Are Peace Talks in Colombia Doomed to Failure?

By Drew Lasater

The media has been optimistic in writing recently that Colombia is finally nearing the end of a long insurgency. The last decade has seen a rise in governmental capabilities and the decline in insurgent control. Since 2008 when Colombia’s military struck secret FARC bases in Ecuador, there has been a significant decline in the ability of the FARC to combat government offensives into its territory. Although the last talks ended unsuccessfully in 2001 many see this as a new effort that will breathe new life into resolving the conflict. While there is more support for the government  the populace is still divided. With the FARC seeing heavy losses in the last decade with many leaders killed and captured, there is reason to think the FARC will enter the talks as a shadow of their former selves. The government, with their renewed vigor, seems to be entering the talks with a vision of the complete dissolution of the FARC. With the recent peace talks concluded in Norway setting the Havana agenda, is there reason to assume that the conflict is finally reaching its 50-year end?  The upcoming talks in Havana will be indicative of whether the FARC uses the peace talks as a strategic maneuver or if the peace talks will have lasting and promising affect. The difficulties in the new talks are simply leftovers from past failures to find common ground, making these past effects important to the current talks.

The FARC’s fall from a position of strength began with President Alvaro Uribe’s administration. Uribe was more successful than his predecessors at combating the insurgent groups and was able to garner a large base of public support. Through this popularity, he amended the constitution in 2006 to be re-elected. While this did not work for a third term, he was still in a position to pick his predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos, who was his former defense minister.

Despite what should have been political continuity, this once unified front of the Colombian government has been showing signs of fatigue. Uribe has been very public in his denunciations of the peace talks, while Santos has had to work harder at presenting a strategy to gain public support in a persistently divided nation. Uribe supporters, entrenched in the government, are extolling a mantra of “Peace, but not at any price.” This cleavage has caused two problems:  the Santos government was set back in advancing the Havana talks, and the Uribe supporters view the actions of the FARC resisting the agenda of the talks as an effort to maximize their position. These divisions are nothing new in the FARC narrative.

History plagues these talks and it can mislead outsiders to have a false sense of optimism. It is “wise to be cautious.”  History has shown that demobilization among insurgents has led to an uneasy peace and in some cases it has turned paramilitaries’ into uncontrollable criminals.  Unfortunately, the collaboration and employment of these paramilitaries by the government has led to a general distrust of the Colombian government by the people due to indiscriminate “killing, raping, displacing, [and] torturing” that has occurred. This history is relevant when looking to the current talks with both sides calling for justice for past (and current) transgressions.

Both sides agreed to the talks in Norway with the eventual movement to Havana by mid-November. The FARC leadership claimed they were looking for a “stable and lasting peace” with the negotiations to fall into five areas:  “the end of armed conflict; land reform; guarantees for the exercise of political opposition and citizen participation; drug trafficking; and the rights of the victims of the conflict.”  These key areas are problematic as the FARC leaders have no intention of again demobilizing or discontinuing the use of arms to illicit change in the government. However, in October in a letter to “Colombians for Peace” the FARC leader, Timoleon Jimenez, “did not rule out a ceasefire.” But President Santos rejected the idea of a ceasefire as the Colombian army continues its offensive. This further displays the continuing impasse of these preliminary agreements.

The Norway talks began with demanding FARC rhetoric.  Rather than confirming their intention to disarm, Ivan Marquez called for the government to adopt the FARC Marxist ideals, despite the fact that the FARC’s negotiating position was significantly diminished.  FARC forces had dropped to a low of 8,000 fighters due to government offensives that forced them to the negotiating table. “The FARC have absolutely no right to pretend they can impose their vision at the negotiating table,” according to Kevin Hewlett, a British political analyst. Further, the FARC has failed to admit crimes against humanity and to account for missing hostages that are thought to be 500 in number. This is especially problematic for those citizens who are demanding justice even though the FARC officially renounced kidnapping in February 2012 and claimed they freed all remaining hostages. These issues notwithstanding, conversely the FARC is also publicizing their role as the victims of government sponsored paramilitaries. The slaughter of 3,000 Patriotic Union political members is cited as reason to demand better terms before they agree to disarm. These talks started out with promise but quickly devolved back to the status quo.

By the end of October, conflict between the military and FARC left three Colombian soldiers dead and six police officers were killed in an ambush that was blamed on the FARC. This is beginning to spell larger problems for the talks as the FARC publicly criticized the government for “misleading” people to think the FARC would surrender when in fact, military operations have continued on both sides. Even the ELN, the second largest insurgent group in Colombia called the talks “cheap” and “doomed to perish” giving the impression that few expect this process to bear fruit. Based on all of the evidence to the contrary it is hard to believe that the Havana peace talks will be more successful than the last.

The problem is twofold in moving the negotiations forward. The government continues to disguise its connections to former paramilitary groups that have re-emerged as new armed actors. This leads to major distrust between the government, revolutionary groups, and the citizens. The FARC contends that not only are government officials linked to these groups but many are still in positions of power in the government and have avoided prosecution. On the other side, there are the human rights violations of the FARC.  The populace, who feel that the group is now no better than a criminal enterprise, has demanded that those in leadership positions of the FARC be brought to justice. According to Human Rights Watch “human rights defenders, journalists, community leaders, teachers, trade unionists, indigenous and Afro-Colombian leaders, displaced persons’ leaders, and paramilitaries’ victims seeking land restitution or justice” are attacked each year. President Santos has improved human rights with measures such as the Victims and Land Restitution Law; however “paramilitary successor” groups are on the rise.

Guerilla groups are accused of “killings, threats, forced displacement, and recruiting and using child soldiers” while the Justice and Peace law that was supposed to bring justice to the paramilitaries has only resulted in three convictions in the six years after implementation. In terms of the government, the “parapolitics scandal” led to 120 investigations and 40 convictions of members of Congress. However, new cases keep opening and the infiltration of these armed groups into politics is ongoing. In the military there have been 77 convictions over the extrajudicial killings involving 2,788 victims. Other violations include the National Intelligence Service and violence against both trade unionists and human rights defenders by multiple actors. With all of these current illegal activities and the multitude of actors on both sides being implicit in these crimes there is only one way to improve the possibility of peace talk success.

There is reason to argue that at this point that broader involvement from the international community is necessary. Due to the seemingly irresolvable human rights violations by all sides, including the complicity of the Colombian government, it is time for human rights violations to be tried by the ICC. While the Colombian abuses are on a lower scale than Rwanda or Yugoslavia they are no less violent, have been long term, and have continually spilled into other countries (see ICJ case between Ecuador and Colombia). The ICC could serve as an impartial judicial body in Colombia, holding tribunals and investigations for everyone involved in human right abuses. There needs to be broad accountability from all government and illegal armed actors, who have caused great despair and hopelessness among people caught in the violence. This cycle of impunity has to be broken but the Colombian government has shown its judiciary is limited in their capabilities. Such measures are the only way to protect against selective punishment, which imperils any peace accord. The government would do well to invite in the multiple human rights, justice, and peacekeeping arms of the U.N. and focus its energies on continuing to address the structural inequalities that are at the root of the conflict.  The U.S. needs to reduce its role in the country as well during this time. The U.S., in collaboration with the Colombian government, is no longer trusted to be impartial. The best role for the U. S. would be to encourage the involvement by the U.N. It may be necessary to station for peacekeepers in the country to help promote disarmament until the trials can help slow down the conflict. These options are extreme but at this point the opportunities for peace are diminishing further protracting a long conflict.

Peace talks have been a common feature in the strife between the revolutionary insurgents in Colombia and the government. While there is plenty of blame to be assessed to both sides it is hard to imagine a situation where one group would concede wrongdoing before the other. The FARC feel they have the higher purpose of acting to protect and serve the impoverished and marginalized people forgotten by the state. The government asserts they have democratic legitimacy with their higher purpose to bring peace to the state and security to the people.  This impasse has been the status quo for 50 years. Given a history of ineffective talks, ongoing violence and impunity, it will take a new approach to bring a new level of cooperation.  Havana is the next opportunity for a new direction but with the lack of cooperation at the onset of these talks there is little room for blind optimism.  It is time to include the international community.

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Drew Lasater is a second year Masters candidate at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations specializing in Foreign Policy Analysis and International Economics and Development

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