Blog entries, commentaries, and statements from WOLA’s Colombia team

Why Colombia’s Negotiators Couldn’t Manage a Cease-Fire by March 23

March 23, 2016

(2,686 words / 11.5 minute read time)

It sounded over-ambitious when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced last September 23, during a historic handshake meeting in Havana with the FARC guerrilla leadership, that both sides’ negotiators would sign a final peace accord in just six months—that is, by today, March 23, 2016.

The slow-moving FARC-government negotiations still had a lot of ground to cover. It then took nearly three more months just to finish the talks’ “Victims” agenda item, of which the September 23 agreement, on transitional justice, was only a part. During that period, several FARC spokespeople warned that the March 23 deadline would not be met.

A more realistic hope was that the negotiators could agree by March 23 on something more modest than a final accord, but still tremendously important: a bilateral ceasefire. This would be a genuine, full cessation of all hostilities—all forms of violence, from extortion to recruitment of new fighters—with UN verification, as laid out in a January Security Council resolution).

The “ceasefire by March 23” scenario had seemed likely. When WOLA staff visited Bogotá during the first week of March, a strong majority of experts and officials we interviewed saw the sides as “almost there” on the details. “Something will be signed on March 23,” Colombia’s foreign minister said earlier this month. President Santos warned on February 19 that if a ceasefire and precise timeline for laying down arms weren’t ready by March 23, he would see it as evidence that “the FARC aren’t prepared for peace.”

A ceasefire by this week would have been important enough for President Obama to alter his Cuba visit schedule to appear in the photo frame, along with Santos, Raúl Castro, and FARC leader “Timochenko,” at a triumphant signing ceremony. Such a photo could have had huge symbolic value for U.S.-Latin American relations, a break with a history punctuated by gunboat diplomacy, cold war proxy conflicts, and the war on drugs.

But there was no ceasefire accord, despite last-ditch efforts by President Santos’s older brother to break an impasse. So there was no photo opportunity by the time President Obama boarded Air Force One bound for Argentina on March 22. Instead, on March 21 the negotiators got the “participation award” of separate meetings (and photos) with Secretary of State John Kerry.

Secretary of State Kerry meets with FARC negotiators.

So, what happened?

In order to protect guerrillas during a ceasefire, and to guarantee both sides’ compliance, it is necessary to gather FARC fighters in specific zones around the country. Colombia’s security forces would be absent from these zones (though they would guard the perimeter), and the government would suspend outstanding arrest warrants for all guerrillas assembled there.

Agreement on these “concentration zones” remains elusive. They are the main point standing in the way of a ceasefire. In fact, the parties may be more distant on the concentration zones issue today than they were two months ago.

On January 23, the negotiators’ “End of Conflict Subcommittee”—an expert group made up of five senior active-duty military officers and five of the FARC’s most battle-hardened commanders—submitted a confidential consensus document recommending how these zones would operate. Things appeared to be on the right track.

Tags: Cease-Fire, Updates

The UN Verification Mission’s Essential Role in Colombia’s Long-Awaited Ceasefire

March 22, 2016

By Adam Isacson, Senior Associate for Regional Security

As soon as this week, though perhaps later, Colombia’s government and the FARC guerrillas may agree to a bilateral cessation of hostilities. As discussed in a previous article, this would involve guerrilla fighters beginning to concentrate themselves into special demilitarized zones around the country.

Within 30 days of signing this agreement, according to a January 25 Security Council resolution, details should be worked out for a UN mission to Colombia. We don’t yet know what that mission’s name will be, but we know the following.

It will be charged with monitoring and verifying the FARC’s “laying down of arms.” The guerrillas will not be handing over weapons to Colombia’s government. This would be seen as symbol of surrender. Any such proposal would run contrary to the spirit of the negotiations, and would have been rejected by the FARC. In addition, recent Colombian historyleads FARC members to worry about their own protection after they demobilize. As a result, disarmament will happen slowly (as it did in Northern Ireland), and will be the responsibility of the UN mission.

The UN will be part of a “tripartite mechanism” to verify the cessation of hostilities, along with Colombia’s government and the FARC. The UN mission will be present near the as-yet-undetermined guerrilla concentration zones, which most likely will be guarded by Colombian military personnel. The mission will have full access to these zones. There, it will play a sort of “referee” role. Along with government and guerrilla representatives, the mission’s members will deploy quickly to investigate any claims that one side has violated the terms of the ceasefire, or that such a violation appears imminent. The tripartite body will have to decide whether a violation happened, report it, and recommend steps that must be taken to avoid a repeat.

Officials interviewed by WOLA colloquially described the tripartite model as “three people in a jeep”: investigator teams with representatives from the FARC, the Colombian military, and the UN mission. (The teams are actually more likely to be made up of six, not three, people.)

It is likely to be made up of 350 unarmed international military personnel, plus support staff. These will not be blue-helmeted peacekeeping troops: this is a political mission, not a peacekeeping mission. (This also means that the mission is likely to be far less generously funded than a peacekeeping mission.) They will be active-duty or retired personnel most likely wearing civilian clothes.

Its personnel will come from around the world, though the Security Council resolution “looks forward to the contributions of Member States of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), a body of all Western Hemisphere countries except the United States and Canada. However, according to UN custom, countries that share a border with Colombia (Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Venezuela, and—due to a maritime border—Nicaragua) cannot participate. There may be some flexibility on this custom, though, as these neighboring countries plus Colombia comprise more than half of the combined population of CELAC member states.

Tags: Cease-Fire, UN

Integrating Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Rights

March 21, 2016

By Gimena Sanchez, WOLA Senior Associate

After more than 50 years the Colombian government and the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), are finally engaging in peace negotiations. Beyond the signing of a potential agreement, ensuring peace will require incorporating into the process those communities that have been the hardest hit during the conflict and where tensions can rise to violence during the post-conflict era. Precisely because indigenous and Afro-Colombian persons make up a disproportionate number of the victims and displaced communities of the conflict, their voices are especially essential for ensuring a just and lasting peace.

President Santos recently traveled to Washington and, alongside President Obama, announced that the United States and Colombia were entering a new era of relations. Yet President Santos’ large entourage at the White House did not include any Afro-Colombians, until U.S. officials noted their absence. At the last minute, the Colombian Embassy scrambled to invite Afro-Colombians residing in the United States to appear racially inclusive. This was contradictory to both countries’ priorities, considering that Colombia and the United States signed a ‘Racial Action Plan’ (CAPREE) to combat discrimination and promote human rights conditions in U.S. military aid.

In this context, last week President Juan Manuel Santos invited a handful of Afro-Colombian celebrities and personalities to the presidential residence, the Casa de Nariño. At this event, Santos announced that he was appointing Colombia’s first Afro-descendant Congresswoman, Zulia Mena, to the post of Vice Minister of Culture. The meeting at Casa Nariño included the Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA), a respected coalition of ethno-territorial authorities, the displaced, women, and civil rights leaders. However, the meeting did nothing to address these communities’ request that they be invited to form an ethnic commission in Cuba to discuss real issues at stake in the peace process. These include the demobilization of guerilla fighters, reconciliation, victims’ rights, collective land rights, the needs of Afro-Colombian women, and the political participation of Afro-Colombians. Naming a leader with the caliber of experience and prominence of Zulia Mena to a post with little political influence does nothing to advance these issues.

In order to ensure the consolidation of peace in areas where these populations hold collective land titles, the parties to the conflict must sit down with the ethnic-territorial authorities before finalizing the peace agreement. These ethnic minorities have a constitutional right to be previously consulted on matters affecting their land. In addition to the legal, historical, moral, and reparative reasons to consult with these groups, there are practical realities to take into consideration. Due to inexistent or weak state presence, the ongoing presence of illegal armed groups, corruption and geographical isolation, these will be the areas where consolidating peace will be hardest. These are also areas, especially along the Pacific Coast and mountains of Cauca, where new conflicts are likely to arise in a post-conflict scenario and where the risk to peace is highest. Coordinated and well-planned efforts that fully include these leaders will be required for the accords to yield results. Bogota’s centralized, top-down approach to governance without real inclusion of the beneficiaries has failed in the past. This time Colombia should take advantage of the opportunities at hand and do things right.

Since 2014, organized ethnic minorities under the umbrella of CONPA and The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) have advocated for inclusion at the peace table. These organizations have stressed that despite the invitation of ethnic leaders to present their cases of victimization in Havana, a more collective-rights view on how to construct peace should be discussed with them. Colombia has ignored this plea by offering superficial meetings such as the one that took place last week.

Colombia may not be including ethnic minorities in the process, but these groupings have decided to include themselves. On March 8, these communities joined forces and launched a non-governmental ethnic commission on the peace process of their own.  The Ethnic Commission for Peace and the Defense of Territorial Rights, as it is called, will work to defend their collective territorial rights and address conflicts that may arise in post-conflict scenarios. It behooves both negotiating parties in Havana to listen to them, and make them active partners in the construction of peace and a sustainable post-conflict era.

Tags: Afro-CAfro-Colombian Communities, Afro-Colombian Communities, Indigenous Communities, Indigenous CommunitiesIndigenous Communities

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

March 15, 2016
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.

Tags: Cease-Fire