Before a Bilateral Ceasefire, “Humanitarian De-Escalation”

FARC negotiators meet with survivors of the 2002 Bojayá massacre on December 18.

El Tiempo Editor Marisol Gómez Giraldo offers a clear but largely optimistic overview today of where discussions of “de-escalation” stand, following the FARC’s declaration of a unilateral, conditional cease-fire and the government’s refusal to accept the guerrillas’ terms.

Key paragraphs:

If the Havana negotiations follow the logic that the parties expect, this clear gesture of peace from the FARC should be followed, in a gradual process, by the de-escalation of the conflict, a bilateral cease-fire, and the abandonment of arms. And that this depends, in principle, on the guerrilla group, because the results of their cessation of offensive operations should first be reflected among the civilian population.

At the outset, this means the diminution of the war’s intensity, reducing its impact on civilians. That is why the government, in a first phase, calls it “humanitarian de-escalation.” This is what the government and FARC negotiators have currently been talking about in Havana.

Military de-escalation, which also implies a withdrawal of the armed forces, is for a second phase. For when it has been proved that the guerrillas are not using the truce to prolong the peace negotiations.

It is, in fact, one of the reasons why President Juan Manuel Santos repeats that the bilateral cease-fire will only happen when abandonment of weapons has already begun to occur.

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.

Drug Trafficking as a “Connected Political Crime”

Paramilitary leader “Julián Bolívar” won a vastly reduced sentence for his past drug trafficking, though he awaits a decision on extradition to the United States.

President Juan Manuel Santos caused a stir this week when he told an interviewer from Colombia’s RCN Radio network that the country would have to alter its laws to benefit FARC members who have trafficked drugs.

“For us to be able to apply justice in a more effective way will require broadening that concept of ‘political crimes,’ above all ‘connected crimes.’ Today it is too restrictive, and if we at least want to commute or pardon sentences, or in some way to legalize, thousands of FARC combatants, we’re going to have to be a little more flexible in the application of that concept.”

Colombia’s prosecutor-general [fiscal general], Eduardo Montealegre, agreed.

“It’s absolutely possible that narcotrafficking might be considered a crime connected with political crime, since ‘connectedness’ means something has a relation to something else, and it’s beyond discussion that in the Colombian armed conflict, narcotrafficking has been used in the guerrillas’ armed struggle.”

Their point is that negotiations with the FARC guerrillas will not succeed if, upon demobilizing, FARC leaders will face jail or even extradition to the United States because of their past involvement in the drug trade. Guerrillas simply won’t demobilize. It would seem apparent, then, that Colombia will have to offer ex-guerrillas reduced or waived penalties for past drug trafficking.

But many in Colombia are not prepared to accept that. Internal-Affairs Chief [Procurador] Alejandro Ordóñez alleged that calling narcotrafficking a “connected political crime” would “disguise criminals as politicians” and “shield FARC leaders from their status as capos” in the drug trade. Former President Álvaro Uribe, the talks’ most prominent critic, tweeted, “How could it be that they are going to classify as a political crime with altruistic motives an activity like narcotrafficking, which for many years in Colombia has only systematically financed horrors and atrocities?”

(Uribe is guilty of some hypocrisy here. In 2005, his administration introduced a legislative provision that would have classified paramilitary groups’ activities, including narcotrafficking, as “sedition”—a political crime.)

This week’s debate raised a question that remains unsettled in Colombia, where for decades illegal armed groups with political goals have supported themselves by participating in the drug trade. When it comes time for these groups’ members to demobilize, how should the legal system deal with their drug trafficking crimes? Can they be considered “connected” to the political crime of rebellion, or must they be considered separately as criminal offenses?

Colombia has already wrestled with these questions since the middle of the last decade, when thousands of paramilitary leaders demobilized via the so-called “Justice and Peace” process. The case of paramilitary leader “Julián Bolívar” is illustrative, if not emblematic, of the need for greater clarity.

Rodrigo Pérez Alzate, alias “Julian Bolívar,” was the terror of Colombia’s Magdalena Medio region at the beginning of the 2000s. He oversaw the paramilitaries’ bloody takeover of the oil-refining city of Barrancabermeja.

Pérez demobilized in 2005 as part of the “Justice and Peace” arrangement, which would give him a reduced prison sentence in exchange for a full confession of his crimes and reparations to victims. In 2006, Pérez was transferred to prison and his case slowly went to trial. In September 2013, the Justice and Peace Tribunal sentenced him to eight years imprisonment—most of which Pérez had already served—for a long list of human rights crimes.

As Talks Resume, “De-escalation” Is on the Table

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.”

An Advanced Peace Process Demanded a General’s Release

Las Mercedes, Chocó, where the FARC captured Gen. Rubén Darío Alzate on Sunday.

On their second anniversary, peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas are frozen. The impasse may soon be over, though: the peace process “guarantor” states, Cuba and Norway, announced a breakthrough on Wednesday evening.

A new round of talks was to begin in Cuba yesterday (November 18), but government negotiators refused to go to Havana until the FARC releases Gen. Ruben Darío Alzate, the chief of the Colombian military’s “Joint Task Force Titan” in the northwestern department (province) of Chocó. Guerrillas captured Gen. Alzate the afternoon of Sunday, November 16. It was the first time in 50 years of conflict that a general has fallen into guerrilla hands.

After several days of behind-the-scenes discussions involving Cuban and Norwegian diplomats and the International Committee of the Red Cross, the FARC appears to have agreed to release Gen. Alzate, along with a civilian lawyer and a corporal who were traveling with him, plus two soldiers captured a week earlier in the department of Arauca near the Venezuelan border. “The liberations will be carried out as soon as possible,” pending logistical arrangements, announced Cuban and Norwegian diplomats.

The Gen. Alzate affair shows us that as the peace talks have advanced, the ground rules governing them have tacitly changed. Taking a general prisoner did not violate the pre-conditions that FARC agreed for the talks. The guerrillas agreed to stop kidnapping civilians, not military personnel—and in warfare, adversaries capture and imprison the other side’s combatants all the time.

But the ground has shifted, in a positive direction. Ultimately, even if the FARC followed the peace process “rules,” its action left Colombian government negotiators with no choice. There is no way that Colombian public opinion, Colombia’s political class (including center-left politicians), and especially Colombia’s military would have allowed talks to go on while the FARC held an army general. Not because of rules, but because of a shifting political climate, the FARC had to choose between keeping Gen. Alzate or keeping the peace process alight. The government now faces similar informal constraints on its actions against top FARC leaders while talks continue.

This episode is also a consequence of negotiating amid war. As the Colombian government refused to declare a cease-fire, incidents like Gen. Alzate’s abduction were a foreseeable, and even probable, risk. On the other hand, negotiating amid a cease-fire has practical disadvantages: the parties could end up wasting time at the table disputing alleged cease-fire violations instead of attending to the points on the talks’ agenda.

Competing Views and “Trial Balloons”

Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo, ran a series of articles Friday about a forum it co-hosted about the country’s peace talks with the FARC guerrillas. The event was noteworthy because its participants included several of the government’s negotiators, plus officials and legislators who would play a large role in a possible post-conflict period.

The speakers revealed much current government thinking about the peace process, and raised eyebrows with some “trial balloons”—statements perhaps intended to prepare public opinion for some tough decisions if the government and guerrillas reach an accord. Here are some standout examples.

Disarmament: whether the FARC will “stop using” or “turn in” its weapons

Disarmament is one of the main questions left to be negotiated in Havana. The FARC is reluctant to hand over its weapons immediately after an accord is signed. Doing so gives the appearance of defeat or surrender, and guerrillas also fear being killed if disarmed, as happened to thousands of members of a political party the FARC tried to form during a failed 1980s peace process. Instead, guerrillas wish to promise not to use weapons in the short term, and perhaps to give them up in the long term, once they are certain that the government is complying with its peace accord commitments.

Jaramillo

Debate at the forum centered on the difference between “abandonment” (dejación) of weapons and “surrender” (entrega) of weapons. Even a verifiable abandonment of weapons (like Northern Ireland, where the IRA kept weapons “beyond use” for nearly seven years after the 1998 Good Friday Accord) does not satisfy many in Colombian politics and public opinion, as it leaves open the option that the FARC might take them up again.

“Of course there has to be abandonment (dejación) of weapons,” said government negotiator Sergio Jaramillo, the Colombian Presidency’s high commissioner for peace. Jaramillo added that the distinction between abandoning and surrendering weapons is “a false dilemma,” noting, "The government said clearly in the secret stage, and will continue to insist, that there must be a verifiable abandonment of those weapons so they are out of use.”

Negotiator Jorge Mora, a retired general and former chief of Colombia’s armed forces, agreed. “Call it what you want: abandonment, surrender, destruction, whatever. What matters is what they will have to do. They will not practice politics with weapons. If it’s not like that, we simply won’t sign the accords. As soon as the guerrillas sign, they will have to do away with their strategy of combining all forms of struggle [violent and non-violent]. Demobilization is an implicit activity to end the conflict.”

Mora

Ángela Ospina, the vice-president of Colombia’s Conservative Party, disagreed: “abandonment and surrender of arms are different.” She wondered to whom the FARC would hand over its weapons, and whether the government has any idea how many weapons the guerrillas possess. “We are convinced that there must be a surrender of weapons and their destruction, to demonstrate that there is a genuine desire for peace,” she said.

Alfredo Rangel, a security analyst who is now a senator in ex-President Álvaro Uribe’s right-of-center political party, warned that if it merely “abandons” weapons, the FARC will end up conducting “armed oversight of the peace agreements.”

Whether human rights violators will go to prison or something else

Another pending issue for the negotiations is transitional justice. There is broad consensus—upheld by Colombia’s membership in the International Criminal Court—that there can be no amnesty for those who committed war crimes or crimes against humanity. What, then, must happen to the worst human rights violators in the FARC and in Colombia’s armed forces?