FARC-Colombia Talks Advance and Then Halt in Havana

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos in Buenos Aires, October 29, 2010. (Agencia Brasil/Wikimedia)

Ed. note: The kidnapping of a general has halted the peace talks. read more

On Friday, November 7, President Juan Manuel Santos wrapped up a five-day diplomatic marathon for peace to the capital cities of Madrid, Brussels, Berlin, Lisbon, Paris, and London. He met with heads of state, kings, princes, and the leaders of the European Union and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), where Colombia’s membership is under consideration. Santos garnered widespread political support for Colombia’s peace process with Colombia’s largest insurgency, the FARC, and the incipient process with the ELN across the continent and across the political spectrum. He also secured promises of economic assistance from Germany and support for a post-conflict fund from the European Union.

It is not too soon to seek international support. The anticipated cost of the envisioned transformation of the Colombian countryside and reparations for Colombia’s six million victims—14 percent of the population—are daunting, and the peace process with the FARC, initiated two years ago this month, was on track. (A parallel process with the smaller ELN insurgent group remains in an exploratory phase.) The parties are now addressing simultaneously the final two remaining substantive items on the peace agenda—victims and the end of the conflict.

These transitional justice topics constitute the most emotionally charged and highly sensitive topics thus far, and the international community is following them closely. The path that is being crafted now in Havana will shape the future of peace and reconciliation in Colombia. It will determine the way the legacies of war will be addressed, the future options of any ex-combatants and militants who choose to lay down their arms, and the willingness of the international community to back the peace accords. In the meantime, Colombia is setting new precedents for peace processes around the globe.

Status of the Talks

Representatives of the Colombian government and the FARC completed their 30th round of peace talks in Havana on November 2. Among the accomplishments at the peace table in Havana, the parties have produced provisional agreements on agrarian development, political participation, and drug trafficking that they released to the public just over a month ago. While the terms of the talks are that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” if these agreements are finalized, implemented, and approved by the Colombian public, they will address the factors that gave rise to and perpetuated an internal armed conflict that has lasted half a century.

The peace negotiations are taking place in the context of an ongoing war, widespread death threats, and a continuum that produces new victims daily. Colombia’s internal armed conflict, by official figures, has produced the death of more than 220,000 Colombians (mostly civilians), the displacement of more than five million, and a litany of human rights violations including arbitrary detentions, massacres, disappearances, kidnappings, child recruitment, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced recruitment.

FARC Assume Responsibility for Their Acts

In a press conference on October 30, 2014, new ground was broken when the FARC-EP announced that they would accept responsibility for their actions in the war. Pablo Atrato, a spokesperson for the peace delegation of the FARC, stated: “We recognize explicitly that our actions have affected civilians at different moments and circumstances throughout the conflict.” Atrato also noted that “the FARC-EP will assume responsibility for whatever concerns us.” He denied that there had ever been a “systematic and deliberate policy” against civilians, and noted that the FARC-EP is committed to the principles defined in human rights and international humanitarian law for internal armed conflicts and has sanctions insurgents who cause intentional damage to the civilian population. He observed that some of the impacts may have been due to excessive use of force, involuntary error.

Although the FARC continue to deny that they have engaged in crimes against humanity, President Santos called the FARC’s recognition of its responsibilities before the civilian population “an important step for the peace process,” and noted that “we are advancing in the right direction.” (See Santos’s statement here.) Humberto de la Calle, the lead government negotiator in Havana, echoed Santos’s optimism and noted: “This recognition is an important step toward full satisfaction of the rights of the victims.”

This was not the first time that the FARC have recognized their victims, but it was the most specific to date. After the Center for Historical Memory released Enough Already: Colombia: Memories of War and Dignity (Basta Ya! Colombia: Memorias de Guerra y Dignidad) in July 2013, both the FARC and the government acknowledged acts of commission and omission in the internal armed conflict.

Discussions on Victims

The FARC-EP’s October 30 statement can be read in part as an evolution of the discussions at the peace table in Havana. In June, the parties produced a visionary declaration of principles that recognize victims’ rights to truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition and agree that the government and the FARC will not “exchange impunities.” The principles establish that the victims are both victims and citizens, and that their rights—including their right to participate in the talks and the establishment of solutions—will be central to the peace talks. The parties called on the United Nations, the National University, and the Colombian Episcopal Conference to organize four forums to convene victims throughout the country and to create a mechanism for the direct engagement of victims at the table in Havana. Through these venues, negotiators have now heard proposals from 48 victims over the course of the last four cycles and received proposals from throughout the country.

These processes have put victims at the center of the peace process, where despite political differences, divisions, and controversies, they have united around the peace process. The recent FARC statement may well be a sign that this focus on victims is having some impact, and that the victims have become a catalyst for peace.

To help determine the framework for addressing victims’ rights, and in recognition that responsibility for the conflict belongs to the state, right-wing paramilitaries, left-wing insurgents, and their backers alike, the parties also established an independent academic commission on the conflict and its victims. This commission is a precursor to a later truth commission, and its constitution before a peace accord is reached is unprecedented. The commission’s report should be ready in December.

Women have been a leading presence in the victims’ delegations. At the end of the last cycle of talks, the parties invited women’s groups to send a delegation to Havana to present their proposals directly at the table—something that women’s organizations have been requesting for some time. The parties at the table have also established a joint subcommission on gender which will review all agreements to ensure that they are gender-sensitive.

On the final substantive agenda item—the end of conflict—the parties have set up a joint subcommission to identify and reconcile differences on the issues relating to the laying down of weapons and reintegration into civil society. High-level active military leaders from both parties have been called in to participate in a variety of roles at the table. Consultants are briefing the subcommission on the models that have been developed, best practices from Colombia’s extensive history of reintegration, and from other experiences around the globe. The participation of active-duty military officers and FARC military leadership has been highly contentious back home.

Increased Polarization at Home

The path for Santos’s peace dream is not as smooth within Colombia as it appears to be in either Cuba or Europe. With Colombia’s electoral season for October 2015 just getting off the ground (mayors and governors will be elected in October 2015), a strong opposition to the talks spearheaded by former president and current senator Alvaro Uribe and his Democratic Center party, and legal and Congressional battles under way around a variety of peace-process-related issues, the climate in Colombia has become increasingly polarized. The divide between the FARC and the government may be easier to bridge than the divide between Santos and Uribe and their supporters, and a number of initiatives have been launched calling for political dialogue at home.

However, new polls show that there is solid and growing support for the peace process, with 69-70 percent favoring the talks. The Santos administration has been engaging as of late in a renewed effort to get out to the regions, and to build greater support for the process. This will be increasingly important, as endorsement by the Colombian public will be required for an agreement to be implemented. Victims’ organizations, ironically, promise to be key to assuring that peace is signed, sealed, and delivered.