“Concentration Zones”: the Perplexing key to a Bilateral Ceasefire in Colombia

There's a good possibility that by March 23, Colombia's government and the FARC guerrilla group will sign an accord putting in place a bilateral ceasefire and the cessation of hostilities. This would mean not only that neither side will attack the other, but that the FARC will halt actions that affect the civilian population, like extortion, laying landmines, recruiting minors, and drug trafficking. Members of an unarmed United Nations mission will verify allegations that either side is violating the terms of the ceasefire, or that such a violation appears imminent.

A major part of the ceasefire arrangement will be a concentration of guerrilla forces in specific zones around the country. Colombia's armed forces will not be allowed to enter these zones, and for some time the guerrillas assembled there will be allowed to keep their weapons, as they begin what may be a long process of “leaving aside arms.”


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These areas will eventually become the sites where guerrillas undergo demobilization and disarmament, after the signing of a final accord, which is likely to occur in mid-2016. 
 
On March 9, Colombia’s Senate approved, in a final debate round, its version of a reform to Colombia’s Public Order Law, which would legalize what would be termed “Concentration Zones.” Surprisingly, the party of former President (now Senator) Álvaro Uribe threw its support behind the bill. The legislation suggests that these zones must:
  • Be free of illicit crops and illegal mining.
  • Be “prudent and reduced” in number in order to ease monitoring and verification.
  • Not touch Colombia’s borders.
  • Host inventories of the FARC’s weapons supply​.
  • Require full identification, including fingerprints, of all who enter.
  • Eventually host the destruction of surrendered FARC weapons.
  • Allow international monitoring and verification of the ceasefire.
The legislation offers some clarity about what these Concentration Zones might look like, though whether the guerrillas will agree to all of these conditions is uncertain. Even if they do agree, much else remains to be determined. For instance, the legislation does not clarify how these zones will be harmonized with the collective territorial rights of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities living in areas where they would be established.

How many zones will be created? Where might they be?

The FARC membership's transfer to these zones poses a great risk of triggering a post-conflict spike in violence. This initial transfer phase will be very difficult, and much depends on the number and locations of the zones that negotiators are currently discussing.

“Peace Colombia”: What’s New About It?

(Una versión adaptada de este artículo aparece en español en el portal colombiano Razón Pública.)

We don’t know exactly what Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos asked for when he met with Obama administration officials and members of the U.S. Congress during his early February visit to Washington. Perhaps he requested—or decided not to request—some measures that the U.S. government was not prepared to take, like removing the FARC from the State Department’s list of terrorist groups, freeing imprisoned guerrilla leader “Simón Trinidad,” or promising a post-conflict aid package of US$500 million or more.

What Santos did get in Washington were some very strong rhetorical shows of support for the peace process with guerrilla groups (which probably helps him in his domestic debates with the peace talks’ right-wing opponents), and a promise from President Obama to ask Congress for US$450 million in new aid for Colombia in 2017.

This aid package is being called “Peace Colombia.” (Perhaps an unconscious nod to the Colombian civil-society movement of the same name, which sought to promote alternatives to Plan Colombia back in 2000-2001.) It would represent an important increase in aid to Colombia from its current level of about US$325 million.

From the information we have available now, “Peace Colombia” appears to be an important and necessary step, and an improvement over past U.S. approaches in Colombia. But it is also a smaller, and more military-focused, program than it should be. The new package is different than what came before, but not radically different.

Background on U.S. aid to Colombia

Gradual change has been the rule for U.S. assistance since around 2007, Plan Colombia’s most intense moment, when U.S. aid exceeded US$750 million.  At that time, 80 percent of the aid went to military and police initiatives, including the “Plan Patriota” offensive, herbicide fumigation of nearly 400,000 acres, and the launch of a guerrilla encampment-bombing campaign and a “Territorial Consolidation” counterinsurgency plan. Since that point, every year has seen small reductions in the overall aid amount, and small adjustments away from military and police aid toward economic and social aid. Today, the “hard side” of U.S. aid is just barely over 50 percent of the total.

The US$450 proposed for 2017, while larger than this year’s amount, is far smaller than what the U.S. government was providing ten years ago. This sends the unfortunate message that Washington is more generous in times of war than in times of consolidating peace. Still, for the first time, the majority of U.S. aid will go to non-military priorities: to Colombians who do not wear uniforms and carry weapons.

What is in the Peace Colombia aid package?

The vast majority of the proposed aid will go through five programs, or accounts, in the U.S. system of foreign aid. It’s worth looking at these five programs to understand the Obama administration’s post-conflict priorities.

Accord reached on UN/CELAC verification of cease-fire and disarmament

Here is a quick translation of the accord announced today in Havana between the Colombian government and the FARC.

Joint Communiqué #65

The government of the Republic of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, People’s Army, FARC-EP:

Reiterate their commitment to the negotiations to achieve a Final Accord for the Termination of the Conflict and the Construction of a Stable and Long-Lasting Peace (Final Accord), including an accord on a bilateral, definitive cessation of fire and hostilities, and the leaving aside of weapons.

They also reiterate their commitment to the implementation of all accords contained within the Final Accord and the launching of effective mechanisms of monitoring and verification, with international accompaniment, which can guarantee full compliance with the agreed commitments.

We have decided to create a tripartite mechanism of monitoring and verification of the accord for a bilateral and definitive cessation of fire and hostilities and leaving aside of weapons, which can generate confidence and guarantees for its compliance, made up of the government of Colombia, of the FARC-EP, and by an international component which will preside and coordinate the mechanism in all of its instances, settle controversies, make recommendations and present reports, and which will begin its work once that accord has been reached. With regard to the leaving aside of weapons, the same international component will verify it in the terms and with the due guarantees that will be established by the accord’s protocols.

We have agreed that that international component will be a political mission of the UN integrated by observers from CELAC member countries.

With that purpose, we have decided to ask the UN Security Council to create that political mission starting now, with unarmed observers for a period of 12 months, which can be extended at the petition of the national government and the FARC-EP, and also to ask the member countries of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, CELAC, their willingness to contribute to said mission that will be made up by the United Nations.

They also ask that the Mission begin its necessary preparations, in close coordination with the government of Colombia and the FARC-EP, for its deployment. The international observers will enjoy full security guarantees.

We thank the United Nations and CELAC for their willingness to support Colombia in the search for peace.

9 Unanswered Questions About Colombia’s Victims and Justice Accord

A delegation of conflict victims attended the December 15 singing of the Victims accord in Havana.

Colombia’s government and the FARC guerrilla group have settled the most difficult question facing their three-year-old peace negotiations: how can Colombia hold human rights abusers accountable for their crimes, without imposing penalties so severe that they encourage guerrilla leaders to keep fighting?

The December 15 accord on Victims establishes a Special Peace Jurisdiction to hear confessions, to try and punish war crimes and crimes against humanity, and to determine reparations to victims. A December 19 government communiqué explains how the security forces will fit into that special jurisdiction.

“Settled” is too strong a word, though. Both declarations leave fundamental questions unanswered, and raise others. Detractors have seized upon these ambiguities, and their critiques are influencing the Victims accord’s reception before Colombian public opinion. The head of Colombia’s rightist opposition, Senator and former President Álvaro Uribe, wrote that the December 15 accord “substitutes Colombian justice in order to absolve the FARC.” The Americas director for Human Rights Watch, José Miguel Vivanco, told reporters, “This is a piñata of impunity. …It is a pact between the government and the FARC that ends up sacrificing the right to justice of thousands of the Colombian conflict’s victims.”

WOLA shares some of these concerns, but does not share this broad view. Colombia did not just approve a “piñata of impunity,” and this sweeping choice of wording is unfortunate. The December 15 accord does not amnesty serious human rights crimes, includes significant concessions from an armed group that is not actually surrendering, and is the product of much consultation with victims of the conflict.

Nonetheless, as HRW’s more careful written critique and other analyses have made clear, a great deal remains undefined, and some dangerous potential loopholes remain to be closed up.

  1. How austere is “restriction of liberty” going to be?

Variations of this question are coming up repeatedly in the debate over the new accord. Depending on the depth of their involvement in serious human rights crimes, demobilized guerrillas who fully confess will receive sentences of between two and eight years of “effective restriction of liberty” while they perform acts of reparation to victims.

What does “restriction of liberty” mean? The accord is still vague, but we now it doesn’t mean “jail.”

“Effective restriction means that there may be appropriate mechanisms of monitoring and supervision to guarantee good-faith compliance with the restrictions ordered by the tribunal. …The Special Peace Jurisdiction will determine the conditions of effective restriction of liberty that may be necessary to ensure compliance with the sanction, conditions that in no case will be understood as jail or prison, or adoption of equivalent security measures.”

This confinement’s austerity and geographic scope remain to be defined. The place of confinement, chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle told Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper, “will be a function of the place where reparations occur.”

“For example, there will be guerrillas contributing to de-mining at the site where it takes place. In these sanctions we’re not talking about jail. There won’t be a lot of people all going to one place, but simultaneous reparations programs in several sites. And that is where there will be the presence of those who have been punished with restriction of liberty, movement, and residence. …If someone must go and de-mine in El Orejón (Antioquia), he goes, and it could be that tomorrow he has to go and de-mine in Lejanías (Meta). But look, he won’t have the entire department [province/state] as his base, as some opponents of the peace process said at the beginning.”

How large this “base” may be, though, hasn’t been determined. “If the restriction of movement consists only of not being able to leave the country or a department, or if the labor restriction consists of going to Congress or the town council, it will be very hard for people to trust in transitional justice,” wrote journalist Juanita León of La Silla Vacía. “If it is more strict, it could give the system more legitimacy.”

Support for the process will also depend on the level of austerity of both sides’ convicted human rights abusers’ confinement. Many Colombians recall with shame the sumptuous conditions that drug lord Pablo Escobar enjoyed during his brief stay in his custom-built prison outside Medellín in the early 1990s. While the December 15 accord is unlikely to repeat that experience, it holds open the possibility of a “restriction of liberty” that is insufficiently punitive to meet international standards. “Ay, President Santos,” wrote center-right El Tiempo columnist María Isabel Rueda. “I’d like to help you out, but this sounds like a picnic.”

Concerns about leniency run both ways. A 2011 scandal surrounded the “resort” conditions in which military personnel found guilty of serious rights crimes were being held at the Tolemaida army base. As the December 19 announcement places the armed forces in charge of confining their personnel accused of serious war crimes, that experience risks being repeated.

  1. Are “false positives” going to be judged as violations of International Humanitarian Law?

There is still no clarity about whether the system would apply to the most serious military human rights crime of the past ten years: the “false positives” scandal, which continues to move slowly through Colombia’s courts. In order to satisfy top leaders’ policy of rewarding high “body counts,” military personnel killed at least 3,000 civilian non-combatants, mostly between 2004 and 2008. Civilian courts have sentenced a few hundred to long prison terms—but there is a possibility that these convictions could be reduced, or even overturned, within the new “Special Peace Jurisdiction.”

ELN Talks: With the agenda almost ready, a bloody setback

Maximum ELN leader Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, alias “Gabino”

(740 words, estimated reading time 3 minutes, 42 seconds)

Sunday’s attack on a military column in Boyacá, in northeastern Colombia near the Venezuelan border, dims prospects that formal negotiations might start soon between the Colombian government and the ELN guerrilla group.

The ELN or National Liberation Army is a leftist group founded in 1964 like the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). While the FARC has perhaps 7,500–9,000 members, the ELN today probably has about 1,500–2,500, mostly concentrated in thee or four parts of the country. For three years in Havana, the FARC has been participating in formal peace negotiations with the Colombian government, but the ELN has not.

Government and ELN representatives have been holding “talks about talks,” at least six rounds of them in Ecuador, for over a year and a half. A source close to the talks told WOLA last month that these exploratory meetings have totaled nearly 200 hours. But a formal launch of negotiations remains elusive.

Part of the reason is the ELN’s insistence on a bilateral cease-fire before talks begin. The Colombian government rejects this, and refused to grant a ceasefire to the larger FARC, arguing that the guerrillas would use the resulting “rest period” to recover militarily. Another reason is the ELN’s slower decision-making process: the group’s top leaders do not appear to have reached full consensus on the terms for peace.

The hardest-line leader is believed to be the newest addition to the ELN’s five-member Central Command, Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo Quinchía alias “Pablito.” Giraldo commands the Domingo Laín Front in northeastern Colombia, which may make up one-third of all ELN fighters and is responsible for Sunday’s bloody attack on a military column that was transporting voting materials for local elections.

Observers of the ELN talks have been insisting for months that a launch of formal negotiations is drawing close. “There is 80 percent agreement” on the agenda, maximum ELN leader Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista alias “Gabino” said in April. And this week, the Colombian investigative website Verdad Abierta published a draft negotiating agenda, citing “sources who have participated directly in the discussions.” The six points reportedly are:

  1. Participation of society in peacebuilding. Here, it must be defined how communities and civil society are going to participate in peacebuilding. A methodology and a means of participation will be defined.
  2. Democracy for peace. This would be a sort of participatory diagnostic, in which communities define a substantive agenda for overcoming violence.
  3. Transformations for peace. From this point would emerge a proposal for social transformations which would make possible a climate for guerrillas’ transition to civilian life.
  4. Victims. The community of victims, not the negotiators at the table, would define, in a participatory manner, the standards for truth, justice, reparations, non-repetition, and memory that the process must have.
  5. End of conflict. A banner issue for the ELN has been that the conversations take place amid a bilateral cease-fire, and not in the midst of the conflict. It must be seen how this possibility could be articulated with that of a pre-accord cease-fire with the FARC. There will be a “leaving aside” of weapons in the sense of not using them for political reasons.
  6. Implementation. Unlike the process with the FARC, this point contemplates evaluations of developments, which will be made public.

This overview is vague, and some of its language (“social transformations,” “participation”) points to areas of disagreement about the scale of the reforms that the agenda will include. The agenda points are notable, though, for their lack of overlap with the FARC negotiating agenda: they don’t specifically address issues from the Havana talks like rural development, political participation, and drug policy, though they may in some way revisit victims and disarmament. It’s also surprising not to see on this draft agenda one of the issues that the ELN has raised most consistently since the 1980s: Colombia’s management of, and foreign investment in, the mining and energy sector.

Either way, these six points’ emergence indicates that a formal launch of negotiations with the ELN is drawing ever closer. Sunday’s attack, though, clouds the outlook. It may have been a misplaced “show of strength” aimed at improving the guerrillas’ negotiating position. Or may have been a message from “Pablito” to the rest of the group’s leadership, discouraging them from rushing into talks on unfavorable terms. Either way, because of the October 25 attack’s political fallout, it would be surprising to hear of a breakthrough with the ELN in the next few weeks.