC leaders—will have to consider questions like the following.

  • Who would verify it? If the parties at the table in Havana lose time arguing over alleged cease-fire violations, the negotiating agenda could get derailed. Some trusted third party, perhaps an international entity, may be needed to investigate and rule on such allegations.
  • Can the Colombian security forces go after non-participants? In many areas, the FARC are not the only active armed or organized-crime group. The Colombian government is charged with protecting its citizens throughout the national territory and will insist on being able to confront these groups—as well as to confront FARC elements that, in its view, have gone rogue or broken away.
  • Will this be a “cease-fire in place?” The government might suggest that, in order to verify the cease-fire more easily, the FARC concentrate its members in specific locations. The guerrillas will reject this.
  • If guerrillas are not concentrated in specific locations, can the security forces carry out arrest warrants for wanted guerrilla leaders? If the authorities locate or encounter a known and wanted FARC leader, Colombia will insist on the ability to arrest that leader despite the cease-fire.
  • Must the FARC cease all hostilities, including child recruitment or sowing new landmines? Deactivating minefields and rehabilitating some child combatants could be possible confidence-building measures during a cease-fire, as “postconflict advisor” Gen Óscar Naranjo suggested last night. But before an accord is reached, it will be impossible to verify that all recruitment and mine-laying has stopped.
  • What about extortion? A ban on guerrilla extortion of civilians would greatly increase support for the peace process among Colombia’s population. It is how the largest number of Colombians would feel their security situation improve as a result of what has been happening in Havana. On the other hand, it would be very difficult to verify and enforce throughout the territory.
  • Can Colombia’s government cease offensive operations without a law? Gustavo Arrieta, a former chief of the Colombian government’s Internal Affairs Office (Procuraduría), told a Bogotá radio station today that current Colombian law requires the armed forces to pursue guerrillas and other illegal armed groups. The Congress, he argued, would have to pass a law to make a cease-fire possible without a peace accord in place. Whether that interpretation is correct will be a subject of much debate.

Eleven days before talks restart, Bogotá politicians (but notably not government negotiators) are using the term “home stretch” (recta final) to describe the FARC peace process. Those words appear in statements made yesterday by both Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo and leading pro-government Senator Armando Benedetti, both of whom support a bilateral cease-fire.

Another part of the pro-government coalition, the Conservative Party, is less enthusiastic. “Until they abandon arms and sign a serious accord, the armed forces’ duty is to combat them,” the party’s president, David Barguil, said of the FARC. On the right-wing opposition, criticism was even stronger: Senator Ernesto Macías, of Former President Álvaro Uribe’s Democratic Center Party, said that President Santos had become “a marionette of the FARC.”

For their part, FARC negotiators welcomed President Santos’s announcement, but on Monday, maximum guerrilla leader Timoleón Jiménez published a statement warning that an accord remains far off.

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