What Now? De-Escalate. Consider a Bilateral Cease-Fire.

Poll data published in early May show 64% of Colombians favoring deadlines for peace talks, and 69% feeling pessimistic about the possibility of reaching an accord.

(2,008 words, approximate reading time 10 minutes, 2 seconds)

Colombia’s peace process with the FARC continues to wobble from the blow dealt by the April 15 guerrilla attack that killed 11 soldiers in southwestern Colombia. Just since May 21, Colombia’s military has launched retaliatory raids on FARC positions that have killed at least 40 guerrillas, including two who spent time as negotiators in Havana. The FARC has responded by revoking the unilateral cease-fire it had declared on December 20, and by launching attacks of its own.

On May 25, as negotiators sat down in Havana for a delayed start to their 37th round of talks, FARC negotiator Pablo Catatumbo told reporters, “The sorrowful events that occurred last week are a step backward in the advances made until now at the table.” Headlines in Colombia’s press now refer to “The Wounded Peace,” “A Return To Dialogue Amid War,” and (citing the Colombian government’s Inspector-General, a critic of the process) “Peace Process In Intensive Care.”

The fundamentals are sound, for now

The April 15 FARC attack was, for most Colombians, the unofficial end of the unilateral cease-fire that the guerrillas had declared on December 20 and canceled on May 22. Still, despite continued wobbles, this remains fundamentally the same peace process that it was on April 14, the day before the FARC attack.

  • On April 14, the negotiators were discussing transitional justice and disarmament, the last two substantive items (and likely the two most difficult) on their agenda. They were doing so in a disciplined manner, following agreed-upon ground rules, considering detailed proposals, working with international accompaniment, and respecting confidentiality. They are still doing that.
  • On April 14, a group of active-duty military personnel, part of an “end of conflict subcommittee,” was discussing the technical details of disarmament, as well as how to implement interim de-escalation measures, especially a joint de-mining program. They are still doing that. In fact, leading guerrilla negotiators quietly visited Antioquia and Meta departments recently to lay groundwork for the first landmine removal projects.
  • On April 14, outside observers and foreign governments were focusing not just on remaining negotiation items, but on preparation for post-conflict challenges. They remain focused on the post-conflict.

On the other hand:

  • On April 14, polls [PDF] were, for one the first times since talks began, showing a majority of Colombians believing that a peace accord with the FARC might be possible. Today, that is once again a minority view inside Colombia.
  • On April 14, the FARC was in its fourth month of a cease-fire that—though unilateral and barely verified, and thus fatally flawed—had brought measures of conflict-related violence down to lows not seen since 1984, according to CERAC, a Bogotá think-tank that closely monitors violence. The 153-day stoppage in guerrilla offensive actions may have prevented about 614 dead or wounded, estimated Bogotá’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation. Still, CERAC points out, the temporary truce may have allowed FARC units “to maintain or improve their position in exploiting illegal income from illicit crops, narcotrafficking, illegal mining, illegal timber harvesting, and extortion.”

Either way, that flawed cease-fire is now over, and we are about to find out the extent to which events on the battlefield affect dynamics at the negotiating table. It is unclear how many more “wobbles” this process can sustain, yet the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation asserts that more are coming: “We have information that the FARC are ready to respond with actions against oil and energy infrastructure, which could end in confrontations in many zones of the country,” said the group’s director, León Valencia.

The push to “accelerate”

With no cease-fire in place and public opinion now skeptical, patience is wearing thin. A broad spectrum of actors—the Colombian government, the U.S. government, the United Nations, former FMLN and IRA fighters—are calling on both sides to speed the tempo of the dialogues, at a time when the negotiators are considering some of the most sensitive topics on the entire agenda.

At this moment, the negotiators in Havana face three options. All are very difficult.

  1. Accelerate nothing. Ignore pressures from public opinion, from Colombia’s political opposition, and from sectors of the military (and probably from FARC’s rank-and-file). Take the amount of time necessary to arrive at a final peace accord that is fair, detailed, and workable. Do everything possible to lower the peace process’s public profile: make it a rarity in presidential speeches, and stop raising public expectations. Have the government treat the talks like one of many public policy questions, the way Colombia’s presidency and press did during most of 2013.

    This option may appear attractive, but it probably doesn’t exist anymore. The process is too far along, media coverage has neared saturation levels in Colombia, and the spectacular nature of future attacks—and opposition politicians’ words—will make it impossible to lower the talks’ profile significantly.

  2. Accelerate negotiation of remaining agenda items. Rush through the hardest parts of the accord—transitional justice and disarmament—in an anxious race against worsening public “fatigue” with the process. The Colombian government may conclude that the best way to get the FARC to move faster on these items is to hit them harder on the battlefield, which the guerrillas will likely answer with their own brand of violence, including attacks on civilian and economic targets. Even if this high-risk approach leads to accords—and the FARC are far from certain to cooperate in picking up the tempo—these might end up being concocted so hastily that they fail to win buy-in from key constituencies like victims or combatants in the field.
  3. Accelerate negotiation of de-escalation measures, rather than agenda items. Attempt to gain space and oxygen for the substantive accords’ negotiation by first taking agreed, bilateral steps to de-escalate the fighting. For the next several weeks, focus negotiators’ energies principally on these steps, instead of on the thorny remaining agenda items. In order to relieve pressure from public opinion and the talks’ political opponents, these steps must be sweeping enough to bring tangible improvements in many Colombians’ daily lives and sense of security. But they must be practical, mutually agreed, and credibly verified.

A bilateral cease-fire

The ideal “de-escalation” measure would be a cease-fire that is bilateral: agreed, not imposed, with some sort of verification mechanism that can quickly and authoritatively investigate alleged violations.

Both sides have publicly embraced this idea. The FARC have called for a bilateral cease-fire since the beginning of the peace process, and had apparently hoped that its December-May unilateral cease-fire would pressure the government into responding in kind. Colombia’s government had rejected the idea as premature until January, when President Santos ordered government negotiators to start exploring a bilateral cease-fire. This week, he said, “The dialogues need a strong stimulus—I agree—and that’s why I reiterate once more my request to accelerate the negotiations, including those that may bring about a bilateral and definitive ceasefire.” (In late April, though, Santos had said, “I don’t accept a bilateral cease-fire because I’m not going to leave Colombians unprotected,” noting that it requires “conditions, which are many and very complex.”) On May 27, the talks’ two “guarantor nations,” Cuba and Norway, explicitly endorsed the pursuit of a bilateral cease-fire.

A bilateral cease-fire would create a far calmer climate in which to negotiate the very hard points that have been saved for last: transitional justice, disarmament, ratification, and perhaps the incorporation of the ELN guerrilla group into the process. This may be the most promising of the three paths facing negotiators, but it’s a hard one to follow.

“There is no doubt that a bilateral cease-fire would be the most logical way out,” writes journalist Jorge Gómez Pinilla in El Espectador. “But the difficulty lies in that today, it has no ‘way in’ politically: the FARC are so discredited that to make this concession to them would be to prove correct those [on the right] who proclaim that ‘the country is being handed over to the guerrillas.’”

Clarity about cease-fire conditions could eradicate such perceptions. But the details are daunting.

  • Verification: Cease-fire violations occur, and minor ones occur often. These can derail the negotiations, distracting from the agenda, unless there is an impartial “umpire” with full access to conflictive zones and reporting regularly about what has happened and who is responsible. That role may have to fall to an international actor with significant resources and the capacity to deploy rapidly. (For more on challenges of cease-fire verification, see this short paper from Switzerland’s Center for Humanitarian Dialogue [PDF].)
  • Hostilities To Include: “When I say ‘bilateral and definitive cease-fire,’” President Santos said this week, “I mean that this should include the end of any participation in any kind of crime: narcotrafficking, extortion, illegal mining, because nobody would understand, no Colombian will accept a cease-fire in which the counterpart continues to finance itself through extortion, narcotrafficking, or through illegal mining.”

    This condition, while eminently reasonable, is very difficult to verify, because these sorts of hostilities occur daily in hard-to-reach parts of the country. Rather than investigate every case of extortion or narcotrafficking, cease-fire verifiers would more likely have to declare whether or not such hostilities are decreasing at a proper pace. During Colombia’s 2003–2006 negotiations with the AUC paramilitary group, its members committed as many as 2,000 extrajudicial killings of civilians. Though shocking, this number was much fewer than in the previous four years, and the trend was downward during the negotiation phase. Instead of perfect compliance, FARC hostilities might have to be held to a similar standard of steady reduction.

  • Cantonment or Concentration: “It is indispensable that there be a concentration of the guerrillas in areas that are verifiable by the state or even by the international community,” contends an analysis published this week by the editors of the Colombian newsmagazine Semana. “It has always been said that this would come at the end of the process, but given the risks of renewing a war that nobody wants, we should not discard more flexible, creative solutions.” While it is doubtful that the deeply mistrustful FARC will agree to a measure like this before a full accord is reached, some form of concentration of forces merits consideration.

These points may prove to be too difficult to negotiate within the next few weeks or months. If so, then negotiators will have to start smaller, as they have done with the landmine-removal agreement currently nearing implementation. While this program is of transcendental importance, its small scale means it will only improve Colombians’ security in a few rural towns, not on a national level. Unless it expands dramatically, or is accompanied by other high-profile de-escalation programs, the landmine removal effort alone will not give the negotiations the space they need.

Still, the essential thing is to maintain momentum toward de-escalation, even through smaller steps if necessary. If this momentum stalls, then the pressures of public opinion, political opposition, and battlefield bloodletting could overwhelm the process.

These are the hardest choices to face the negotiators in Havana since the peace process began over two and a half years ago. Ultimately, though, negotiations are about hard choices. With so many calling for an “acceleration” of the talks, the negotiators must make a quick decision about what to accelerate: should they proceed by rushing the substantive accord dialogues, or by rushing to develop de-escalation mechanisms like a bilateral cease-fire?

Unless the Colombian government is capable of some heretofore unseen public relations wizardry, “rush neither” carries the greatest risk of collapse. “Rush the substantive talks” carries a high risk of either collapse or of an accord that is hastily thrown together and unworkable. “Rush the de-escalation talks” promises to be difficult and frustrating, but offers the best hope of calming the wobbling, thus buying time to arrive at a well-designed final accord and a solid post-conflict foundation.

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