Getting the FARC Process Back on Track: Cease-Fire Talks, Not Deadlines

(1,242 words, approximate reading time 6 minutes, 12 seconds)

Colombia’s peace process is still reeling from the blow dealt by a FARC unit in rural Cauca department, in the country’s southwest, in the pre-dawn hours of April 15. Guerrillas surrounded, threw grenades at, and opened fire on a military detachment taking refuge from a rainstorm under the roof of a sports facility in the village of La Esperanza. The attack killed 11 soldiers and 2 guerrillas; 17 soldiers were wounded.

The incident has set back much of the progress that guerrilla and government negotiators in Havana have made since December in de-escalating the conflict, and in building public support for talks. President Juan Manuel Santos immediately lifted a month-old suspension of bomb attacks on FARC targets, a move the U.S. government quickly supported. While FARC negotiators insisted on characterizing the attack as a response to military aggression, lead government negotiator Humberto de la Calle lamented that “hope has been fractured” by the incident. Critics of the talks on Colombia’s political right, like former President Álvaro Uribe and Inspector-General Alejandro Ordóñez, went on the attack. President Santos was booed at two public events.

This is shaping up to be the most damaging crisis that the FARC talks have faced in their two and a half years. At the same time, it is typical—almost a textbook case—of the sort of crisis that hits just about every effort to negotiate an end to armed conflict. It is a foreseeable consequence of negotiating without a cease-fire in place, or—since the FARC declared a unilateral cease-fire in December—of negotiating with a unilateral, barely verified cease-fire in place.

This is a setback, but it need not be permanent. Restoring momentum to the negotiation and the de-escalation effort will require action.

First, figure out what happened in La Esperanza. The evidence—witness testimony, forensics and ballistics—points to a cold-blooded, disproportionate guerrilla attack. Still, this characterization needs to be ratified, nuanced, or disproved by an independent investigation of what happened.

It is virtually certain that a review of the evidence will find that the FARC patrol used excessive force and violated the dictates of its own cease-fire. Having an impartial body say that, though, can make it possible for the FARC leadership to admit publicly that its fighters acted in error.

Right now, the guerrilla negotiators in Havana can’t do that. They risk leaving the impression that they are internally divided or have lost control over their fighters. To admit wrongdoing would call into question their ability to “deliver” the FARC membership upon signature of a peace accord.

After contact with authorities and with both soldiers and FARC fighters present at the incident, investigators—perhaps, as the International Crisis Group has suggested, from the guarantor countries, Cuba and Norway—could offer conclusions about why the FARC assailants acted as they did. Were they dissidents acting out, or did they truly believe they were respecting the top leadership’s order to desist from offensive attacks?

We need to know the answer to that. If the attackers were dissidents trying to damage the process, the FARC should recognize that and hold them accountable. If the attack owed to a commander’s poor judgment of his duties, the FARC should acknowledge it.

Second, figure out how to keep it from happening again. For the first two years of negotiations, without a cease-fire in place, what happened on the battlefield in Colombia had almost no impact on what happened at the negotiating table in Havana. That changed last November, when the FARC captured a Colombian general. After his release, negotiators began discussing how to de-escalate the battlefield conflict as they took on the final negotiation agenda items.

Combat incidents dropped sharply in the first quarter of 2015, and public support for the peace process rose sharply. Events on the battlefield and at the negotiating table have become much more closely linked.

This reality leaves the two sides little option but to protect the process from future battlefield blows like the La Esperanza attack. The FARC is declaring that its unilateral ceasefire is still on, but that won’t be enough to guarantee non-repetition. Almost by definition, a unilateral ceasefire without agreed-upon verification will not last. Another incident like last week’s will happen.

The most obvious way to avoid their repetition is to agree to a bilateral cease-fire with a credible, impartial verification mechanism.

This is a topic that the so-called “End of Conflict Subcommittee,” a group of active-duty Colombian military officers and top FARC commanders, has been discussing alongside the last few rounds of talks in Havana. They have been working on details of a cease-fire since President Santos authorized government negotiators to pursue it in January. De la Calle says “we have really advanced much” toward that goal.

It is time for both sides to accelerate this part of the Subcommittee’s work, and give it the highest-level backing, in order to reach a bilateral cease-fire arrangement before a new battlefield incident deals the talks another body blow.

Third, don’t insist on deadlines.

“Patience is running out,” President Santos said on April 17. “We must put deadlines on this process.” On April 21, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs agreed. “If the president believes that that is the best way to move the process forward, we’re supporting his efforts,” Roberta Jacobson told Spain’s EFE news service. “[T]ime is passing and (there’s no time) to delay the process much more, because we’ve had two years of the process already, and we don’t believe either that that the Colombian people have the patience to wait much longer.”

Setting a deadline for an intermediate goal, like a bilateral cease-fire, makes sense because it can focus negotiators’ energies on that specific objective. But setting a deadline for the entire process is unwise.

Having a looming deadline brings up the obvious question: what happens when the date is reached with no accord? Do the negotiators get up from the table and throw away all that has been achieved? Do they take the publicly embarrassing and politically costly step of postponing the deadline?

Colombia’s 1998–2002 negotiations with the FARC had a deadline: the end date for the security forces’ pullout from the southern Colombian zone where talks were occurring. That deadline got extended 11 times before the process ultimately failed (see Appendix D here). The entire idea of “deadlines” became both meaningless and damaging at the same time: extensions, though inevitable, often triggered severe political and civil-military crises.

Another reason to avoid declaring deadlines is that some things really shouldn’t be rushed. A rush to hit a deadline for a transitional justice agreement, for instance, could cause both sides to devise a hasty “solution” that avoids accountability for human rights abuses while disrespecting victims.

The peace process already has natural deadlines. In the near term, President Santos and pro-government parties want it to be far along (if not complete) by late October municipal and departmental elections. On the far end, candidates for the next presidential elections will declare in late 2017. And at any time, public opinion could simply turn against a process that drags on too long, forcing a resolution. There is no need for a fixed date.

Not for the entire process, anyway. But it could be useful to accelerate progress toward a firm, credible, verified, bilateral cease-fire.

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