Confidence in the Air as Colombia Peace Talks Resume

The Colombian government and the rebel group FARC returned to the negotiating table in Havana on August 20 for their 40th cycle of peace talks. In mid-July, I wrote on the considerable progress being made, and there has been a flurry of activities since.

When the 38th cycle closed on July 12, following the most violent period seen since the beginning of peace talks in 2012, the Colombian government and the FARC peace delegations issued a joint statement committing themselves to a new dual strategy that would hasten a final peace accord in Havana on the one hand, and deescalate the conflict in Colombia on the other.

Humberto de la Calle, lead negotiator for the government, emphasized the relationship between what happens in Havana and at home. He noted, “As the talks take on a new dynamic, so too will the deescalation measures.”

President Santos has linked consideration of a bilateral definitive ceasefire specifically to progress at the table on the issue of justice. In an interview on August 8, he said, “If we solidify the accord on justice, we might be able to agree on the bilateral, definitive ceasefire and cessation of hostilities.  … We are approaching the end of the conflict.”

The government has been clear that the deescalation measures do not constitute a bilateral ceasefire. De la Calle explained, “The ceasefire should be studied and it is a part of the expediting process, but that is a later stage, with its own characteristics. The purpose of deescalation is to reduce the intensity of the confrontation, create an environment of trust between the parties, and seek greater support from the Colombian people in the sense that peace is actually possible.”

In their joint statement on July 12, the government and FARC negotiators agreed to take stock of the results of their deescalation measures and advances at the table in four months’ time. President Santos announced that, at that time, “depending on whether the FARC fulfills [its promises], I will make the decision as to whether or not we continue with the process.”

Given that the FARC has long been pushing for a bilateral ceasefire and that the government is anxious to finalize agreements on the transitional justice issues currently on the agenda, the linking of these two issues is a creative way to accelerate progress at the peace table. Some of the same challenges however remain in terms of the lack of verification mechanisms for the ceasefire and the need to establish transitional protocols for dealing with actions that might be interpreted as the FARC violating its unilateral ceasefire or military or military forces provoking FARC troops in the field.

The 39th round of talks began July 23 and ended August 2, and there seemed to be a renewal of confidence in the peace process, spawned by the parties’ expressed willingness to accelerate the pace in Havana and to deescalate the violence in Colombia. The unilateral ceasefire and the suspension of the bombings, FARC lead negotiator Iván Márquez noted, “unleashed this new ambiance of confidence that has allowed the talks to speed up and to advance new consensuses.”

During the 39th round:

  • The parties produced a report on the joint de-mining project underway in Antioquia with the Colombian Army and the FARC;
  • Peace delegation members in Havana were reinforced with new team members and advisors;
  • Discussions moved forward on preliminary agreements for an integrated approach to truth, justice, reparations and non-repetition; and
  • Work of the technical subcommission for ending the conflict continued to refine strategies for a final bilateral ceasefire and cessation of hostilities.

Pope Explores Potential Role at the Peace Table

In early August, Mons. Luis Augusto Castro, the head of the Colombian Bishops’ Conference, announced that members of the church leadership would travel to Havana to assess the support that the Pope and the Vatican might provide to the peace process. The upcoming visit of Pope Francis to Cuba on September 19-22 on his way to the United States offers a potential opportunity for direct engagement with the parties at the peace table. Pope Francis will be the third pope to visit Cuba and his trip is a primarily seen as a way to recognize the improved US-Cuba relationship and the role that the Vatican and the Pope played in the 18 months of secret negotiations that contributed to that improvement.

While the Vatican announced last week that there are no scheduled meetings for the Pope to meet with the FARC, many Colombians are hoping that the visit to Cuba will offer an opportunity for him to lend concrete support to the peace process. In this regard, members of the Colombian church, lead by Mons. Augusto Castro, traveled to Havana in mid-August to meet with the parties and discuss possibilities for engagement.

Civil Society Demands Inclusion

While Havana negotiators have debated the details of the agenda in relative isolation, civil society has continued to make known its desire to be more regularly engaged in the process, including at the peace tables themselves. On August 12, Todd Howland, Colombia representative of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, called on the parties to invite authorities of the indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities to the talks in order to guarantee the vision and collective rights of these communities.

Inputs in the form of letters, conferences, publications, and recommendations continue to be generated and express the particular interests and concerns of different sectors and regions of Colombia. Victims’ groups, obviously, are particularly interested in ensuring that their rights are not slighted at the table. On July 30, family members of victims of disappearance and kidnapping that form part of the NGO Fundación País Libre sent a letter to the government and FARC negotiators with some new inputs and a caution that if their needs are not met, they will not hesitate to seek remedies in international arenas. The victims called for a transitional justice process that guarantees victims’ rights and called on the parties to strengthen the institutional structures that provide human rights protections.

International Support for Peace Talks

Just before the 39th round ended, on July 29, the Chairwoman and Whip of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus of the US Congress wrote to President Santos  to congratulate him and his administration for “the vision and leadership you have demonstrated in seeking a negotiated settlement to end Colombia’s decades-long struggle with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).” They urged President Santos to “ensure that the final accords satisfy the needs of victims of all armed actors to truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees that the violence of the past will not return.”

A few days later, 65 Democratic legislators wrote to US Secretary of State John Kerry, underscoring how important it is that the Colombians reach an agreement to end the last internal armed conflict in Latin America. They welcomed the July 12 agreement to speed up the schedule and conclude negotiations, and urged support for a just solution, reparations for the victims, and an “inclusive” agreement that considers the needs of the marginalized sectors most affected by the decades-long conflict–women, Afro and indigenous populations, campesino organizations, and the millions of internally displaced Colombians.

Opportunities for international support continue to be forthcoming. Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguín, who joined the Colombian government’s negotiating team last May, announced recently that she would be seeking some 170 international agreements for peace and the post-conflict on themes such as de-mining, land restitution, economic development, agriculture and fishing projects, reconciliation, and peace education.

This article was originally published on Colombia Calls.