After the Guns Fall Silent

Global Centre Stage

Adam Isacson insists that Colombia’s peace process is succeeding, and that is why it will need help from India and the rest of the international community.

That sentence, spoken by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on January 15, is one that many Colombians, and Colombia-watchers, were unsure they would ever hear. After 50 years of bloodshed, Colombia’s guns – many of them, anyway – are close to falling silent.

The Americas’ fourth most populous country, Colombia has been in a state of almost continuous internal conflict since 1948, and has been facing the current array of Marxist guerrilla groups since 1964. (They are the 8,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, currently involved in negotiations, and the 2,000-member National Liberation Army, or ELN, with whom talks have not formally begun). Add a variety of drug cartels and pro-government paramilitary militias that have come and gone during this period, and very few Colombians alive today can remember what it was like to live in a country at peace.

President Santos’s declaration came a month after the FARC declared its own unilateral cease-fire. This, the fourth time since 1982 that the government and FARC have tried to negotiate, is beginning to look like the real thing.

‘Home Stretch’?

More than two years since the official launch of talks in Havana, Cuba, Colombia’s peace process is moving. With Norway and Cuba serving as guarantor states, the talks’ negotiating agenda foresaw five areas on which the Centre-Right government and far-Left guerrillas would seek agreement. The long-time antagonists have now approved draft accords on three of those items (rural economy, political participation, and drug policy), are far along on a fourth (conflict victims), and have begun to take steps on the last (decommissioning and transitional justice).

Getting here hasn’t been easy, and the process has proceeded more slowly than most Colombians would prefer. But today is the most optimistic moment through which the talks have passed, and scepticism is waning.

Surprisingly, optimism accelerated after November, when the FARC captured an army general who had wandered into their midst, the first time guerrillas had ever held a captive of that rank. Instead of driving the peace process off a cliff, this crisis ended up strengthening it: the FARC—known in the past for holding military captives for over 10 years—quickly released the general, dispelling doubts about its commitment to the negotiations.

It is reasonable to expect Colombia’s government and the FARC to reach a historic peace accord sometime in 2015. Getting there, though, won’t be easy. Though political leaders have begun using the term ‘home stretch’ to describe the dialogues’ status, the negotiators have saved some of the toughest issues for last.

Negotiation Challenges

First, they must agree about what a ceasefire entails. Until January 15, President Santos had refused the FARC’s repeated calls for a ceasefire. Santos (and Colombia’s armed forces that, despite formal civilian control, can derail the talks if they oppose them openly) argued that guerrillas had taken advantage of past processes to strengthen themselves militarily, and insisted on fighting until the talks had reached, or nearly reached, an accord.

Instead, with a final accord still many months away, a bilateral truce is on the table. Now, the parties must answer thorny questions. Will there be verification of the ceasefire, and by whom? Must the FARC concentrate its forces? Can Colombian forces go after dissident FARC members or carry out arrest warrants? Must the FARC cease child recruitment, laying landmines, extortion, and other practices that have made it deeply unpopular in Colombia?

While they discuss this, the negotiators already have an agreed-upon agenda to finish. The next unresolved point is conflict victims. Colombia’s armed conflict has claimed about 220,000 lives since the 1960s, plus tens of thousands of disappeared and tens of thousands of kidnapped victims. The country has the second largest population of internally displaced people in the world. More than six million of Colombia’s 47 million people can claim to be direct victims of the fighting. Government and guerrillas must agree on measures that provide truth, dignity, contrition, and reparations to these victims. Yet both, especially the FARC, have yet to recognise their responsibility even in their rhetoric.

Then, in what may be the toughest negotiation challenge, the parties must decide how to hold both sides’ worst human rights violators accountable to justice. This is the first peace process involving a member country of the International Criminal Court, which means those accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity cannot be amnestied or pardoned. Instead, there is likely to be some form of ‘deprivation of liberty’ for some guerrilla leaders, following some sort of confession or tribunal process. But the punishment cannot be so strict that the guerrillas, who are weakened but not defeated, would choose to keep fighting instead. For their part, the armed forces will demand similarly light sanctions for rights abusers in their ranks.

The FARC has a hand in much cocaine that gets produced in Colombia, but accords will likely end up amnestying guerrillas’ past participation in narco-trafficking to fund themselves. This may be hard to swallow for countries that have suffered harm from cocaine addiction – especially the United States, which has requested that Colombia extradite dozens of FARC leaders. But these are not surrender negotiations: the FARC remain strong enough militarily that their leaders have no intention of turning in weapons and entering a US prison cell.

In fact, it remains to be negotiated whether there will be ‘turning in of weapons,’ or whether disarmament will take some other form. In a 1980s peace process, the FARC formed a Leftist political party that was meant to be its eventual entry into civilian life, only to see more than 2,000 of its members assassinated by the early 1990s. Distrustful, the guerrillas are flatly refusing to yield their arms immediately after an accord. Negotiators, who now include a small contingent of military representatives, must come up with a formula that guarantees that the FARC’s weapons are ‘beyond use’ even if – as occurred in Northern Ireland and elsewhere – it takes years to decommission them fully.

Finally, the negotiators have to figure out how to ratify – to give force of law to – the commitments they make in a very extensive peace accord. (The first three draft accords already run nearly 70 pages). The FARC wants a constitutional convention. The government wants a popular referendum, which is less complicated but carries the risk of disapproval. Mainly because of its poor human rights record, the FARC’s base of popular support is tiny, and polls give it a single-digit approval rating. A majority of Colombians could end up rejecting a peace accord perceived as too ‘soft’ on the guerrillas.

The ratification challenge – or even the challenge of implementing a peace accord that gains only a narrow majority – will require the Santos government to continue maximising buy-in from powerful sceptics. These include Santos’s predecessor, 2002–2010 President (and now Senator) Álvaro Uribe, a Rightist whose tough security policies weakened the FARC, evaporating the guerrillas’ hope of taking power through force of arms. Uribe is a vociferous critic of Santos’s decision to ‘negotiate with terrorists,’ and his view is reportedly shared by a significant, perhaps majority, faction of senior military officers. It will be very hard to implement a peace accord without at least their acquiescence.

‘Post Conflict’ Management

If the negotiators manage to thread all of these needles – hopefully this year, before the Colombian public’s patience runs out – Colombia will pass to a post-conflict, accord implementation phase. This will be a joyful and exuberant moment, but it will be important to manage expectations. Already, it is common to hear Colombian officials and conflict analysts warn that, at least at first, Colombia’s ‘post-conflict’ could be more violent than its conflict.

The moment between the signing of an accord, its ratification, and the start of implementation will be especially tense as spoilers emerge. Rightists may target demobilised guerrillas, whose security will be precarious. Dissident FARC units may commit acts of sabotage, or transform into dangerous organised crime structures. A much smaller, but also 50-year-old, guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), could seek to attract experienced former FARC fighters. (The Colombian government is still discussing a possible peace process with the ELN, which demands a bilateral cease fire as a pre-condition). And several parts of the country, especially zones important for drug trafficking, are already under the sway of criminal armies: the Urabeños, the Rastrojos, and smaller groups formed by remnants of pro-government paramilitary militias that disbanded 10 years ago.

Time for Greater International Participation

Colombia’s state will need help as it struggles to reintegrate perhaps 30,000 ex-combatants and support personnel, provide for victims, and fulfil accord commitments. Above all, it will need to bring a functioning government presence into roughly 30 territorial zones that it has long abandoned to armed groups.

The international community should help Colombia share the cost. The US government, which gave Colombia about $7 billion in military and police aid since 2000, should be similarly generous after a peace accord. Obama administration officials have signalled their willingness to help.

But most of the help Colombia will need is not financial. This will be a post-conflict situation in a country with robust energy and mineral exports, Latin America’s fastest growing economy, and a national budget that exceeds $100 billion per year. Colombia will end up bearing most post-conflict implementation costs with its own resources.

More than money, Colombia may need international help administering its peace. Security during that tense initial post-conflict period will be paramount. Colombian government officials resist the idea of armed foreign personnel protecting demobilised guerrillas, but the FARC will be unwilling to entrust its security right away to the security forces that it has been fighting. Verification of accord compliance will also require an impartial, likely international, arbiter to adjudicate complaints and disputes – perhaps a UN, OAS, or hybrid mission. International experts on humanitarian aid, ex-combatant reintegration, rural development, anti-corruption mechanisms, and much else will be sorely needed. Until Colombia builds up its own basic managerial capacities to administer dozens of formerly conflictive, often remote and rural territories, international agencies may have to help Colombia’s state provide basic governance.

India’s Proactive Role

To express it a bit too simply: post-conflict Colombia will have resources, but will lack trained personnel. India is not a large donor nation, but has rich expertise in many relevant areas, such as rural governance, justice, democratic participation, community-level violence prevention, and public security (India’s homicide rate is less than a 10th of Colombia’s).

Ultimately, the kind of help Colombia needs will be determined by Colombia’s government, and by both government and guerrilla negotiators in Havana. Their requests from the international community are still vague. At this point, though, India can make it clear to the Bogotá government that it is willing to contribute if called upon to do so, whether bilaterally or through international agencies. With such a role—likely more in the form of personnel than dollars—would come a welcome increase in India’s profile and stature throughout the Americas.

For more than two years, Colombia’s peace process has been a careful, disciplined effort carried out by responsible, low-key officials and skilled international guarantors. And it has borne fruit, as highlighted by today’s optimistic talk of a ceasefire. But the time for greater international contribution and participation is coming soon. India and others should stand ready to help when called upon to do so.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.