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Colombia Peace Process: Lurching Backwards
Colombia Peace Process: Lurching Backwards
Shaping the Peace Process in Colombia
Shaping the Peace Process in Colombia

Colombia Peace Process: Lurching Backwards

Colombia’s peace process faces its most serious crisis yet, after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) suspended a five month old unilateral ceasefire. Instead of more measures to de-escalate the conflict ahead of a final peace agreement, there are now new risks that the confrontation will escalate, causing fresh humanitarian damage, crippling trust between the parties and further weakening public support for the process.

FARC´s decision came on the heels of a military air and ground operation against a guerrilla camp in the southwestern municipality of Guapí (Cauca), which killed at least 26 fighters. Details have remained scarce, but according to official information, the attack was part of ongoing operations against drug-trafficking and illegal mining activities in which the FARC’s 29th front has long been involved. This event came only five weeks after a FARC ambush in the same region, which killed eleven soldiers and prompted President Santos to revoke an earlier suspension of aerial bombardments.

The scale of the losses arguably left FARC little other choice than to call off the ceasefire. Its leadership, many of which are now part of the negotiation team in safe Havana, has already come under pressure from combatants in Colombia who have remained exposed to offensive operations by the security forces. The suspension of the ceasefire is a costly move for the already highly unpopular guerrillas, but showing no decisive reaction might have seriously impaired their control and command abilities.

Shared Responsibilities

FARC have blamed the “incoherence” of the government for the end of ceasefire. This is disingenuous. The guerrillas have used the unilateral measure not just as a humanitarian gesture or a way to shore up political support but also as an instrument to pressure the Santos administration into an early bilateral ceasefire, despite being aware of the strong resistance to this idea within the government, significant parts of public opinion and, last but not least, the security forces. They have also failed to halt drug-trafficking and other criminal activities, including extortion, thus undermining the credibility of their ceasefire pledge.

But questions remain regarding the government’s handling of the situation. Security forces are doubtless entitled to carry out strikes against guerrilla camps. But military leaders should have anticipated that an operation which easily counts among the bloodiest against FARC in the last five years risked forcing guerrillas into giving up their ceasefire, with potentially significant negative implications for the entire peace process. In a speech on 22 May, Santos sounded the right tone when he expressed grief about the deaths of the FARC members. Yet the high number of casualties and the fact that the attack was against the regional structure that is held responsible for the April ambush have also given the entire operation unhelpful overtones of revenge.

Looking Forward

Dragging the talks out of this hole will not be straightforward. FARC have repeated their call for a bilateral ceasefire. But that remains a highly unlikely ambition. If anything, skepticism towards silencing the weapons before a final deal has grown. Negotiations on a formal bilateral ceasefire, underpinned by a robust and independent verification mechanism, are underway, but an agreement on this point is probably months away. In the meantime, the parties should consider the following steps to bring the process back on track.

  • First, as bilateral hostilities are about to resume, both parties need to show maximum restraint on the battlefield. In particular, they will need to strictly protect the civilian population and abstain from disproportionate attacks, in an effort to maintain, as much as possible, recent humanitarian gains and prevent public support for the process from falling even further. FARC must also ban planting new land mines and refrain from attacking energy infrastructure, one of its most frequently used offensive operations.
  • Second, the parties will need to ring-fence the negotiations from this new conflict dynamic. Preliminary agreements on rural development, political participation and the problem of illegal drugs need to be preserved and completed, and complemented by similar achievements in the talks on the “end of the conflict” and transitional justice, the last two points of the agenda. The announcement that negotiations will continue as planned on Saturday (23 May) is a positive early sign in this regard.
  • Third, the parties will need to redouble efforts to demonstrate concrete progress. With discussion on transitional justice moving slowly, this should entail a new push to implement conflict de-escalation measures, including a joint humanitarian demining scheme agreed on earlier this year.

Despite the setbacks of the last few weeks, the government and the FARC leadership appear to remain firmly committed to reaching a deal, not least because a collapse would be very costly for either side. The shared interest in a successful peace process is a strong base from which the parties can reset and relaunch the negotiations, ideally with the support of the trusted guarantor countries, Cuba and Norway. In April, we warned against the risks of an involuntary breakup over military escalation or a political backlash. As is clear now, such dangers can no longer be ignored.


Peasants from Colombia’s south west march in favour of the the peace agreement after the plebiscite, in Bogotá, Colombia. Kyle Johnson

Shaping the Peace Process in Colombia

Colombia’s 2016 peace accord was a spectacular breakthrough after five decades of war. It was also an outcome Crisis Group helped work for during 15 years of Bogotá-based research and advocacy, including 36 reports and briefings, 91 op-eds and commentaries and more than 500 meetings with all parties.

Peace talks started between the Colombian government and the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2012, an outcome International Crisis Group had helped work toward for a decade. Our ideas fed directly into the 2016 peace agreement, and helped resolve the difficult tension between securing both justice and peace.

When Crisis Group began work in Colombia in 2002, the conflict between the government and FARC guerrillas was entering its fifth decade. The latest attempt at negotiations had just collapsed, giving way to a tough military approach under President Álvaro Uribe. This policy prioritised security gains at the expense of addressing the conflict’s root causes – frequently with disastrous results for civilians caught up in the violence.

We also sounded the alarm for emerging threats. Our 2004 report on the regional dimension of Colombia’s counter-insurgency policies was prescient in warning that the conflict could spill over the country´s borders. Four years later this danger materialised, causing a major Andean diplomatic crisis and threats of war between Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.

A new impetus for peace came in 2010 with the election of President Juan Manuel Santos, who signalled his ambition to find a negotiated end to the conflict and address its root causes. Crisis Group seized the moment to lay out possible negotiation paths. A high-level government contact was among Colombian and U.S. officials who praised our early report laying out this new agenda – President Santos’s Conflict Resolution Opportunity – saying that Bogotá used a number of our recommendations in initial informal talks with the FARC.

“The analysis of the International Crisis Group on Colombia constitutes an important source of reference that helps us better understand our reality, as well as how to sensitively address key issues such as progress and obstacles on human rights, and the enormous challenges of comprehensive victims’ care in our country”. Angelino Garzon, Vice President of Colombia, February 2011

FARC fighters stand in formation in Cauca, Colombia. Kyle Johnson, Senior Analyst for Columbia.

In September 2012, as formal peace talks opened in Havana, Cuba, our report Colombia: Peace at Last? summarised our private advocacy and quickly became a reference point for media and public debates. In one meeting, a top-level Colombian official brandished his copy of the report, with parts of it underlined: our analysis of post-conflict security risks was of great interest, he said, especially when it pressed for particular care over the reintegration of mid-level FARC commanders.

Arguably the most difficult part of the peace talks still had to be negotiated: accountability for devastating crimes carried out by guerrillas and state operatives in a decades-long conflict that killed some 220,000 people and displaced seven million more. Justice was crucial for a sustainable peace, but the prospect of lengthy prison sentences could easily deter the FARC from agreeing to lay down arms.

“Crisis Group’s work is “useful and objective”. Pablo Catatumbo, FARC negotiator, June 2016.

Crisis Group could combine intimate knowledge of the Colombian conflict with decades of transitional justice expertise: our then President Louise Arbour was previously UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Chief Prosecutor of war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and our Latin America Program Director Javier Ciurlizza had served both civil society and government sides of truth and reconciliation processes in his native Peru and four other countries. We did extensive field work on victims’ experiences and expectations, local transitional justice initiatives and the national and international legal context and standards for victims’ rights. Our conclusion: a strong emphasis on judicial prosecution for the most serious crimes committed by all parties to the conflict needed to be accompanied by some kind of amnesty for lesser crimes.

Though controversial, we decided to propose a comprehensive model of transitional justice, including an amnesty for political crimes and “effective restriction of liberty” sentences for lower-ranking FARC perpetrators under conditions linked to reconciliation. These elements would be accompanied by an independent truth commission and grassroots initiatives for truth-seeking and truth-telling, and a commitment to comprehensive reparation for victims.

We published these recommendations in Transitional Justice and Colombia’s Peace Talks (August 2013), accompanied by intense advocacy with the government and FARC. Louise Arbour met with President Santos, former President Uribe (the principal opponent of the peace talks), and the government’s chief negotiator in Havana, Sergio Jaramillo. We discussed our proposed solution across Colombian society, including the victims’ groups and activists we had consulted throughout our research. We argued in Washington DC for U.S. support for the peace deal, and engaged key actors in Oslo, The Hague, London and Brussels. President Santos publicly cited our analysis and messages, including in a speech at the UN General Assembly in September 2013. In March 2014, Louise Arbour was consulted by the Colombian government’s Advisory Panel on the peace talks.

After many months of contentious debate, Crisis Group’s proposals on transitional justice emerged as one of the basic building blocks of the breakthrough agreement on transitional justice that the parties reached on 23 September 2015. Several elements ­directly mirrored Crisis Group recommendations, above all regarding the distinction between the most serious wartime crimes and lesser crimes ­liable for amnesty, as well as the selection system for judges in the Special Juris­diction for Peace. President Santos cited Crisis Group’s statement on and analysis of the transitional justice agreement while presenting it to the Colombian public.

“Crisis Group’s reports are the “most detailed, realistic and useful” analysis available to delegations at peace talks in Havana. Oscar Naranjo, Colombia’s peace negotiator and post-conflict minister, September 2013.

The peace deal was signed on 26 September 2016 at an emotional ceremony in the Colombian port of Cartagena as fourteen Latin American presidents looked on. Just days later, however, the process suffered a terrible shock. In a referendum on the final agreement, Colombians rejected it by a margin of 0.5 per cent, and with a turnout of only 37 per cent.

The entire peace process hung in the balance, even if the “no” vote was partly a reflection of the government’s general unpopularity. Crisis Group kicked into action, advocating a renegotiation of the agreement with the government and FARC, the opposition and international actors, and identifying ways to mobilise popular support for it. The two sides were already deeply committed to making peace work, leading to a new deal signed in late November and approved by the Colombian congress shortly thereafter.

Despite many uncertainties in late 2016, the FARC-government ceasefire mostly held. Crisis Group continues to press ideas for smooth implementation of the deal, including, for instance, overcoming delays in the FARC handover of weapons, and reducing violence in rural and urban areas. Our analysts are now focused on the next step: advancing the newly-opened peace process with Colombia’s second traditional guerrilla group, the ELN.