Hostages for Prisoners: A Way to Peace in Colombia?
Hostages for Prisoners: A Way to Peace in Colombia?
Table of Contents
  1. Overview

Hostages for Prisoners: A Way to Peace in Colombia?

In February 2004, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the major insurgent group, announced creation of a three-member negotiation commission and a "diplomatic offensive" aimed at obtaining the release of hundreds of its imprisoned members in exchange for about 60 military and political hostages it holds.

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I. Overview

In February 2004, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the major insurgent group, announced creation of a three-member negotiation commission and a "diplomatic offensive" aimed at obtaining the release of hundreds of its imprisoned members in exchange for about 60 military and political hostages it holds. This has raised hope among the relatives of hostages and kidnap victims that a "humanitarian exchange" could happen in the not too distant future.[fn]Throughout this briefing a distinction will be made between hostages (policemen, soldiers and politicians captured by the armed groups) and kidnap victims (civilians held for ransom). Strictly speaking, the concept of a "hostages/prisoners release or swap" refers only to a relatively few policemen, soldiers and politicians, on the one hand, and FARC prisoners on the other and excludes a large number of individuals ("civilians") kidnapped by the insurgents not because they were of military or political value but because ransoms could be demanded for them.Hide Footnote

Several prominent Colombians, such as former Presidents Alfonso López, Ernesto Samper, and Julio César Turbay and former Public Prosecutor Jaime Bernal, have backed the idea and offered specific proposals for how it could happen and whom it should include.

While continuing to insist that there will be no release of FARC prisoners without strong conditionality, President Alvaro Uribe's government has dropped earlier demands that a ceasefire and peace negotiations precede any discussion of hostages. Nevertheless, it remains opposed to exchanging hostages for prisoners and rules out establishing demilitarised zones for that purpose. It contends that in any mutual release, the FARC must free all those detained, not just political or military hostages, who are a minority.

Earlier Colombian governments have agreed to similar exchanges, some believing they would be the precursors of more substantive negotiations, others that the release of even a limited number of hostages merited the risk involved in freeing captured guerrillas.

Colombia's Catholic Church has been playing an important facilitation role for a possible "humanitarian exchange" in recent months. It is the only national institution in continuous direct contact with the FARC since Uribe took office in August 2002. The insurgents are apparently interested in such mediation,[fn]ICG interview, Bogotá, 18 February 2004.Hide Footnote  and the government seems to have authorised this provided that negotiations for a limited hostages/prisoners swap are seen as a first step towards freeing all victims -- including those abducted for ransom.[fn]ICG interviews, Bogotá, 18 February, 5 March 2004.Hide Footnote  The hope is that success on the humanitarian issue might open a window for peace talks.

This briefing examines the desirability, feasibility and political implications of a release or swap of hostages/ prisoners under conditions of ongoing fighting.

While acknowledging the need for caution, ICG concludes that a well-designed negotiation strategy could lead to freeing of the hostages and kidnap victims in the medium-term. Lack of immediate progress on the latter should not be an absolute bar to proceeding with the former.

The Uribe administration needs to approach the issue with strategic vision, identifying and defining the purpose a hostages/prisoners swap would serve. Engaging the FARC in talks about such a swap can be justified if it leads to wider political negotiations to terminate the conflict, with the early release of kidnap victims and an end to kidnapping being key elements in that process.

While any engagement on the swap issue -- involving as it would some de facto recognition of the FARC as a political actor -- will not be easy for the government, it would open a spectrum of possibilities for it to establish conditions for wider forward movement. By taking back the initiative on the humanitarian debate, the government would strengthen its political stance in the ongoing struggle with the FARC.

Similar logic applies with regard to the smaller ELN insurgency, which holds fewer prisoners but may be more willing to meet government conditions because it is militarily weaker and has lately been more receptive to releases.[fn]In November and December 2003, the ELN unconditionally released eight foreigners it had kidnapped in the Sierra Nevada region in September.Hide Footnote

International actors such as the UN, the U.S. and the EU should assist the Uribe administration to move this way, with the goal of building on the immediate humanitarian issue to advance the longer term agenda of a negotiated resolution of the conflict.

Bogotá/Brussels, 8 March 2004

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