Hope for Peace in Colombia: Reasons for Optimism, Awareness of Obstacles

By Adam Isacson*

It is official now. For the fourth time in 30 years, and the first time in 10 years, the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group have launched a negotiation that will attempt to end Latin America’s longest armed conflict.

On September 4, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed that, after more than 6 months of exploratory talks in Havana, Cuba, the government and guerrillas had agreed on a framework for more formal negotiations. These negotiations will begin during the first half of October (most likely the 8th) in Oslo, Norway, and move later to Havana.

FARC representatives, meeting in Havana, confirmed the same information and insisted that they would not get up from the table until a peace agreement is reached. On the 5th and 6th, both the government and the FARC named their negotiating teams. The agenda for talks [PDF] is to cover three thematic issues and three logistical issues, in this order:

  • Rural development policy (including land tenure)
  • Political participation (including the FARC’s possible political future)
  • Ending the conflict (including a cease-fire, demobilization, and paramilitarism)
  • Solving the illicit drug problem (including alternative development)
  • Victims
  • Implementation and verification

In WOLA’s view, there are several reasons to be more optimistic about this peace process than about past attempts.

1. The state of the conflict. In the 10 years since the last peace talks failed, Colombia’s security forces grew by about two-thirds, about 23,000 people died in combat alone, and the FARC has been weakened. The group has shrunk in size by about half, and has lost several of its most senior leaders. Ten years ago, the FARC may have felt some momentum; today it must not. However, the FARC’s ability to persist – and evidence that guerrilla actions have increased since 2008 – make clear that Colombia’s conflict is nowhere near ending on the battlefield. The “home stretch” remains far off. For both sides, the cost of negotiating may appear to be lower than the cost of continued fighting.

2. The FARC appears more flexible. Most of the guerrilla leaders who managed the FARC’s intransigent positions during the failed 1998–2002 peace process have been killed or captured. The new leadership appears somewhat more pragmatic. The guerrillas have abandoned a longstanding demand (which was met during failed 1998–2002 talks) that talks occur on Colombian soil, in a territory free of military presence. Talks will instead take place in other countries. The agenda indicates that the guerrillas are willing to contemplate disarming after an accord is reached; in earlier processes they had declared their intention to keep their weapons. The FARC pledged in February (though without verification of compliance) that it would halt the practice of kidnapping civilians for ransom, and publicly expressed willingness to negotiate even after its top leader was killed in late 2011.

3. The Colombian government appears more flexible. President Álvaro Uribe (2002–2010) was an outspoken critic of Colombia’s failed 1998–2002 peace talks, rode a wave of anti-negotiation sentiment into office, and consistently preferred fighting to dialogue. Despite the current correlation of forces, talks would be very unlikely today if Uribe or a similar hard-line figure were now in office. President Santos, though by no means a progressive or populist leader, is much more of a pragmatist, and is seizing the present opportunity to negotiate despite his predecessor’s vocal opposition.

4. The negotiating teams are made up of “heavyweights” representing sectors that might seem to be least disposed to seek peace. This is especially true on the Colombian government side. In addition to top advisors and a former vice-president, President Santos’s negotiating team includes a prominent business leader, a former armed-forces chief, and a former police chief. The teams are not diverse – neither side’s principal negotiators include even one woman, afro-Colombian or indigenous person, civil society leader, or conflict victim. But their proximity to Colombia’s power centers may make it easier from them to convince their respective sectors to agree to sacrifices and compromises at the negotiating table.

5. There will be international mediation. During the failed 1998–2002 peace process, nearly all dialogues took place with only guerrilla and government representatives in the room. This time, a third party – namely, diplomats from Norway and Cuba – will be present, and will be able to keep conversations within the confines of the agenda and prevent them from getting derailed.

These advantages are new, and give us cause for hope. But the timeframe for these talks will still be long, and patience – especially within Colombian public opinion – may quickly wear thin. The following factors could trip up the talks.

1. Negotiating without a cease-fire. President Santos backed off a declared pre-condition for talks with the FARC: that the group first engage in a cessation of hostilities. Instead, this theme does not arise until the talks reach the third point on the agenda. This could mean that, as the negotiators engage in talks, Colombia will continue to suffer combat, attacks on military, police, and civilian targets, landmines, recruitment of minors, sabotage of infrastructure, and similar events. To the extent that they continue – or even intensify, as both sides seek advantage at the table by seeking it on the battlefield – these hostilities will erode Colombian patience for the talks, give fuel to critics of the process, and constrain the Santos government’s range of action.

On September 6, FARC leaders said that they would propose a bilateral cease-fire when talks begin in Oslo in October. We hope that they do, and that the Colombian government accepts. As long as such a cease-fire is generally observed, the resulting drop in violence would greatly increase support for the talks within Colombia, thus giving the Santos government – which is taking a big political gamble – much more room for maneuver. However, should cease-fire violations occur, they must not distract or disrupt the ongoing negotiations unless they are systematic and egregious.

2. Spoilers. As failed past dialogues have shown, powerful Colombians who oppose the talks can derail them with violence. Those who attacked the FARC-tied Patriotic Union political party in the 1980s, and the paramilitaries who intensified their terror campaign during 1998–2002, did grave damage to earlier talks. In those cases, Colombia’s state did little to stop the “spoilers.” That was a grave error, which must not be repeated now.

3. The FARC’s ability to “deliver” the entire group. As an old, far-flung organization whose communications have been badly disrupted, the FARC may not be as monolithic as it once was. Should the group demobilize in the future, a likely scenario could involve many younger, mid-level members, and the units they command, refusing to participate. This would especially be the case for units currently reaping profits from activities like drug trafficking or illegal mining. These un-demobilized FARC structures could remain at large like the paramilitary successors – the “criminal bands” or “BACRIM” – responsible for much violence in Colombia today. The number of such rogue units must be minimized if the process is to succeed.

4. Justice for crimes against humanity, and their victims. A constitutional reform [page 30 of this document] would make possible the demobilization of armed-group members in a future peace process. The “Peace Framework Law” is controversial, though, because it could result in virtual amnesty for all but those “maximally responsible” for crimes against humanity. However Colombia, as a signatory to the 1998 Rome Statute, cannot amnesty serious human rights crimes. Some sort of trial and/or alternative punishment regime must apply to the FARC’s most notoriously abusive leaders – but if this arrangement is too stringent, these leaders will prefer to keep fighting. Colombia must find a way out of this conundrum that respects the rights of the FARC’s many victims.

5. People affected by an accord, but excluded from the talks. What gets decided at the negotiating table could affect millions of Colombians, among them conflict victims, laborers, farmers, human rights defenders, women, displaced people, afro-Colombians and indigenous people. Yet it is unlikely that these sectors will feel represented by the current negotiating teams. The legitimacy of the process will require that these affected parties have a real opportunity to offer meaningful input, and that they feel they were properly consulted. The mechanism for doing this could take many forms; one immediate step would be for Colombia’s government to revive the National Peace Council, a multi-sector advisory body that, according to law, is supposed to meet every two months but has been moribund.

6. The United States. It would be hard to bring these talks to fruition in the face of determined opposition from the United States. Enthusiasm in Washington may be dampened by the FARC’s presence on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations list and the active role that Cuba and Venezuela are playing. But the United States should neither oppose nor distance itself from this process. It is encouraging, then, that the White House quickly issued a statement in support of the talks. WOLA asks that the Obama administration continue to stand ready to support the process in any way that the Santos government finds advisable. Such support may include contributing conflict resolution or other expertise, playing good offices or similar diplomatic roles, or even being open to shifts in assistance that might result from an accord, such as less forced eradication and more rural development assistance.


September 6, 2012

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