FARC and Colombian Government Agree to Bilateral Ceasefire

Santos tweets

On July 13, Santos states an important announcement will be made. Image courtesy of official account, Twitter

On Sunday, President Santos tweeted that negotiators were making an important step in the advancing agreements with the FARC.  Shortly after, a bilateral ceasefire was agreed upon between the government and the insurgency, as long as the FARC upholds their unilateral ceasefire.  Commencing 20 July (the day that the FARC declared its commencement of a unilateral ceasefire), the ceasefire will initially last a month, with both the government and FARC to tentatively agreeing to extend it for another four months.

Whilst not a surprising move given mounting international pressure, the last time a bilateral ceasefire had been agreed upon in negotiations was those commenced under the Betancur administration in 1982.  However, this can be seen as a major step towards easing tensions between the Colombian government and the FARC, and a commitment to the de-escalation of conflict.  Furthermore, this demonstrates that peace talks are being accelerated with both parties pushing for a political solution.

A copy of the press release regarding the bilateral ceasefire can be found here.  The stated objectives of such a move include to strengthen the confidence of the Colombian population in the peace process and trust amongst delegations; to speed up the construction of agreements on all remaining aspects of the Agenda of General Agreement, and to create the conditions for the implementation of the ceasefire and Bilateral and Final Hostilities, the third point of the ‘End of Conflict’ agenda item. Commitment to a bilateral ceasefire is a positive move in keeping negotiations on track, and hopefully all FARC Fronts will abide to the conditions of a unilateral ceasefire.

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The FARC’s new ceasefire

On Wednesday the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia declared a second unilateral ceasefire during the current round of negotiations with the Santos administration.  According to the insurgency’s chief negotiator, Ivan Marquez, it was stated that ‘we announce our willingness to to order a unilateral ceasefire from July 20, for a month…through this, we’re looking to create favourable conditions with our counterpart to advance a definitive and bilateral ceasefire‘.

The timing of this decision comes after two announcements at this stage of the process- a declaration by Santos that the government will intensify an offensive military strategy against the FARC, and pressure from ‘guarantor’ countries Norway and Cuba, and ‘escort’ countries Venezuela and Chile to ‘strictly restrict any actions that cause victims or suffering in Colombia, and to step up the implementation of confidence-building measures‘. Moreover, according to Reuters, the government’s chief negotiator Humberto de la Calle stated that ‘the peace process is at its worst moment since we began talks…I want to tell the FARC in all seriousness, this could end.  Some day, it’s probable that they won’t find us around the table in Havana‘.  He went further to suggest that the government would be willing to consider a bilateral ceasefire before a final peace deal is signed, if the insurgency accepts judicial responsibility for the violence it has perpetrated and only if it abstains from extortion and the drug industry.

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Humberto de la Calle, Chief Negotiator for the Colombian government in talks with the FARC. Photo courtesy of ICP Colombia, Flickr

There is no doubt that negotiations under the Santos administration have produced the most progress of any effort to end violence with the FARC since the first attempt by the Betancur administration in 1982, despite their decreasing popularity amongst the Colombian population. Whilst this is the case, it is really quite unprecedented that the peace process has become incredibly strained in the past few months, given that agreements have been made on most of the negotiation agenda items. The FARC’s declaration of a month-long unilateral ceasefire can be viewed through both an optimistic and cautious lens, as strategic intentions become increasingly blurred given recent insurgent activity against police, military and infrastructure.  There is no doubt that the FARC’s declaration of a unilateral ceasefire is an attempt to draw the Colombian government into a bilateral ceasefire.  From an optimistic standpoint, this could be seen as a demonstration of commitment by the FARC to continue to current round of negotiations, and to temporarily cease its military activities.  Given the nature of such attacks over the past weeks, this can be seen as a commitment to the de-escalation of violence.  From a cautious stance, the FARC has been accused of utilising ceasefires as a guise to recuperate and rearm.  Given vows by the Colombian government to increase an offensive against the insurgency, combined by de la Calle’s stance that it is very possible the government will walk away from negotiations, there is viability in a cautious approach to the intention behind the current ceasefire.  Lessons learned from the Pastrana administration granting the insurgency a ‘demilitarised zone’ during its round of negotiations presents a somewhat painful picture, where it became evident that the movement was utilising the space for building up military capacity and training.

Recently, I have been conducting in depth research into the peace process attempts under the Pastrana and Uribe administrations, engaging with the specifics of the negotiations themselves, factors that helped and hindered the processes, and engaging with an array of primary material that I was able to access through archives.  Whilst the Uribe negotiation attempt with the FARC during his first term (2002-2006) never really eventuated, what is clear is that during these two administrations, the FARC really had no need to arrive at a political solution to the conflict.  During the Pastrana administration, the FARC was at its strongest in terms of territorial control, military capacity and capability, and financing coming in through the coca boom.  Paramilitaries were mobilised and exacerbating violence, creating a vicious cycle during negotiations in that the FARC refused to demobilise or cease military activity if the paramilitary groups were not addressed.  Peace attempts during the Pastrana administration also collapsed as a result of other factors, however never progressed further than minor procedural agreements with the insurgency.  In terms of FARC demobilisation, it would have been unlikely that the peace process resulted in success unless significant concession were made due to the insurgency’s strength. The FARC’s strength impacted on Uribe’s attempts to negotiations in that they refused to agree to a ceasefire as a condition of entering into negotiations.  Whilst Uribe demonstrated ‘success’ in the demobilisation of paramilitaries (including the AUC), and made minor progress initially with the ELN, there was no need for the FARC to negotiate under such conditions.  It wasn’t until Uribe’s second term (2006-2010) where military offensives against the insurgency resulted it capacity degradation and deaths of key leaders that the FARC began to show signs of weakening.  A key indicator of this was the fact that around 2008, the FARC returned to a strategy of ‘hit-and-run’ tactics throughout the rural population, avoiding full blown confrontations with the military in small cities.

Despite the current turbulence, these strains can perhaps shed light on why this current round of negotiation has been comparatively effective.  The insurgency is experiencing dwindling numbers, though currently mobilised at between 8000-10000 combatants.  The threat of a military offensive would not be a positive outcome for the insurgency in this late stage of the peace process, and I would argue that this has shaped the FARC’s decision to declare a second temporary ceasefire. I’m not convinced this is an attempt to rearm, though the possibility is there. Should the FARC desire a political settlement, I believe that this round of negotiations would have the highest success in achieving such an objective- particularly given the consensus on key agenda issues. I also believe that the FARC knows this, and despite recent aggression throughout the past weeks has declared this unilateral ceasefire to keep negotiations on track in an attempt to hold on to a political outcome. What is going to be interesting to monitor is the issue of ‘time’- Santos has entered into his second term, and unless a final settlement begins to take form soon, the actual implementation of a peace agreement may have to take place under the next administration.  As such, progression will have to be made very soon to prevent talks from falling through, with both sides attempting to secure what they can to enhance their own standing post-settlement.  The next few months will likely be the final ‘make or break’ stage, and I am interested to see what concessions will be made, including a potential bilateral ceasefire.

Violence, lasting peace and the Truth Commission: what could be its realistic impact for Colombian society?

In early June, the Colombian government and the FARC agreed to form a Truth Commission should a final peace settlement be reached between the two actors.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the general purpose of truth commissions in post-conflict environments is to construct an in depth history of the conflict, including addressing crimes and mass atrocities that have been carried out by actors involved.  In the context of Colombia and due to the nature of the conflict’s protraction, one of pertinent issues will not only be an examination of government, FARC and ELN activities, but also an investigation into the relationship between the Colombian military and paramilitary groups.

An article published by Vice news entitled ‘Can a Truth Commission in Colombia help heal the wounds of wars atrocities?’ caught my attention the other day.  Within the article, there were references to an interview Vice had conducted with Colombian senator Sofia Gaviria, who is the sister of Guillermo Gaviria.  A former governor of Antioquia, Guillermo Gaviria was kidnapped in April 2002, which inevitably led to the final cessation of peace negotiations with the FARC under the Pastrana administration (1998-2002).  After an unsuccessful rescue mission carried out by the Colombian armed forces, Gaviria was killed alongside eight other hostages.

A supporter of the peace process, Sofia Gaviria is quoted as saying-

‘I do not believe in relativism of truth, I believe there is only one truth, but several ways of accepting it or not…but the truth is that such a person was taken from home, abducted, killed, or displaced by a group that operates outside the law. All victims want that truth’

Gaviria is referring to the FARC in the later part of this statement, a truth for victims is key in aiding lasting reconciliation.  However, what originally brought my attention to the article was an assumption behind that title- can a Truth Commission in Colombia help heal the wounds of war’s atrocities.  The establishment of a commission was announced in terms of the agenda item dealing with victims, specifically their rights to justice, reparation, and truth.  In dealing with the Colombian conflict, there is an assumption that a Truth Commission will investigate the incredibly long period of serious mass human rights violations carried out throughout the conflict, and a micro-examination of these crimes.  Overlaid onto the notion of constructing a history of the conflict, there is a further assumption that there will be a investigation into the structural causes of this. What role did all actors play in the exacerbation of violence, and what led to their emergence?

It is highly unlikely that a Truth Commission will be able to achieve all that is expected, particularly due to the nature of the Colombian context.  Apart from the complexities in forensic evidence, the general attribute of responsibility for perpetrated violence is far from clear cut.  For example, there is a significant degree of autonomy amongst most armed actors in the Colombian environment.  Whereas the ELN’s command-and-control structure has always been much stronger than the FARC’s, FARC fronts have operated with a higher degree of ‘flexibility’, particularly throughout the 1990s with the coca boom.  There have been incidents where attacks were carried out by fronts that the FARC leadership didn’t take responsibility for, and whilst this may be deliberate denial by the insurgency, forensic truth regardless will be incredibly difficult to establish. In a similar fashion, whilst there has been evident collusion between the Colombian military and paramilitary groups that operated throughout the country, these groups were also privatised and utilised by an array of actors with differing stakes in the conflict, including large landowners, drug trafficking organisations and business owners.  Whilst a Truth Commission should deal with the shadowy issue of paramilitaries, attribution of responsibility will again be difficult to establish. For a Truth Commission to demonstrate signs of success, there needs to be a realistic expectation of its function.  It can not be considered as a mechanism to facilitate judicial processes, and as a means of attributing legal responsibility for actions. What it should be considered as is a mechanism to provide formal recognition of the atrocities carried out against victims of the conflict. It is a imperative means of having their experiences heard and recognised, and can play a role in contributing to the establishment of lasting peace constructing historical memory.

I state, ‘can play a role in contributing to the establishment of lasting peace’ very deliberately.  A Truth Commission will be but one factor that is important for building peace in Colombia.  Recently, the Observatory of Democracy at the Universidad de los Andes published an excellent report on the Political Culture of Democracy in Colombia for 2015.  Extensive interviews were conducted with 1390 people in 40 municipalities on a range of issues including democratic attitudes, governance, participation, confidence in local institutions, insecurity and corruption, the protection of rights, armed conflict and the peace process.  In terms of FARC demobilisation, Colombia Reports has provided a breakdown in English of key observations in terms of combatant reintegration back into Colombian society. This report provides so many telling findings, but for my own research purposes on legitimacy, I found Chapter Two on democratic attitudes, governance and political participation to be quite interesting- particularly in terms of findings throughout other chapters, and issues that are being brought to the forefront of media currently.  These reflect on the complexities of the Colombian conflict environment, but also those of the overall Colombian state.

Marcha en Colombia: no mas FARC

Colombians march against the FARC insurgency. Photo courtesy of AlCortés, Flickr

Whilst Santos’ approval rating continues to sink in urban areas, perceptions of the Colombian political system’s overall legitimacy has risen since the beginning of Santos’ term.  Whilst political tolerance and satisfaction with democracy are not as strong, Santos’ overall approval level has increased quite substantially since 2011 in areas experiencing violence.  Having said this, according to these surveys, Santos is far from the high levels of approval that Uribe enjoyed during his eight year term.  In contrast to Santos, Uribe pursued a strong policy of securitisation and ‘state-building’ without negotiations with the FARC and ELN, yet was unable to defeat the insurgencies by military means alone.  In terms of conflict and the peace process, the report demonstrates that support for the negotiations themselves is much higher in the municipalities experiencing violence, in comparison with the rest of the country.  At the same time, there are low expectations that talks will result in lasting peace.

This is not surprising, and is a realistic observation.  A Truth Commission will provide a mechanism for mass human rights violations to be discussed, and their effects on victims recognised.  However, two facets that are critical in the maintenance of peace will be the two hardest- the provision of security to all areas of the state, most pressingly those affected by violence, and the enhancing popular perceptions of state legitimacy.  Whilst Uribe was perceived as a strong leader and arguably demonstrated some success in his ‘securitisation policies’, his term was also marked by mass human rights violations, ‘false positive killings‘, and ties to paramilitaries.  Moreover, despite expanding the Colombian military and police forces, both insurgencies survived with substantial numbers of combatants still mobilised.  Successful negotiations and demobilisation of both the FARC and ELN will be the best start for the achievement of peace, where resources can then be turned towards dealing with, amongst other things, the issues of neo-paramilitaries, BACRIMS, and general crime and corruption still plaguing Colombian society, contributing an environment of insecurity.  ‘Healing wounds’ will require much more than a Truth Commission.  Should the current round be successful, it will even require more than a peace settlement.  Long-term, lasting peace requires more than just successful negotiations- it requires the development of state legitimacy, of which the provision of security throughout the whole country is a critical starting point.