Colombian Peace Process Advances

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As Colombia’s peace process advances, here are some words to live by.

“We can’t condemn Colombians to another one hundred years of solitude and violence.”
–Enrique Santos Calderón, former editor of El Tiempo, brother of President Juan Manuel Santos

“It’s one thing that the victims aren’t present at the table in Havana, and it’s another thing to ignore their voice, deny their rights.  A peace without victims will have neither political nor moral legitimacy.”
–Senator Juan Fernando Cristo

“The dialogue for ending the armed conflict should be a moment in which sectors of Colombian society that have been marginalized, discriminated against and excluded have an opportunity to effectively present their demands, needs and rights that have long been neglected.”
–Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos…

What has happened so far in the process?  The Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas opened peace negotiations on October 18, 2012 in Oslo, Norway, raising some hope of putting an end to the hemisphere’s longest-running armed conflict.   In August, the two parties had agreed upon a five-point agenda which consists of:  rural development, political participation, ending the conflict, solving the problem of illicit drugs, and victims.

With the governments of Norway and Cuba acting as guarantors for the peace process and Venezuela and Chile providing logistical support and accompaniment, the substantive talks started in Havana in November on point number one, rural development.  The government and the guerrilla delegations each have 30 members, with five from each team participating at the negotiating table at any one time. The U.S. government has repeatedly indicated its support for the Colombian government’s decision to enter into peace talks, although the USG is not playing a direct role in negotiations. Colombia’s second principal guerrilla group, the ELN, has offered to join the talks but the Colombian government asserts that it will proceed solely with the FARC at this moment.  President Santos has stated his intention to achieve a final accord with the FARC before the end of November of this year.

The talks are closed door, although information does leak.  While the FARC floats proposals aimed at more sweeping change, President Juan Manuel Santos has repeatedly made clear his determination that Colombia’s basic economic and political model is not on the table for negotiation.  He has stated that fundamental aspects of national life such as the Constitution, the development model, and the concept of private property are not up for discussion.

Bones of contention.  A cease-fire has been an important bone of contention. The Colombian government has so far refused to establish a cease-fire until the FARC lays down its weapons, and indeed has escalated military action in a number of areas of the country.  The FARC announced a unilateral cease-fire in November, which it then lifted on January 20, stating it would not continue as the government had not reciprocated.   There were accusations that the FARC had violated its own cease-fire. Another area of contention is over keeping the negotiations under wraps; the FARC complained after President Santos’s brother, Enrique Santos, gave an all-too frank media interview revealing details of the negotiations.

Progress?  Despite these differences, talks do appear to be moving forward.  On the first agenda point, for example, both sides have agreed to the need to provide land to the landless and displaced, while the FARC has backed off of its longstanding demand for more sweeping agrarian reform.  While some sectors—notably former President Alvaro Uribe and his active twitter account—raise objections to the negotiations, broad sectors of the Colombian public at the start of negotiations appeared to be willing to give the process a chance, even if optimism is greatly tempered by the wreckage of past failed peace efforts that litters the Colombian mental landscape.

Civil society involvement in the peace process.   There is no formal civil society involvement at the negotiating table. The Colombian government and the FARC have agreed to several more indirect mechanisms for civil society involvement at this stage. First, they have set up a web page ( where any Colombian citizen or civil society organization can submit a proposal.  This very limited mechanism receives “proposals” of up to 500 words, which are provided to negotiating teams but not displayed publicly.  Second, the negotiating teams asked the National University and the UN agencies in Colombia to convene working groups on the first agenda item, rural development, and to summarize and synthesize the proposals that emerge for them. Over 1300 people participated from 1200 organizations.  Potentially, this kind of effort could continue for other agenda items.  Third, Colombia’s congressional peace commission is organizing regional forums to collect and debate civil society input.

The negotiating teams have stated that civil society participation can be more substantial in the third phase, which is the discussion of how to implement the agreements. However, this leaves the victims of the violent conflicts – victims of the guerrillas, of government forces, and of paramilitary warlords—on the margins as crucial decisions that affect them are made, including the measure and quality of truth, justice and reparations for victims that these peace accords promise to deliver.

Rural development ideas from civil society.  In the public forums on rural development, civil society organizations called for protection for communities returning to their lands; distribution of unproductive state-owned land to small-scale farmers; building of “campesino reserve” areas where small-scale farming will be protected; promotion of opportunities for rural youth; improvement of rural infrastructure; respect for indigenous and Afro-Colombian territories, including use of “prior consultation processes” for development projects; and limits on mining exploration.

Human rights groups raise concerns for truth and justice—and safety for the civilian population.   A major network of civil society groups, Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos, raised the following concerns and recommendations:

  • Protect the civilian population now, as talks proceed.  As peace talks advance, the war is only escalating in certain regions, particularly indigenous and Afro-Colombian areas.  Coordinación calls on both the Colombian government and the FARC to respect international humanitarian law, including ending recruitment of minors, sexual violence, aerial bombardments of civilian populations, and military operations in indigenous and Afro-Colombian territories.  The coalition called on both parties to agree to a bilateral cease-fire.
  • Provide more effective inclusion of civil society, particularly victims’ organizations, in this current phase of dialogue. “Given that the agenda should address the rights to truth, justice, reparation and the guarantee of non-repetition [that abuses will not continue], how the parties can attempt to reach agreement on these issues without the participation of victims and human rights groups cannot be comprehended”; “this leaves their participation for the implementation phase, when everything has already been decided.”
  • Add to the agenda the topic of justice for grave human rights abuses, war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Justice “has been excluded from the agenda.”
  • Establish a fully independent Truth Commission, as a “crucial and nonnegotiable demand.” The Coordinación calls for a commitment from all actors—whether “state, para-state, and against the state” –to speak the truth about their actions that have violated the human rights of Colombia’s citizens.  This includes revealing what happened to the kidnapped and the disappeared. Transitional justice measures cannot be applied without truth and reparations to victims.
  • Ensure a complete and effective demobilization of paramilitary groups and paramilitary successor organizations.

As the peace talks advance, we hope that the voices of victims of the conflict, victims of all armed actors, whether they are victims of the guerrillas, paramilitaries or state security forces, can be truly heard, and that their demands for truth, justice and meaningful reparations will be reflected in the negotiations and agreements.  As Senator Juan Fernando Cristo, who had championed the Victims’ Law which President Santos signed into law, cautioned, “A peace without the victims will have no political or moral legitimacy.”