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Colombia: Peace at Last?

Latin America Report N°45 25 Sep 2012

This report is also available in Spanish.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS

After decades of failed negotiations and attempts to defeat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) militarily, a political solution to the Western Hemisphere’s oldest conflict may be in sight. Following a year of secret contacts, formal peace talks with FARC are to open in Oslo in October 2012 and continue in Havana. They may be extended to the ELN. There seems a firmer willingness to reach an agreement, as the government realises military means alone cannot end the conflict and FARC appears to recognise that the armed struggle permits survival but little else. With no ceasefire in place, both sides must act with restraint on the battlefield to generate immediate humanitarian improvements. And they will need to balance the requirements of fast, discreet negotiations and those of representativeness and inclusion. The government and the guerrillas have the historic responsibility to strike a deal, but only strong social and political ownership of that deal can guarantee that it leads to the lasting peace that has been elusive for so long.

There are many challenges, but they are, on balance, less formidable than on previous occasions. Scepticism towards the guerrillas remains widespread, and there is political opposition to the talks, most vocally and radically articulated by former President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010). His discourse resonates strongly among large landowners and other powerful regional actors with significant stakes and a historical proclivity for using violence to defend their interests. But the large majority of Colombians back a peace process, and mainstream political forces have endorsed it, though a failure to secure quick results could breathe new life into political resistance. The security forces are better aligned with the civilian leadership than in the past and represented at the negotiation table, reducing risk of the coordination failures between political and military agendas that have marred previous peace attempts.

Broader conflict dynamics also encourage a political settlement. With neither side likely to win by arms alone, both have a strong incentive to negotiate. FARC is weakened militarily, but an entire generation of its leaders now has possibly its last opportunity to vindicate decades of struggle in a peace deal that responds to some of the issues that spawned the insurgency and that allows the guerrillas to participate in the construction of peace as social and political actors. The government operates from a position of strength. Its military advantage, if not decisive nevertheless appears irreversible; Santos, who is more sensitive than his predecessor to victims’ rights, has started to tackle problems such as rural development that are of direct concern for the guerrillas, and his administration has acknowledged the state’s responsibility for some key human rights violations. It also still has a reasonably cohesive partner to deal with, avoiding the problems that can be envisaged if more years of heavy military pressure were to cause FARC to splinter.

Nevertheless, the outcome depends on more than the will and negotiating skill of the parties. After 50 years of guerrilla warfare, systematic human rights violations and indifference by both to the plight of rural areas, communities in conflict regions no longer consider the guerrillas defenders of their interests and have lost faith in the state’s capacity and willingness to solve their problems. Negotiations thus need to be sustained by the active participation and endorsement of civil society, notably of rural and indigenous communities. To lay the foundations for durable peace, talks will ultimately need to lead into a wider social process aimed at tackling the problems affecting the countryside that provide the backdrop for the conflict. Lasting peace is also only possible on the basis of accountability for the many grave abuses committed by all sides in the conflict. The international community, represented during the talks primarily by Norway, Cuba, Venezuela and Chile, will need to stand by Colombia throughout, including as it takes up the challenges of a post-conflict society.

Fears over peace talks are tactically exaggerated by their opponents. But those promoting a political settlement also need to keep expectations in check. A deal would not eliminate violence. It likely would fail to convince some FARC elements to lay down arms, notably those deeply involved in the drugs trade. There would still be significant security threats from illegal armed groups rooted in the officially demobilised paramilitaries and from other organised criminal gangs. Nor can the socio-economic problems underlying the conflict be solved overnight. But ending the conflict with the guerrillas would give Colombia the best prospect yet to come to grips with all these issues. Crisis Group will accompany the process with analysis and recommendations on the substance of the agenda.

Ten years of intense counter-insurgency warfare have greatly weakened the combat strength of the guerrillas and pushed them into ever more remote rural hideouts, substantially reducing the impact on the major urban centres. But the conflict still costs lives on a daily basis, holds back socio-economic development and impedes the consolidation of a truly inclusive and pluralistic democracy. The road ahead will not be short or smooth, but Colombia cannot afford to muff this chance for peace.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To mobilise broad social, political and institutional support for the peace process and minimise the potential influence of spoilers

To the Government of Colombia:

1.  Ensure civil society ownership and effective buy-in to the peace process, notably in conflict-affected communities, by:

a) delivering swiftly on the reform agenda, with a priority on consolidation policy, land restitution and other forms of victims’ reparation as provided for in the 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law; and improving protection of community leaders, human rights advocates and endangered land recipients by mechanisms consulted with them;

b) ending the stigmatisation or criminal prosecution of even the most strident peaceful political dissent; and

c) providing for inclusive, well-organised, safe and effective civil society participation on and input to all points of the negotiations agenda, as promised in the 26 August pre-accord; actively reach out to conflict-affected communities and to indigenous peoples as well as Afro-Colombian communities, in line with their consultation rights under the constitution; and ensure full accountability for decisions.

2.  Involve key political decision-makers as negotiations advance, balancing the need to reach substantive commitments with FARC at the negotiations table with respect for democratic processes so that the appropriate institutions remain the main forums for relevant policy decisions.

3.  Ensure that any political settlement leads into a wider social peacebuilding process aimed at meeting basic rights and addressing Colombia’s rural problems in continuous dialogue with local communities.

4.  Ensure buy-in of the security forces, including by:

a) reducing judicial uncertainty through strengthening of the independence, capacities and impartiality of military courts; and

b) beginning discussion on eventual security sector reform and post-conflict mechanisms to provide benefits to demobilising security personnel.

5.  Reduce impunity risks by ensuring that all grave human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL) violations remain under civilian jurisdiction and by strengthening mechanisms to guarantee the transfer of cases from military jurisdiction to civilian courts.

6.  Step up efforts to fight New Illegal Armed Groups (NIAGs) and other organised crime groups, including front structures and corrupt networks, in a more integrated manner, particularly by giving law enforcement agencies the resources, capacity and incentives to investigate and prosecute the full spectrum of NIAG and related crimes, starting in the conflict-affected regions.

7.  Publish, through the Vice Presidency’s Human Rights and IHL Observatory, timely and constantly revised updates of major conflict variables so as to facilitate the objective of monitoring of hostilities and their humanitarian impact during the negotiations.

To the Government, the Armed Forces and FARC:

8.  Achieve a bilateral ceasefire in an early phase of negotiations, and in the meantime, in order to produce humanitarian relief in conflict zones and minimise risk of destabilising the peace talks, immediately exercise military restraint, in particular by:

a) respecting the principle of distinction and, particularly, the rules of precaution and proportionality in attacks, as stipulated by customary IHL. This implies stopping the use of civilian infrastructure, such as schools, to hide and conduct military operations; and taking all possible measures to avoid direct or indirect violence against civilians;

b) granting and securing permanent access to the conflict areas to humanitarian agencies and public social institutions in order to guarantee health, food and other basic services;

c) FARC should accept all international standards on the conduct of conflict, including those that prohibit the use of minors, and progressively release such minors as may be in its forces; security forces should no longer use minors for intelligence and surveillance tasks and make this commitment public;

d) security forces should restrict bombardments, in particular in areas close to civilian housing; reduce aerial coca fumigation to the absolute minimum; refrain from actions that result in mobility restrictions for communities; give communities explicit guarantees that allow local and unavoidable communication with FARC for humanitarian purposes; and recognise that such or similar incidental contacts or physical proximity do not make civilians guerrilla supporters; and

e) FARC should immediately release hostages it might still hold and provide information about those whom it formerly held and are unaccounted for; halt attacks using car bombs or other devices with indiscriminate effects that pose significant risks for civilians; refrain from attacks on water, energy and electricity infrastructure and armed blockades; and lift existing restrictions on access for humanitarian actors.

To all parties to the negotiations, including international facilitators:

9.  Ensure that women effectively and substantively contribute in all aspects and elements of the peace process; and commit to comply with all relevant international norms, including those enshrined in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and Security Council Resolution 1325 and associated texts.

To the International Community, in particular major donors including the U.S. and European Union:

10.  Enhance and renew political and financial support for the initiatives aimed at improving the humanitarian condition of the affected population, including de­min­ing, return of the displaced and reintegration and reparation for victims.

11.  Maintain and, if possible, increase levels of funding for human rights defenders, local or regional peace initiatives and capacity-building programs for local NGOs and social movements; and support civil society in critically, autonomously and constructively engaging with the negotiation process and the resulting post-conflict order.

12.  Announce willingness to assist in providing technical, financial or other support as may be requested by parties to implement agreements.

Bogotá/Brussels, 25 September 2012

 
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