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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 Abiertapublished a draft negotiating agenda, citing “sources who have participated directly in the discussions.” The six points reportedly are:
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.
Democracy for peace. This would be a sort of participatory diagnostic, in which communities define a substantive agenda for overcoming violence.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Special Jurisdiction for Peace: The accord creates a separate, presumably temporary body in Colombia’s justice system. It will have two sections, and each will have a minority number of foreign magistrates. “The essential function” of these two chambers, the Chambers of Justice and the Tribunal for Peace, “is to do away with impunity, obtain truth, contribute to victims’ reparations, and to judge and impose sanctions on those responsible for serious crimes committed during the armed conflict, particularly the most serious and representative ones.”
Political crimes will be amnestied: There will be the “broadest possible amnesty” for the crime of rebelling against the state. This amnesty will also extend to “connected crimes.” This is tricky, as narcotrafficking and extortion (and perhaps even some ransom kidnappings) may be defined as “connected” to political crimes—and thus amnestied—because they may have been committed in order to raise funds for the FARC’s “political” cause. “An amnesty law will specify the extent of this ‘connectedness.’”
What won’t be amnestied: The amnesty will not extend to crimes against humanity, genocide, serious war crimes, hostage-taking or other serious privation of liberty, torture, forced displacement, forced disappearance, extrajudicial executions, or sexual violence. “These crimes will be subject to investigation and trial by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace.”
Who must face justice: The Special Jurisdiction for Peace will cover everyone who, “whether directly or indirectly, may have participated in the internal armed conflict, including the FARC-EP and state agents, for crimes committed in the context and for the purpose of the conflict, with particular respect to the most serious and representative cases.”
This may mean that crimes committed by armed actors outside the conflict—like the “false positive” extrajudicial executions—may have to remain in Colombia’s regular criminal justice system. It probably also means that civilians who participated in war crimes, such as landowners who generously sponsored paramilitary groups that committed mass atrocities, could be investigated and tried by this new judicial structure.
Penalties for “those who recognize truth and their responsibility”: These individuals’ confessions will be contrasted with Colombian authorities’ investigations and earlier verdicts, and with information from victims’ and human rights groups. If they are not found to be holding anything back, their punishment “will have a component of restriction of liberties and rights.” This will guarantee that they participate in “work, tasks, and activities” aimed at “the satisfaction of victims’ rights” by “compliance with reparative and restorative functions.” This punishment will last for five to eight years “of effective restriction of liberty, in special conditions.” (The 2005 “Justice and Peace” law, which governed demobilization of the AUC paramilitary group, foresaw similar five-to-eight-year terms for the most serious human rights abusers, which ex-paramilitaries spent in ordinary prisons.)
Penalties for those who deny “the truth and their responsibility,” or who recognize it later in the process: These individuals will be put on trial before the Tribunal for Peace. Those who recognize their guilt later will go to regular prisons for five to eight years, during which they will “contribute to their re-socialization through work, training, or study.” Those who persist in denying responsibility for serious crimes will be tried and, if found guilty, sentenced to up to 20 years in regular prisons.
Special Jurisdiction for Peace requirements: To receive reduced sentences and “special treatment,” the accused must “contribute full truth, provide reparations to victims, and guarantee non-repetition” of their acts.
Disarmament requirement: FARC members must cease to use weapons. (The text uses the phrase “dejación de armas,” which means “leaving behind” or “laying aside” weapons. This is different from an immediate handover or destruction of guerrilla weapons.) This disarmament or “laying aside” process must begin no later than 60 days after the signing of a final accord.
FARC future as a political movement: “The FARC-EP’s transformation into a legal political movement is a shared objective, which will receive all support from the government, in the terms that are agreed to.”
Deadline: While it is not in the text of the accord, President Juan Manuel Santos said that the sides have agreed to sign a final accord within the next six months.
Colombia and FARC to Make Crucial Announcement on Peace Process
Washington, D.C.—At about 5:00pm today in Havana, President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC guerrilla group leader Timoleón Jiménez are expected to announce an agreement on transitional justice, the most difficult item on their negotiating agenda.
The leaders may also announce a date for the signing of a final peace accord. The end of a 51-year-old armed conflict is now in sight.
The items that remain to be negotiated are not easy. The negotiators still must define what “disarmament” means, how fighters are to be demobilized, how to turn accords into law, and how to guarantee a ceasefire while all of that happens. But these issues will likely turn out to be less contentious than what is agreed today: a judicial framework to clear up the worst human rights crimes committed during the conflict, and probably to punish those responsible.
While we don’t know yet what is in this Transitional Justice accord, WOLA hopes that it includes real accountability for individuals on both sides who committed war crimes. Some basic human norms were violated, and even if the punishment is less severe than the crime, it is important that perpetrators face consequences. Nobody, meanwhile, should enjoy pardons or lighter sentences without first confessing fully to his or her crimes and making amends to his or her victims.
A final accord may come soon. The U.S. government and the international community will have to move quickly to help Colombia during the fragile post-accord phase. For Washington, that will mean an increase in assistance to Colombia, which has been slowly cut back nearly every year since 2007. As officials planning the U.S. foreign aid budget prepare their 2017 request, which gets sent to Congress in February, it is essential that they plan for a big increase for Colombia. It is essential that the post-conflict package guarantees restitution and support for the rights of Colombia’s diverse victims-Afro-Colombian, Indigenous, rural farmers, women and the displaced.
CERAC, a Colombian think-tank that monitors conflict events, reported this week that the past two months have been the most peaceful that Colombia has lived since 1975. A peace accord will bring uncertainty and new challenges as Colombia struggles to implement it. But for now, let’s enjoy today’s breakthrough and share in the hope that these gains might be permanent.
The Colombian investigative website Verdad Abierta published an interview with legal expert Rodrigo Uprimny that has been getting a lot of attention on social media. Uprimny, director of Dejusticia, a Bogotá-based justice think-tank, is close to the peace negotiations going on in Havana.
His message here combines optimism and alarm. A peace accord could come sooner than we think, he says, because negotiations are advancing fast. However, Colombia’s legal system is not prepared either to ratify or to implement it, and the government has not won the fight for public opinion.
Here are excerpts in English; the whole interview in Spanish is at Verdad Abierta. Emphasis in blue boldface is ours.
Verdad Abierta: This isn’t the first time that the government has tried to put forward a mechanism for ratification [of a peace accord]. It had already done so in the bill that would have allowed a referendum alongside the [March 2014] congressional and presidential elections. What’s the hurry?
Rodrigo Uprimny: Contrary to what many people think, I believe an accord could come quickly because the discussions are now happening in parallel. Instead of making the puzzle pieces, we’re now putting them together and creating the pieces that are still missing. What would be very problematic is an accord being reached without a mechanism to ratify or implement it.
VA: Do you think time is being wasted?
RU: If everything is to have a solid legal underpinning, the foundation must be a prior reform. …The best outcome would have been for the people to vote this October [alongside scheduled local elections] in a referendum to say whether or not they approve of that reform. It’s a shame that it hasn’t been done because the problem now is one of timeframes. Now it may have to come through legislation, and that takes a year plus the time taken up by possible constitutionality challenges [in Colombia’s Constitutional Court]. That’s why I think the issue must start being discussed at the [negotiating] table and in society.
VA: But the response in Havana is that they still haven’t come to this point of the discussion, that it’s the last point.
RU: They have to discuss it. Just like they’ve started discussing at the same time the issue of victims along with that of justice and that of the end of the conflict, they should start with a subcommittee on ratification and implementation.
VA: What is the other option to gain time?
RU: Preparing a special mechanism [like a small congressional committee to handle constitutional reforms]. Something that should be flexible and open, foreseeing the options of the government and the FARC, but one that people can be assured is not a blank check. That is done by saying that the citizens will approve everything at the end.
VA: And if they disapprove it?
RU:I start with the assumption that if we don’t manage to win the peace politically, the peace is already lost. Colombian society is divided in three. Some are enemies of peace due to ideological stubbornness or specific interests. Others are very much in favor and are willing to do almost anything for peace. And in between are some skeptics who sometimes are more in favor and at other times more against. The point is that those of us in favor of peace must win over the skeptics with formulas that are appropriate for a negotiation. Peace will not materialize without 70 percent in favor of the final formula.
VA: How can those skeptics be convinced?
RU: It’s crucial that in a sensitive topic like justice, the government and FARC come out with an accord that Colombian society, and especially that skeptical 30 percent, considers to be acceptable. Another method is that, as the war’s de-escalation yields results, the dynamic in favor of peace could be expected to grow.
VA: You say that [peace accord] implementation should be in phases, and that it is important to leave the most difficult issues to be dealt with in a few years. Why?
RU: Let’s suppose that peace is approved, the accords are ratified, the legal formulas are defined for the FARC and the military. At that point, the atmosphere will become relaxed. But if the most radical points are voted on immediately, it’s likely to become polarized again. It’s better to wait three or four years for the benefits of peace to begin, to show that this isn’t “Castro-Chávezism” [a term often used by the rightist opposition] but a more robust democracy, that the non-repetition guarantees are functioning.
… VA: Beyond ratification and implementation, another point to discuss is how to guarantee that what was agreed doesn’t fall apart over the ensuing years. How can this process be hardened?
RU: The idea of ratification has three purposes. That the citizenry says yes or no in a democratically legitimate way, to generate agile implementation mechanisms, and finally to put a padlock on the peace process. The only thing that can give the peace process a padlock in a divided country with a long war, is the combination of: the maximum possible political accord, certain legal formulas, and international legitimacy. Without that, it’s possible that peace could be reversible.
VA: And how are those three pillars going?
RU: Pretty well with regard to international support and the construction of ideas for legal security, but only so-so with regard to political construction. The risk now is that of trying to use legal maneuvers as a way to avoid building political consensus around peace.
The last seven months have seen the pendulum of Colombia’s peace process swing back and forth rather wildly. The year began with optimism: the FARC was observing a unilateral ceasefire that began on December 20. Armed violence dropped to levels not seen since the early 1980s.
An April 15 FARC attack on a military column in Cauca, in southwestern Colombia, dashed this optimism. The three months that followed were marked by a dramatic re-escalation of the conflict, with June the most violent month since talks began in October 2012.
Then—almost as abruptly—the FARC declared a new unilateral ceasefire on July 8, for one month starting July 20 (Colombia’s independence day). Government and FARC negotiators went further four days later, signing an accord making the FARC ceasefire indefinite and committing the government to de-escalating its own military actions if the FARC maintains its ceasefire. The July 12 accord raises the priority of negotiating a bilateral ceasefire (something the government had resisted) and accelerating discussions of what remains to be negotiated, especially transitional justice for the worst human rights violators.
This is a positive development, though perhaps not a breakthrough. We can expect real progress in the next few months, but not miracles. There will likely be further setbacks as the pendulum inevitably swings back. As we contemplate the next few months, it’s worth looking at the volatile swings of 2015 from both sides’ on-the-record perspectives.
The December-May unilateral ceasefire
We want a bilateral ceasefire as soon as possible, so that the talks may proceed without battlefield distractions. To that end, we declared a unilateral ceasefire of our own in December. We warned that we would end our ceasefire if the government continued to attack us. Though the government called a halt to aerial bombings in March, ground attacks continued. During our truce, the heads of the 57th and 66th Fronts, and the number-two commander of the 17th Front, were killed in attacks.
We have been reluctant to enter into a bilateral ceasefire because we fear the FARC will use the respite from battlefield pressure to strengthen itself militarily. When the FARC declared its unilateral ceasefire in December, we took a “wait and see” attitude, with modest steps toward de-escalation. And in fact, though there was an important drop in FARC attacks, the guerrillas did not cease all hostilities or illegal activity. During their truce, they continued to traffic drugs, to extort legal businesses, and to lay landmines. We could not justify pulling back a military that is reluctant to be restrained.
The April 15 attack in Cauca
This action wan’t exactly something that we ordered our fighters to carry out, but it fits within the general orders we gave: the column that launched the attack was being pursued by the military unit it attacked, so we regard their response to be self-defense. (Alternatively: our fighters were finding the unilateral ceasefire intolerable because of the government’s continued attacks, and with this incident we provoked a massive response—a mid-May wave of aerial bombings that killed over 40 guerrillas—that served as a pretext for calling an end to our ceasefire.)
Though the military unit that suffered the attack may not have followed security protocols, the attack itself shows why a unilateral ceasefire with no credible verification was a bad idea. Incidents like this are why we won’t accept a bilateral ceasefire without real verification, some concentration of guerrilla forces in specific areas, and a cessation of all hostilities, not just offensive attacks.
The FARC counter-offensive: May 22-early July
After lifting our ceasefire, it was time to remind the Colombian government—and the Colombian people—what we are capable of. We chose to hit almost entirely military and economic targets: rather than kill civilians in populated areas, we turned their lights out. As oil is Colombia’s largest source of foreign exchange, we especially hit the oil sector. Our offensive did some damage to the peace process, but while we bent it, we did not break it. When serious cracks started to show, we declared a new ceasefire and won a government commitment to respond with promises of de-escalation and intensified bilateral ceasefire talks.
The FARC offensive was reckless and counter to the guerrillas’ own self-interest. It increased Colombians’ anger not just against the FARC, but against the whole idea of negotiating with them. After a month of FARC attacks dominating the headlines, political pressures on us are so great that one more serious incident, or one more long period with no progress to show, and—as chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle said—“This could end. One day, it’s likely that they won’t find us at the table in Havana.”
The next four months (after which the parties agree to review whether to continue the peace talks)
We want a bilateral ceasefire and accept the involvement of the UN and UNASUR in verifying de-escalation, as agreed on July 12. We want that ceasefire to give us the maximum amount of freedom, mobility, and ability to remain funded and equipped in case the talks fail.
We do not intend to sign a peace accord only to see our leaders go straight to a prison for past human rights crimes: that has never happened in any peace process, only in surrender negotiations. However, if Colombia applies a similar punishment standard to military personnel, and to civilians who sponsored paramilitary groups, we could contemplate some form of confinement for a reduced period of time, along with confessions and reparations.
We would prefer a bilateral ceasefire at the very end of the talks, but if it allows the sensitive negotiations over transitional justice to proceed in a calmer atmosphere, we are open to negotiating that bilateral ceasefire now. This ceasefire must have credible, capable verification: while we would rather those verifiers be Colombian, we will allow some international role. The ceasefire must include some concentration of FARC forces in specific zones. In those zones—which must have little population and little economic importance—perhaps the FARC can remain armed and receive financial support to sustain its members. The ceasefire must include a halt to all illegal activity, including extortion, narcotrafficking, laying landmines, and child recruitment.
We are willing to consider lighter alternative sentences—perhaps not even confinement—for the worst FARC human rights violators, and we would prefer that Colombia’s justice system take charge of the prosecution and sentencing. Colombia’s justice system might issue similarly light penalties, including a requirement of confessions and reparations, to members of the military who ordered or committed serious human rights crimes.
(1,754 words, approximate reading time 8 minutes, 46 seconds)
For over 25 years, the Washington Office on Latin America has closely tracked Colombia’s armed conflict and efforts to end it. With the U.S. House of Representatives holding a hearing about Colombia’s peace process tomorrow, here is our assessment of the current moment.
How would a peace accord benefit U.S. interests in Colombia?
In the 12 years between the launch of “Plan Colombia” (2000) and the relaunch of talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas (2012), Colombia tripled its defense budget and increased its armed forces by about 75 percent. A long offensive decreased the FARC’s size by about two-thirds. Today, this means that the FARC still has about 7,000 members and 15,000 support personnel. Though the FARC has no hope of taking power by force, the past 12 years’ rate of reduction promises years of continued conflict.
After 51 years of fighting, negotiation offers a quicker way to end the FARC’s status as a cause of violence and drug production. A peace accord would dissolve a group on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, as thousands of its members move into legality. This would ease efforts to reduce production and transshipment of U.S.-bound illegal drugs. And it would offer an opportunity for improved governance over historically lawless territories that provide safe haven to terror groups and traffickers.
Is a peace accord likely?
Yes, but getting there will be slow. Formal negotiations began two and a half years ago, and could easily take another year. Nonetheless, negotiators at the table are working in a disciplined way with international accompaniment, respecting the ground rules and generating hundreds of pages of proposals and dozens of pages of draft accords.
Negotiators have signed preliminary accords on rural development, political participation for the opposition, reforms to drug policy, and a truth commission. They have taken some steps toward de-escalating the conflict: the FARC is cooperating with the government on initial de-mining projects, and has agreed to turn over any minors in its ranks under the age of 15.
Negotiators announce agreement on a Truth Commission in June.
Still, some of the most difficult questions remain unresolved. Negotiators must find a way to hold human rights abusers accountable while also persuading them to disarm. They still must come to agreement on reparations to victims, the nature of combatants’ disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, and the method of ratifying a final agreement.
The negotiations are going on without a ceasefire, amid frequently intense combat. This is a deliberate choice of the Colombian government, which is concerned that the FARC might use a ceasefire to regroup and reinforce itself. President Juan Manuel Santos insists that a bilateral cease-fire must wait until the end of the process. In the meantime, acts of violence undermine public support for the dialogues, and affect the climate at the negotiating table.
Are the talks in a rough patch?
Yes. The FARC had declared a unilateral cease-fire effective December 20, 2014, which brought an approximately 85 percent reduction in guerrilla offensive actions (though guerrilla “fundraising” activities, like extortion and narcotrafficking, continued). The ceasefire was not reciprocal: though the government halted aerial bombings of FARC targets in March, the guerrillas complained of frequent military ground attacks.
On April 15, FARC fighters attacked a military column encamped in a rural town in southwestern Colombia, killing 11 soldiers. The guerrillas refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing, and the government responded by resuming aerial bombings, including three raids in May that killed over 40 FARC members. The FARC revoked its cease-fire on May 22, and has since carried out a steady campaign of attacks on civilian economic infrastructure. Attacks on oil pipelines and power lines are causing environmental damage and blackouts.
The aftermath of the April 15 FARC attack.
What does public opinion say?
The guerrilla offensive has dangerously drained support for the talks. In late February, during the guerrillas’ unilateral cease-fire, Colombia’s bimonthly Gallup poll found 72 percent of respondents supporting the government’s decision to negotiate with the FARC. For only the second time since the talks started, Gallup found a majority—53 percent—optimistic that an accord might be reached. Two months later, those numbers fell to 57 percent and 40 percent, respectively.
Would a ceasefire help?
Some analysts contend that the guerrillas are deliberately seeking to anger Colombians, in the belief that President Santos might agree to a bilateral cease-fire to save the peace process. This is a miscalculation: public fatigue with the peace process makes it more likely that the government might walk away from the talks completely.
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Colombian government and FARC negotiators made a big announcement on June 4, at the end of their 37th round of talks in Havana. They had come to agreement on the nature and mandate of a Truth Commission, or “Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence, and Non-Repetition,” that would be charged with “clarifying and making known the truth about what happened in the conflict.”
This is the first point of agreement reached within the “Victims” agenda point, which the negotiators have been discussing for about a year. The announcement gives the peace process a badly needed shot of momentum at a time when, following the end of the FARC’s unilateral cease-fire, the pace of fighting has quickened.
According to the lengthy summary document both sides released on June 4, the “Clarification” Commission will have 11 members, 3 of whom can be foreigners. Upon the signing of a final peace accord, the Commission will have six months to establish itself, and the commissioners will have three years to perform their work. This is an appropriately long amount of time for a complex and politically charged task: the commissioners will not be rushed.
The Commission’s final report will not name the worst individual perpetrators. It will be limited to identifying “collective responsibilities.” The text explains that the commissioners will be directed to report on:
“The collective responsibilities of the State, including of the Government, and the other public powers, of the FARC-EP, of the paramilitaries, as well as of any other group, organization or institution, national or international, that has had any participation in the conflict, for the practices and acts referred to above.”
There will be no “naming names.” That will be the work of whatever transitional justice body that the negotiators agree to establish, which will operate independently of the Truth Commission.
The Commission’s report, though, can explore the responsibilities of a wide range of institutions and “collectivities,” including private corporations and foreign governments. Presumably, it could name the military units or FARC fronts that exhibited a pattern of committing the most serious violations.
An existing body, the Center for Historical Memory originally set up by the 2005 “Justice and Peace Law,” has already done this, to some extent, in its numerous published reports. One imagines that the “Clarification Commission” would have to be more explicit, detailed, and systematic than its predecessor in its naming of responsible institutions and groups.
The Commission will not recommend punishments, nor can it share evidence with the judicial system. The text reads:
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.
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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.
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Colombia’s peace process is still reeling from the blow dealt by a FARC unit in rural Cauca department, in the country’s southwest, in the pre-dawn hours of April 15. Guerrillas surrounded, threw grenades at, and opened fire on a military detachment taking refuge from a rainstorm under the roof of a sports facility in the village of La Esperanza. The attack killed 11 soldiers and 2 guerrillas; 17 soldiers were wounded.
The incident has set back much of the progress that guerrilla and government negotiators in Havana have made since December in de-escalating the conflict, and in building public support for talks. President Juan Manuel Santos immediately lifted a month-old suspension of bomb attacks on FARC targets, a move the U.S. government quickly supported. While FARC negotiators insisted on characterizing the attack as a response to military aggression, lead government negotiator Humberto de la Calle lamented that “hope has been fractured” by the incident. Critics of the talks on Colombia’s political right, like former President Álvaro Uribe and Inspector-General Alejandro Ordóñez, went on the attack. President Santos was booed at two public events.
This is shaping up to be the most damaging crisis that the FARC talks have faced in their two and a half years. At the same time, it is typical—almost a textbook case—of the sort of crisis that hits just about every effort to negotiate an end to armed conflict. It is a foreseeable consequence of negotiating without a cease-fire in place, or—since the FARC declared a unilateral cease-fire in December—of negotiating with a unilateral, barely verified cease-fire in place.
This is a setback, but it need not be permanent. Restoring momentum to the negotiation and the de-escalation effort will require action.
First, figure out what happened in La Esperanza. The evidence—witnesstestimony, forensics and ballistics—points to a cold-blooded, disproportionate guerrilla attack. Still, this characterization needs to be ratified, nuanced, or disproved by an independent investigation of what happened.
It is virtually certain that a review of the evidence will find that the FARC patrol used excessive force and violated the dictates of its own cease-fire. Having an impartial body say that, though, can make it possible for the FARC leadership to admit publicly that its fighters acted in error.
Right now, the guerrilla negotiators in Havana can’t do that. They risk leaving the impression that they are internally divided or have lost control over their fighters. To admit wrongdoing would call into question their ability to “deliver” the FARC membership upon signature of a peace accord.
After contact with authorities and with both soldiers and FARC fighters present at the incident, investigators—perhaps, as the International Crisis Group has suggested, from the guarantor countries, Cuba and Norway—could offer conclusions about why the FARC assailants acted as they did. Were they dissidents acting out, or did they truly believe they were respecting the top leadership’s order to desist from offensive attacks?
We need to know the answer to that. If the attackers were dissidents trying to damage the process, the FARC should recognize that and hold them accountable. If the attack owed to a commander’s poor judgment of his duties, the FARC should acknowledge it.
FARC leader “Simón Trinidad” at the federal maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado.
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“I don’t believe that any guerrilla is going to turn in his weapon only to go and die in a U.S. jail,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said in early March. “It will be up to me to propose to the U.S. authorities some solution to this issue, which is complex and difficult, but has to be resolved.”
President Santos has much to discuss. Outstanding requests to extradite FARC guerrilla leaders to the United States could stand in the way of a final peace accord.
We have never seen a full list of U.S. courts’ indictments of FARC leaders (some of them may still be sealed), nor have we ever spoken to a U.S. official who could cite an exact number of outstanding extradition requests. But the following indictments are in the public record, and the number is large: they involve at least 60 living, at-large FARC members.
Six were indicted in 2001 for the 1999 killing of three U.S. indigenous rights activists in Arauca. (At least one of these six is now dead.)
Three were indicted in 2002 for narcotics and for kidnapping two U.S. oil workers in Venezuela. (At least two of these three are now dead.)
One was indicted in 2002 for the 1998 kidnapping of four U.S. citizen birdwatchers. (This individual, Henry Castellanos alias “Romaña,” is now a FARC negotiator in Havana.)
Two were indicted in 2004 for a 2003 grenade attack on a Bogotá bar, which injured five U.S. citizen customers.
Fifty were indicted in 2006 to face narcotics charges. (Several—we don’t know how many—are now dead, or captured and extradited. Some are on the guerrilla negotiating team in Havana.) This mass indictment was made possible by the USA PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005, which established the federal crime of “narco-terrorism,” or trafficking drugs to fund terrorist activity. This change in the law now applies worldwide: U.S. officials no longer need to prove that an individual intended to traffic drugs to the United States.
Eighteen were indicted in 2010 for their role in holding three U.S. defense contractors hostage between 2003 and 2008, and murdering their plane’s U.S. citizen pilot. (At least one of them, Dutch-born Tanja Nijmeijer, is part of the FARC delegation in Havana. Some others have been captured and extradited.)
U.S. authorities have also sought to extradite leaders of Colombia’s pro-government paramilitary groups to face narcotrafficking charges. In May 2008, then-President Álvaro Uribe extradited 14 of them at once, although all were participating in a negotiated demobilization and transitional justice process. As of February 2010, 30 ex-paramiltaries had been extradited to the United States.
FARC leaders have made clear that they will not let that happen to them. They will not agree to demobilize without a solid guarantee that the Colombian government will not extradite them to the United States for crimes committed before the signing of a peace accord.
The U.S. government cannot offer this guarantee. Once extradition requests are issued, it is almost impossible to call them back. The indictments listed above come from grand juries, presided by judges, and the U.S. government’s executive branch cannot interfere in the actions of the judicial branch. (While the President has the constitutional power to pardon individuals before a case goes to trial—as President Gerald Ford did for Richard Nixon after Watergate—such pre-trial pardons are exceedingly rare.)
The prosecutors in these cases may technically be part of the executive branch, working for the President, but they have wide-ranging independence to avoid any appearance that their work is politicized. (Witness the political firestorm that raged in 2007 when the Bush administration sought to fire and replace several U.S. attorneys.) Their superiors cannot force them to drop their cases for the good of “peace in Colombia.”
Extradition requests are issued by the Department of Justice Office of International Affairs. This Office’s mandate doesn’t include bringing peace to Colombia or achieving general U.S. foreign policy objectives. Its job is to bring perpetrators of crimes to justice. So these indictments and extradition requests aren’t going anywhere.
Within these constraints, it’s up to another part of the U.S. government—the Department of State, and if necessary the President—to decide whether a country’s non-fulfillment of an extradition request affects its relations with the United States.
Often, when U.S. diplomats consider the larger context, non-fulfillment of extradition requests has no effect at all on the bilateral relationship. This was the case when Colombia’s Supreme Court held up the extradition of paramilitary leader Daniel Rendón alias “Don Mario” in 2010. Nor did the U.S.-Colombia relationship suffer in 2011, when the Santos government extradited wanted Venezuelan drug trafficker Walid Makled to his home country—with which President Santos was seeking to repair troubled relations—instead of to the United States.