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On Thinner Ice: The Final Phase of Colombia’s Peace Talks
On Thinner Ice: The Final Phase of Colombia’s Peace Talks
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Security and Electoral Perils for Colombia’s Peace Accord
Security and Electoral Perils for Colombia’s Peace Accord
Workers prepare a banner that reads “dialogues of peace" prior to a conference of victims of the Colombian armed conflict in Havana, on 16 August 2014. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

On Thinner Ice: The Final Phase of Colombia’s Peace Talks

Recent advances have given Colombia’s peace talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) a much-needed respite, but, amid an escalation of violence, the risks of an involuntary collapse are real. Saving the process requires conflict de-escalation, swift progress on the agenda and rallying popular support.

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I. Overview

The peace talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) enter their toughest stretch both vulnerable and resilient. The former quality was displayed on 22 May, when the collapse of the guerrillas’ five-month old unilateral ceasefire triggered the worst escalation of violence in years. Evidence for the latter came two weeks later, when negotiators ended a year’s drought without major advances by agreeing to establish a truth commission. A separate agreement on reparations also appeared to edge closer. Yet, despite the advances, the talks are on thinner ice than ever. To get them safe to land, the parties must return to an effective de-escalation path, one that moves toward a definitive bilateral ceasefire, once negotiations on the crucial transitional justice issue are sufficiently consolidated. Such gradualism is the best bet to protect the process from unravelling in violence, flagging public support and deep political rifts.

Even if neither side considers abandoning the talks, the broader environment has risks. Ongoing violence causes new humanitarian emergencies, emboldens spoilers and strengthens hardliners. With political patience increasingly thin, it would take only a spark to suspend the process or trigger its break-up. Even anticipating an early reparations agreement, negotiators face highly contentious, interconnected issues, including judicial accountability for serious international crimes committed by both sides, a bilateral ceasefire and final agreement ratification. Sharply-contested local elections in October could further weaken the centre ground upon which a durable peace agreement will need to rest.

Manoeuvring the talks through these perils defies easy fixes. Calls for acceleration or a deadline have grown louder. With business as usual no longer an option, the parties should consider ways to move more vigorously, including by splitting the discussions on victims and transitional justice into smaller, partial agreements, adopting a more compact calendar and involving international partners more closely. But acceleration for its own sake has risks. Hastily hammering out a deal might satisfy political demands, but the resulting accord could easily be impossible to implement and of limited effectiveness. The measured pace reflects real problems, including internal tensions on both sides and an adverse political environment. With the parties already struggling to ratify and start implementing the final agreements before President Santos’ term ends in 2018, a deadline would add little and could throw the process into limbo if missed.

The escalating violence has also intensified calls for an immediate, bilateral ceasefire. This would eliminate the threats ongoing hostilities pose, but the time for it has not yet come. A consensus on what such a ceasefire might look like is still not on the horizon, and, as the breakdown of FARC’s unilateral truce shows, a definitive end of hostilities will not be viable if the mechanisms and protocols to sustain it are not fully accepted by both leaderships. Meanwhile, even if the parties could swiftly agree on these, there are few signs the arrangement could be quickly implemented. Neither the government nor FARC will likely be able to accept the costs of a definitive end of the hostilities while vital concerns are still being negotiated. A bilateral ceasefire will probably only become realistic after there is an agreement on the transitional justice framework.

The first step out of the present difficulty should be more modest. The parties urgently need to halt the escalation of hostilities, starting by showing maximum battlefield restraint, including strict respect for international humanitarian law. This should be accompanied by a new push for bilateral de-escalation, including broadening the demining scheme and exploring the space for discreet, reciprocal hostility reduction. Joint de-escalation would give the negotiators room and foster the mutual trust required to sustain an eventual bilateral ceasefire. Simultaneously, the parties should accelerate technical talks in Havana on the “end of the conflict”, so as to elaborate a proposal for implementing an early bilateral ceasefire after a transitional justice agreement. That ceasefire will need to include both some form of regional concentration of FARC and international monitoring; full cantonment and the “leaving behind of weapons” (disarmament) should follow ratification of the final agreements.

Such an early but not immediate bilateral ceasefire would make it easier to accelerate the process, enabling the parties to save time by starting to implement some agenda issues, while leaving others to the broader political process, including the truth commission. Importantly, it would also help the process put out much deeper political roots. The government has real scope for more consistent, convincing messages, while international community backing will remain vital amid crumbling domestic support. But overcoming widespread disengagement, scepticism and indifference is hard as long as hostilities continue. A ceasefire would create new possibilities to broaden the talks’ political base. At a late stage, this could include moving them, or parts of them, from Cuba to Colombia.

Amid new violence and deflating political support, it is easy to forget what has been achieved. Negotiators have made substantial headway on the conflict’s root causes and main effects. More than three years of confidential and public talks have built a shared sense that the transition is possible. Rather than overhauling what works well, leveraging these gains and strengths is the most promising way forward.

Bogotá /Brussels, 2 July 2015

Security and Electoral Perils for Colombia’s Peace Accord

Growing distrust of Colombia’s outgoing government combined with deteriorating security in rural areas is undermining faith in the country’s peace accord. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to engage with opposition leaders to discuss the costs of ditching the deal.

This commentary on security and electoral perils for Colombia's peace accord is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2018.

Colombia’s 2018 presidential and congressional elections can be understood in part as a second plebiscite on the government’s peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and a crucial test of that deal’s resilience. Although voters narrowly rejected the accord in October 2016, it was then amended to include opposition proposals and approved two months later by Congress.

The outgoing government of President Juan Manuel Santos (who is ineligible to run for a third term) is deeply unpopular. High-level corruption scandals within both the government and the judiciary, as well as anaemic economic growth, have eroded not only Santos’ support, but the legitimacy of the political system as a whole. Partly as a result, about 30 contenders have entered the presidential race, the majority campaigning as independents outside formal political party structures. Opinion polls reveal highly fragmented voting preferences revolving around a group of six to eight main candidates. Sergio Fajardo, a centre-left former mayor who supports the peace agreement, has been leading the polls, followed by Iván Duque, from former President Álvaro Uribe’s party, who staunchly opposes it. Far-left candidate Gustavo Petro and right-wing Germán Vargas Lleras, in favour of and against the peace accord, respectively, are jostling for third place, although the latter has the advantage of a large patronage network.

The peace deal may be the dominant issue in a possible second round of presidential voting. Government supporters rightly point to the accord’s achievements: the FARC’s handover of arms and the establishment of a new, legal political party by guerrillas. Most importantly, violence has clearly decreased since peace talks began in 2012. But implementation of the rest of the agreement has advanced more slowly than expected in a climate of guerrilla mistrust and opposition hostility. Former combatants doubt the government’s commitment and ability to make new institutions effective, or pass about 30 more laws needed to implement the agreement. The government had only been able to get the Congress to approve ten of them by the end of 2017. Congressional resistance to the agreement, above all its transitional justice provisions, has grown with the approach of legislative elections in March 2018.

Following the FARC’s demobilisation, the army, navy and police were expected to quickly establish state presence and stabilise territories where the guerrillas had operated for decades. Instead, other armed groups have seized the opportunity to establish control over rural communities and criminal rackets.

Disappointment with the peace agreement is understandable given the scope of its ambitions. It promised to resolve the underlying causes of the five-decade war through rural reform, offer redress for victims through transitional justice, open up the political system and introduce incentives to reduce cultivation of illicit crops. Following the FARC’s demobilisation, the army, navy and police were expected to quickly establish state presence and stabilise territories where the guerrillas had operated for decades. Instead, other armed groups have seized the opportunity to establish control over rural communities and criminal rackets. These groups are suspected in most of the 170 killings of community leaders during 2017.

These groups include the remaining guerrilla force, the National Liberation Army (ELN), present mainly along the Venezuelan border and Pacific coast; approximately ten FARC dissident fronts in several regions; and armed bands linked exclusively to drug trafficking activities, such as the Gaitán Self-Defence Forces (AGC), based principally in the north-western Urabá region. In Tumaco, a poor city in south-west Colombia and a hub for cocaine exports via the Pacific, three FARC dissident groups are vying for control, killing suspected rivals or anyone refusing to make extortion payments. Twelve people were murdered there in the first three days of January 2018, most of them killed along main roads in broad daylight.

Challenges to implementing the accord

To implement the peace accords in coming months, authorities face three main challenges: providing security in many rural areas, reintegrating former FARC fighters and convincing farmers to substitute licit for illicit crops.

The government initially planned to improve security with mobile army and police operations, but this half-measure allowed armed groups simply to retreat and wait for state forces to leave. The army announced a new plan in December 2017 (Plan Orus) that would send security forces on a permanent basis to over 500 prioritised villages throughout the country.

In the meantime, peace negotiations with the ELN have been hampered by lack of trust at the negotiating table and a general atmosphere of public scepticism or apathy. The government recently reshuffled its negotiating team to speed up progress, though attacks by the ELN on other armed groups have undermined public support for talks. On 9 January, the ELN failed to extend the ceasefire in place since October, and resumed a campaign of violence including oil pipeline bombings, kidnappings and the killing of members of state forces, principally in the eastern department of Arauca. Efforts to renegotiate the ceasefire are now afoot.

Meanwhile, former FARC fighters must be reintegrated into society to prevent them from reverting to organised violence, but the process has advanced at a snail’s pace. There is still no national reintegration plan, which means that progress generally depends on the initiative of local FARC commanders. There is also no national-level education program for former fighters, except one financed and implemented by the international community. Part of the government would prefer to shift FARC ex-combatants into the highly successful individual reintegration program, which has been used previously for demobilised paramilitary combatants and guerrilla deserters. The FARC, however, wants to pursue a collective integration model, as outlined under the accords. It has set up an economic cooperative, but still has not put any business projects into action.

The government is beginning to implement the peace agreement’s crop substitution program, which provides farmers who stop growing coca with up to $12,000 in financial and technical assistance. Some 123,000 coca-growing families have signed agreements to take part in the program, including about 30,000 who have already received their first financial assistance payment. But the program requires funding beyond what the Colombian state is likely to provide: it would cost about $2 billion to offer assistance to 170,000 families. For international donors, including the EU, to support this program, robust donor coordination around its objectives and methods will be crucial.

Crop substitution should allow the state to establish a presence and legitimacy in remote rural areas. But the effort is undermined by continued forced eradication, which reduces cultivation only temporarily. These coercive efforts sparked protests in Guaviare and Catatumbo in September 2017, and violent clashes in Tumaco, where police reportedly killed seven farmers in October. Neither effort appears to be curbing coca production, which is booming. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, there were 146,000 hectares under cultivation in 2016, up from 96,000 in 2015.

Recommendations

Given an electorate that remains divided over the 2016 peace agreement, Colombia may elect a leader in 2018 who opposes implementing the accord in whole or in part. Avoiding such a scenario depends on, first, whether the government can communicate peace dividends to a predominantly urban society unaffected in recent years by conflict; second, whether the FARC accepts transitional justice mechanisms in good faith; and, third, whether pro-peace agreement candidates are able to address other public concerns, especially corruption.

The EU and its member states have long supported Colombia’s peace process, both financially, through the EU Trust Fund for Colombia, and diplomatically, with the EU special envoy. It now needs to adjust to a more adverse political climate. EU engagement with opposition leaders, highlighting the costs of not implementing the accord, would be important, as would EU readiness to adapt its financial support to shore up those parts of the accord that risk being neglected or downplayed by a new government.

Peace talks with the ELN in Quito have so far advanced little and are now at a standstill, which means the next president could halt the process without incurring much political cost. For negotiations to progress, the ceasefire needs to be renegotiated and preferably last at least until the presidential elections. Of the eleven countries accompanying the process as guarantors or “friends”, four are EU members: Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden. They should use their influence to encourage the ELN – which appreciates the legitimacy they bestow on the talks – to negotiate a new and improved ceasefire. A complete cessation of violence by the ELN might also shift Colombian opinion in favour of the process and prompt the next government pressured to continue it.

EU engagement with opposition leaders, highlighting the costs of not implementing the accord, would be important, as would EU readiness to adapt its financial support to shore up those parts of the accord that risk being neglected or downplayed by a new government.

Lastly, the Colombian government has considered creating “judicial submission” processes. These would allow other armed groups – such as the neo-paramilitary Gaitán Self-Defence Forces, which has offered to lay down its arms and imposed a unilateral ceasefire with surprising levels of compliance – to surrender to the courts in exchange for more lenient sentences and, potentially, development programs for the regions in which they were based. Congress has yet to draft and pass a law for the voluntary surrender of such groups, which would have to be flexible enough to fit each one’s particular internal hierarchy and interests, while also guaranteeing improved security and economic conditions in the areas where these groups operate.

Colombia has endured armed conflict since 1948. It still has the opportunity to make historic advances toward peace by implementing the agreement with the FARC; negotiating with the ELN; and creating a “judicial submission” process acceptable to other armed groups. But to do so, it needs international support, including EU resources and diplomatic engagement. This will be especially important in 2018, when Colombians will cast votes in elections that could determine whether and how the peace process survives.