The popular decision, or the one that may work?

Colombia Report’s editor, Adriaan Alsema, has published quite a colourful opinion piece entitled ‘why everybody opposing a bilateral ceasefire in Colombia is wrong’– one that, fundamentally, I tend to agree with.  As eluded to in previous blog posts, given the current climate I also share the view that a bilateral ceasefire is imperative in this stage of negotiations.  I believe that despite positive progress in the talks, these negotiations may be severely strained with recent events- if not completely fall through – should a bilateral ceasefire not be agreed upon.

President Santos announced on Saturday that the Colombian armed forces will intensify their offensive against the country’s insurgencies.  On Sunday, the Colombian armed forces killed ELN leader Jose Amin Hernandez alias ‘Marquitos’ in the northern department of Antioquia.  The ELN continues to operate in 9 of the 32 Colombian provinces, with Marquitos commanding 13 units within both Antioquia and Bolivar.

Alsema’s opinion piece highlights a key point that is often not brought up when addressing the current peace process- the fact that there has been ‘war fatigue’ developing throughout the Colombian military.  Alsema dates this back to 2004, which coincides with the ‘securitisation’ policies being pursued under the Uribe administration (2002-2010).  Well-known for his hardline approach and regarded as a ‘strong leader’, Uribe essentially vowed to annihilate the FARC and the ELN by military means whilst simultaneously pursuing the demobilisation of the AUC in 2006.  As the piece notes, there was a significant shift in the FARC’s military and political strategy in 2008, when there was a leadership move within the insurgency to adopt a more defensive approach.  Partly as a response to some major military crackdowns against the insurgency during Uribe’s second term (including the deaths of key FARC leaders), this lead to a move away from mobile combat with emphasis on territory control, to a retreat back to ‘hit-and-run’ strategy within the insurgency.  Consequently, as Alsema notes, this lead to an increase in offensive strategy by the Colombian military and pressure for results.  Whilst the opinion piece highlights some staggering statistics to support this, another indicator was multiple allegations of fake demobilisations- including that of the ‘Cacica Gaitana Front‘, that turned out never to actually exist.

It is evident that Santos’ popularity is dwindling in the polls.  There is a growing sentiment of disenchantment, and much of the Colombian population is becoming fed up with the peace process and its slow progress.  The idea of bilateral ceasefire implementation then comes into question. Although unpopular and could be considered by some as a sign of weakness from the government, is bilateral ceasefire imperative to achieving a signed peace agreement?  Since the beginning of negotiations, I have tended to agree with the acknowledgement that Santos was well aware of this ‘war fatigue’ amongst the military- particularly during his time as Uribe’s defence minister before becoming President.  Moreover, and as I’ve mentioned before, I do believe that there is a conscious acknowledgment that both the government and FARC have reached a military ‘mutually hurting stalemate’.  It’s unlikely that the Colombian military will be able to defeat the FARC, or even the ELN with military means alone.  Put bluntly, money and aid provided under Plan Colombia haven’t had success in destroying the insurgencies.  At the same time, the guerrillas will obviously never be able to achieve their political goals militarily.  Alsema presents a strongly-worded conclusion-

‘If his objective is peace, the president should declare an indefinite and bilateral ceasefire right this minute. If he does not want peace, he should stop pretending and focus on making sure the military doesn’t collapse under the weight of his presidential incompetence’

The crossroad has been met, and something has to give if these negotiations are to keep on track.  More importantly, something has to be done to minimise further violence and conflict.  Given an investigation noted the FARC’s military activity dropped 90% with its self-imposed unilateral ceasefire, a bilateral ceasefire will likely be the move that holds this peace process together.


Pushing too far? FARC steps up infrastructure attacks

The FARC has stepped up the intensity of its infrastructure strikes. On Thursday the insurgency shot dead three policemen patrolling part of the Pan-American Highway. Utilising explosives, it then brought down an energy pylon in its latest significant attack, leaving roughly 500000 without power in the southern region of Caqueta.  These attacks come after the infrastructure strike in Buenaventura, and the insurgency’s ambush in Cauca in April, killing 11 soldiers.

President Santos has called the latest attacks ‘irrational’, and according to Colombia Reports stated-

‘Nobody can explain this type of actions…if this is the way to seek peace, if this is the way to seek support for these peace talks, they are entirely mistaken because what this generates is exactly the opposite’

Santos is right in this statement- these attacks are further contributing to the diminishment of popular support for negotiations.  It is obvious that these recent attacks on infrastructure serve a particular purpose.  They mark an attempt by the FARC to draw the Colombian government into agreeing to a bilateral ceasefire in this current round of peace negotiations.  They are also a deliberate attempt to anger the Colombian population, in order to mount pressure on the Colombian government to declare this.  As I have noted in a previous blog post, bilateral ceasefires have been rarely agreed upon in previous rounds of negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC, with a key exception occurring with negotiations under the Betancur administration (1982-1986).  Whilst there has been mounting pressure for a bilateral ceasefire to be declared, Santos has continuously stressed that this will be unlikely- despite it being potentially necessary in order to boost current negotiations.

Given the present stage of negotiations, the FARC is engaging in a risky strategy with such significant attacks on infrastructure. In this current climate, is likely that such attacks will backfire.  Granted, this strategy is not new for the insurgency, who have been engaging in military strikes against infrastructure and government targets for many years.  However in recent times, arguably the FARC is pushing too far in terms of its current choice of targeting.  Whilst there have been positive achievements in these rounds of negotiation, it is evident that many Colombians are beginning to become disenchanted with current peace process attempts.  According to an April survey by Gallup, there has been a large decrease in support for the process, falling 17 points from the previous poll from 69 percent to 52 percent.  Given that Santos won his second term in office riding on support for peace, this is a worrying sign. It is also detrimental to popular perceptions towards the insurgency.  With diminishing popular support, no current ceasefires in place, and the present state of the insurgency, such attacks are not the strongest strategy by the FARC to keep the peace process on track.

On a slightly more positive note, on Wednesday the EU vowed to provide a fund to aid in the implementation of a peace deal, announcing it will contribute roughly $29M to projects should the process be successful.  This is imperative for successful DDR, and necessary in promoting the appeasement of agrarian grievances.  In the press release, it was stated that-

‘a programme worth almost €21 million will aim to overcoming the social and economic disadvantage of the marginalised and conflict affected regions. The programme will support local sustainable development in remote areas. It is expected to foster income generation opportunities for almost 2000 peasant families and improved livelihoods of around 3000 indigenous and Afro-Colombian families living in National Parks, where all kinds of social and environmental conflicts rule. This action will constitute the first building block of the EU’s support to the Colombian peace process’

The FARC is engaging in a huge risk by attacking infrastructure largely affecting the Colombian population, one that likely won’t directly result in a bilateral ceasefire. The FARC and the government have been in negotiations since November 2012, and there are still two agenda items to be agreed upon- the victims and the end of the conflict.   Given that there hasn’t been a common consensus yet as to how to adequately punish war crimes committed in the past five decades, nor how to compensate the millions of victims affected by the protracted conflict, it appears that unfortunately another hurdle in the process has been reached.

A complex construction of history: Colombian Government and the FARC to create Truth Commission

On Thursday June 4, the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombian (the FARC) agreed to form a Peace Commission to investigate abuses and crimes carried out during Colombia’s five-decade long war.  Both the government and the insurgency agreed to set up an ‘independent and impartial body’ as soon as the final peace settlement has been reached.

Agreeing to establish a Truth Commission is a further step forward in this current round of negotiations, and demonstrates that talks are still on track.  Thus far, the two parties have tentatively agreed to other elements on the 6 point agenda, including issues pertaining to agrarian reform and compensation, illicit drug policy and the nature of political participation.  Moreover, in late May the FARC and the government commenced the removal of land mines– an imperative move as Colombia is one of the most mined countries in the world.

The FARC has been calling for the establishment of a truth commission since the early phases of negotiation.  Iván Márquez, the FARC’s chief negotiator, stated

‘We wonder: how to establish responsibilities, or how to address the issue of victims at the peace talks, repair them, and make a commitment of ‘never again’, if we don’t establish how the violence, which resulted in six decades or more of armed conflict, began?…without truth, there’s no history; without history, there’s no national consciousness.  If the truth of the past is not known, we won’t be able to build a lasting peace’

The latter point in Márquez’s statement holds truth in the Colombian context.  As in other countries that have established truth commission post-conflict, the intention is to construct an in-depth history of the conflict spanning over fifty years.  These are generally implemented after the political and social conflicts have been resolved.  Whilst other Latin American countries, such as Peru and Argentina, have created truth commissions in the past to build peace, no country in the region has had to contend with such a protracted conflict.  The Colombian conflict has its roots in La Violencia a period of violent conflict that occurred from 1948-1958 that swept across much of Colombia.  Many non-state actors that the Colombian government has traditionally faced can be broadly linked back to this period, particularly in terms of the development of ‘self-defence’ enclaves and ‘independent republics’.  The FARC is one such movement, as is Colombia’s second largest insurgency, the National Liberation Army (the ELN).

The FARC has argued that the state’s role in the conflict needs to be more closely examined, particularly in terms of the responsibility to the victims.  Whilst the FARC sees itself as a victim of systematic violence by the state (just as the government sees itself as a victim of systematic violence by the FARC), the role of paramilitaries will be a likely issue engaged with during the commission. Like the FARC, paramilitaries (autodefensas, ‘self-defense’ groups) within Colombia have partial roots within the ‘self-defense’ units that were established within the rural communities during La Violencia.  Formed partly as a response to government policy, many paramilitary groups espouse a narrative that they have taken up arms to defend against the insurgents. Whilst paramilitaries were legalised by adoption of Law 48 in 1968 as part of the broader US-sponsored National Security Doctrine, the use of paramilitaries by the military, drug traffickers and large landowners expanded significantly during the 1980s and 1990s.

As a result of various massacres and human rights abuses, President Virgilio Barco Vargas (1986-1990) rendered these private armies as being temporarily illegal through Decrees 815 and 1194.  However, segments of the Colombian state (with pressure from the US) successfully reformulated the legislation. In 1991, the Ministry of Defense issued Order 200-05/91 and these private armies were reinstated into the army’s intelligence apparatus, albeit based on an illegal, covert partnership. In 1997 the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (the AUC) was created and can be thought of as an umbrella organisation of a loose coalition of private armies.  The AUC was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation by the US in 2001, and subsequently delisted in 2014 after the Uribe administration ‘successfully’ negotiated a mass demobilisation of over 30,000 paramilitaries beginning in 2003.  Despite this, the legacies of the AUC and other paramilitaries have provided Colombia with a host of other security issues, with the government expressing concerns regarding former paramilitaries joining BACRIMS.

Both the Colombian government and the FARC will need to be culpable for their actions in development of ‘the truth’.  This is particularly important in terms of victims coming forward for reparation, and also in terms of the admission of gross human rights violations during the conflict.  Moreover, it is key in building ‘peace’ throughout Colombian society.  This commission will have a incredibly complex task in constructing a history of events, particularly in terms of attributing responsibility to all actors involved.

A small step closer to MILF military disengagement?


Photo courtesy of Mark Navales, Creative Commons

On May 20th the Philippine House Ad Hoc Committee passed the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which approved the creation of the new autonomous political entity that will replace the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).  The draft of the basic law was the product of the comprehensive peace agreement signed by both the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (the MILF) in 2014. This came after 17 years of on/off negotiations between the two parties, and was based on the original framework agreement developed in 2012.

As noted by the International Crisis Group, the House appropriations committee approved the basic law funding on 26 May, and the House of Representatives will soon debate the law, with a target to formally pass this by June 11 when congress enters recess.  Whilst this is the case, Senate President Franklin Drilon expressed on Saturday that he is unsure as to whether the Senate will be able to meet its self-imposed deadline, stressing the importance of the bill being passed by October.  However, should the deadline be moved to October, this further constricts the already short period from the transition of the ARMM to the Bangsamoro autonomous political entity.  Should this occur, this would leave the MILF’s transitional body less than 5 months to oversee the transition from the ARMM to Bangsamoro- an incredibly ambitious time frame given the MILF’s hopes of a three-year period.

However, yesterday on June 2 the peace panels of both the government and MILF announced the creation of a Task Force that would oversee development programmes for militants in an attempt to facilitate return to civilian life.   The Government chief peace negotiator Miriam Coronel-Ferrer stated that the Task Force was mandated to ‘undertake all efforts related to socio-economic and development programmes’ and to ‘assist the Panels to identify and implement socio-economic priorities and development projects’ for decommissioned MILF combatants and their communities.  The Task Force agreement is in line with the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB).  Similar to traditional DDR processes, under the CAB the MILF militants would undertake a gradual decommissioning programme where weapons would be ‘put beyond use’ and return to civilian life.  In an important consideration often not undertaken in all DDR processes, there will be special socio-economic and development programmes for decommissioned women auxiliary forces of the insurgency.

The establishment of the Task Force is positive news in terms of facilitating combatant demobilisation and reintegration.  However, delays in the decommissioning programme has led to delays in a critical component- the hand over of MILF weapons.  Under decommissioning guidelines, the process is done in four phases.  Phase 1 is the ceremonial turning in of 75 high-powered weapons.  This was supposed to be conducted in February this year is a symbolic ceremony, however the clash in Mamasapano, Mindanao postponed the ceremony.  Theoretically, by the time of the Bangamoro Basic Law’s ratification, 30 percent of the MILF’s weapons and combatants would have decommissioned in Phase 2.  This is followed by Phase 3, in which 35 percent will follow after the Bangsamoro police is created.  Finally, the remainder is under Phase 4 when the exit agreement is signed and the Bangsamoro government is established.

The issue that emerges is that at present, it remains uncertain as to when, and if, the Bangsamoro bill will be passed in Congress.  Currently, there has been no clear announcement of a specific date as to when the ceremonial handover of weapons (Phase 1) will be held, marking the commencement of the decommissioning process.  In fact, on Tuesday concerns were expressed that elements of the MILF may still be armed leading up to the election of the Bangsamoro government in 2016.  Despite the establishment of the Task Force, it is critical that Phase 1 is implemented in a timely fashion as a symbolic start to the decommissioning process.  Whereas there has been key progress in the establishment of the political entity, this momentum should be used to simultaneously to strengthen the tenets of implemented demobilisation processes- including getting those weapons.

Buenaventura Attack: the need for a bilateral ceasefire?

The FARC carried out an attack on infrastructure on Sunday, leaving 400000 thousand people without power in Buenaventura, Colombia’s main Pacific port city.  Whilst Colombia’s defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon referred to the attack as an act of ‘terrorism’, this demonstrates the FARC’s reengagement with strategic military attacks on critical infrastructure following its suspension of a unilateral ceasefire.

The attack follows the Colombian army’s airstrike attack on the Cauca province, killing 27 FARC guerrillas including Jairo Martínez.  Martínez had been a member of the FARC delegate for two separate peace processes, and was allegedly at the FARC camp informing combatants of progress in the current rounds.

The last few months have seen a significant escalation of tensions between the Colombian and the FARC, particularly after the FARC attack in Cauca leaving 11 soldiers dead.  As attacks on both sides continue, the question remains: is a bilateral ceasefire necessary at this stage of negotiations?

Given the amount of time that has passed since the commencement of the current round, there are mounting concerns that the peace process may collapse.  However, this is the furthest that any Colombian administration has come to achieving a settlement with the FARC, including significant agreement on key agenda items.  Moreover, bilateral ceasefires have rarely been agreed upon by the Colombian government, with a key exception being during the Betancur (1982-1986) peace process.

This being said, given mounting pressure it is becoming evident that the Colombian government may have to agree to a bilateral ceasefire, as called on by the FARC.  With Colombia’s Attorney General and ombudsman showing their support, as well as Cuba and Norway urging for a bilateral ceasefire, it seems as though this potentially would give the current peace negotiations the boost it needs

Welcome to morethanwars!

Welcome to my personal blog, morethanwars

I’ve been meaning to set up a personal blog for quite a while to provide my thoughts on a range of issues pertaining to security and prospects for peace in Latin America, Central America and Southeast Asia.  However, as I am entering into the final stretch of my PhD research, I figured this would be a good time to start!

morethanwars has been set up to provide broad analysis on security issues being faced in Latin America, Central America and Southeast Asia. Generally, my research focuses on non-state militant threats to state autonomy and overall perceptions of state legitimacy.  My PhD is a Colombian country study, examining the Colombian government’s relationship to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC).  I research into government decisions to shift between policies of counterinsurgency and negotiation at times.

Currently the Colombian government is in the final stages of negotiations with the FARC, and it is looking promising.  This is not to say peace in Colombia will be achieved if a final settlement is signed, with the country then facing an array of other issues- including a settlement with the ELN, and the security threat posed by BACRIMS.  However, it is a step in the right direction and has the potential to minimise conflict within the country if implemented correctly.

Whilst parts of this blog will be developed to Colombian analysis, I have a strong passion for Latin American politics- particularly in terms of conflict and security.  I find that here in Australia, little exposure is devoted to this region in terms of news and media coverage.  Perhaps this is to be expected, and this blog is in no way ambitious that it seeks to fill that void! However, I do hope to provide a degree of basic analysis for those interested, and to be in contact with likeminded individuals focussing on similar research.

Thank you for taking the time to stop by, I look forward to this endeavour!