Colombia: Moving Forward with the ELN
Latin America Briefing N°16
11 Oct 2007
A three-year peace process between the government of Alvaro Uribe and the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) is at a standstill, with concern rising that it is doomed by mutual recalcitrance. The insurgent group, while much smaller than the more prominent (and notorious) Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is probably both militarily stronger than the government believes and politically weaker than its leaders think. To counteract the spread of frustration and prevent failure, the government and the rebels should immediately explore creative options, as much to begin to establish some badly needed mutual confidence as to tackle the persistent procedural and substantive bottlenecks.
The peace process has moved from an exploratory phase with intermittent Mexican facilitation toward formal dialogue with the accompaniment of Norway, Spain and Switzerland. Although it is important that it has not broken down, eight rounds of talks, from the formal December 2005 start in Havana, have produced no tangible results. Some observers, citing the more serious threat that the FARC represents and the growth of new illegal armed groups, even assert that the ELN negotiation is a sideshow of little relevance. Nevertheless, while the ELN’s military capability has clearly been reduced by Uribe’s tough security policy, the movement has survived by staying mobile and adapting to local conflict conditions.
A ceasefire is the first hurdle. There is agreement in principle on a bilateral, “experimental” (i.e. temporary) one, during which further negotiations would take place, but disagreement on the concentration of rebel fighters, verification of the accord and the government’s demand for a complete end to kidnappings. The government wants the ELN to concentrate its forces in specific locations and identify its combatants, while the ELN wants to be able to stay mobile within specified corridors. The basic disagreement over the type of ceasefire has prevented the parties from defining the international mission needed for verification. With no movement on a ceasefire, unilateral humanitarian measures have been suggested as a possible way to unblock the process. Both sides agree that de-mining and a halt to kidnapping could be important steps toward peace but questions remain as to the viability of undertaking these actions outside the framework of a ceasefire, and it is doubtful that humanitarian measures alone would overcome the more substantive bottlenecks.
The ELN and the government also differ on such fundamental matters as the origins of the Colombian conflict and whether simple reforms or deep structural changes are needed to resolve it. The insurgents demand a National Convention with civil society participation but have yet to offer clarity on how such a body might actually produce the transformation they insist upon. Political and socio-economic issues have been broached in Havana but drafting of even an agenda for a political negotiation has been postponed to an indefinite subsequent stage. The ELN’s bottom line and what the government would be prepared to offer in an endgame remain unclear.
Judicial guarantees for the ELN leaders will eventually be another key issue. While the government has said it will apply the Justice and Peace Law (JPL) to all illegal armed groups, and the ELN has not ruled out assuming responsibility for its actions, the insurgents have also called for an amnesty in exchange for agreeing to a truth commission that would be charged with establishing the responsibility of all actors in the armed conflict, including the government. However, most ELN leaders are accused of atrocities which would be difficult to excuse with an amnesty consistent with international humanitarian law and without creating new pressures for more lenient treatment of demobilised and imprisoned paramilitary leaders.
Both sides, with the support of the three accompanying European countries, need to explore ways to restore momentum in the negotiating process, including unilateral measures aimed at establishing a degree of mutual trust. Specifically:
the ELN should release its kidnap victims and de-mine some areas;
the Uribe administration should seek a ceasefire as an important step in the process rather than insist on an immediate and complete cessation of all hostilities, and should show more flexibility in addressing ELN concerns about concentrating and identifying its fighters; and
Norway, Spain and Switzerland should consider offering international experience with lessons learned on implementation of ceasefires, temporary concentrations of fighters, protected corridors, the importance of full involvement of civil society and local communities, and verification by third parties.
Bogotá/Brussels, 11 October 2007