Can the Unilateral Ceasefire Save Peace Talks?

Global Centre Stage

FARC’s declaration of a unilateral ceasefire is a welcome gift to the armed forces of Colombia, but there is still a great distance to go before a lasting peace can be agreed on, maintains William Rurode

Ever since President Juan Manuel Santos launched formal peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) in November 2012, the two parties have been searching for a way to end the 50-year long civil war that has killed more than 220,000 Colombians and internally displaced more than five million people.1 Throughout the secret negotiations that lasted a year-and-a-half prior to the formal talks, the two delegations agreed on a six-point agenda: rural reform; political participation of FARC; handling illicit drug trade; victim reparations; disarmament; and, the implementation of the peace deal. As of now, the negotiators have reached agreements on agrarian reforms, political participation of FARC, and illicit drugs with the final three phases – victim reparations, disarmament, and implementation – still on the agenda. Unilateral Ceasefire After agreeing to the controversial topic of land reform, the delegations successfully negotiated the political reintegration of FARC and ways to combat drug trade. Then, on December 17, 2014,2 in a historic move, the FARC delegation in Havana announced a unilateral and indefinite ceasefire to be put into effect on December 20. This initiative is not as unique as it may seem, as throughout the peace talks, FARC has implemented several unilateral ceasefires, such as during the presidential elections in 2014, in which President Santos was re-elected. While this is the first ceasefire that is indefinite, it should not be celebrated widely as an end to the guerrilla attacks. Iván Márquez, the lead FARC negotiator, declared that the ceasefire would be called off ‘if [our] guerrilla units have been the targets of attack by armed forces.’3 President Santos has repeatedly denied FARC requests for bilateral breaks in the conflict, claiming that the rebels will use that time to regroup and rearm, which they have done in previous peace talks (like the late 1990s during the Andrés Pastrana administration.4) However, the announcement drew praise from various world bodies such as the United Nations and European Union, which President Santos visited to garner ‘international legitimacy’ for the peace talks and foreign investment in post-conflict Colombia.5 One must question the timing of the ceasefire, as it comes after a month of incidents that tested the resilience of the negotiators in Havana. Hours before the ceasefire was announced, the Colombian Army reported that FARC guerrillas killed five soldiers in western Colombia in a deadly ambush.6 It was also less than a month after the abduction of General Rubén Darío Alzate Mora as well as a captain and a civilian whom were travelling with him, an event that forced President Santos to temporally suspend the peace talks until the general was released. The kidnapping marked the first time in the 50-year conflict that the rebels captured a general – the highest rank of any military hostage taken throughout the conflict. They have been known to kidnap high-ranking government officials and even several presidential candidates.7 In 2012, FARC pledged to discontinue the kidnapping of civilians, but still considers captured military personnel as prisoners of war. By declaring a ceasefire so soon after multiple incidents that placed the talks in danger, FARC is putting pressure on the government to also swear off attacks on the rebel group. If President Santos wishes to appeal to the critics of the peace talks, he will continue attacking the guerrillas despite their warning that it could derail the talks. Even though the Colombian population is generally tired of the decade-long conflict, there are still several prominent critics of the on-going peace negotiations. Two years after the talks were launched, the Conservative Party released a statement saying that it felt ‘excluded’ from the negotiations.8 Former President Álvaro Uribe, a harsh opponent of the talks and one time close-ally of President Santos, is an adamant supporter of Plan Colombia, the US-backed programme implemented in the early 2000s that has helped the army fight the guerrillas, a programme that has been widely accepted as a failure. During his presidency (2002-2010), Uribe ramped up operations against FARC and saw a serious decline in membership during this period.9 It is ironic that President Santos and former President Uribe are not close allies on the issue, as President Santos served under Uribe as the Minister of National Defence for three years before running for president in 2009. Rebel Demobilisation One of the thorniest issues on the six-point plan was how to reintegrate members of FARC into civil society. Several members could face decades in prison over alleged human rights violations and drug trafficking charges. Others outside the leadership are fearful of death threats emerging from the Colombian public. The Colombian citizenry has been dealing with deadly attacks and public infrastructure damage for five decades and, understandably, wants retribution and revenge. If Colombia is to finally see peace, finding a mutually beneficial way for rebels to re-join society will be crucial. The current strength of FARC is estimated at 9,000 fighters.10 In 2003, Colombia launched it’s disarm, demobilise, and reintegrate (DDR) programme.11 In an interview to Foreign Affairs, Elda Neyis Mosquera, a former FARC commander who demobilised in 2008 said, “The demobilisation of the middle and lower ranks of FARC is the only way to peace.”12 It remains unclear what will happen to the guerrilla’s commanders who make decisions like ordering attacks and other violent acts. The DDR was first launched in 2003 after the successful demobilisation of the paramilitary organisation, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC, Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia). The three-stage programme (disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration) was great theoretically, but failed to practically equip rebels for civil life. Elda cited the lack of psychological counselling, employment opportunities and role models, which all pose serious risks in the programme.13 The first stage of the DDR programme occurs directly after rebel surrenders to the army or police and are taken to a military base for 20 days, allowing the army to debrief them and gather any further information about other members demobilising, or any military intelligence that could prove useful. In addition, the army officers must determine if they are indeed members of FARC and not just civilians reaping the benefits of the programme. The second stage is demobilisation, which consists of a one-to-three-month stay in an hogar de paz (safe house). Their time in these houses is determined by whether or not they are guilty of a crime that is punishable by jail time (murder, kidnapping, drug trafficking, etc).14 While they are in the house, the guerrillas are given a mi proyecto de vida, basically a blank piece of paper. They are asked to outline their new life, highlight their desire to see their family again, preference of job training and other life goals. The last stage is overseen by the Colombian Agency for Reintegration (ACR, Agencia Colombiana Reintegracion), which places guerrillas in their new hometowns. Demobilised rebels are entitled to $450 a month of economic support, an insurance card to cover two months of healthcare, and are eligible for an extra $70 per month if they attain a 90 percent attendance rate in courses that promote education.15 Since the programme began nine years ago, 54,598 have enrolled. However, the ACR data does not include statistics on those that have successfully graduated from the programme. If the government truly wishes to have lasting peace, it must increase funding for the DDR programme and others like it. As mentioned earlier, there are three major problems: The first problem Elda discusses is that because there are no successfully demobilised fighters, the effectiveness of the program remains in question. If the programme has not produced a role model (someone who is successfully demobilised), one wonders if the programme works or if it is just another way for the government to keep tabs open on former guerrillas. Of course, not all rebels need the DDR. Gustavo Petro, the current mayor of Bogotá was a former member of the M-19 movement, a Left-wing guerrilla group that gave up arms in 1989.16 Psychological treatment available in the second phase falls far too short of the requirements, as members of FARC are regularly exposed to crimes at all levels, ranging from theft, to drug trafficking, and crimes against humanity. This puts an enormous amount of pressure on the fighters, who have a difficult time transitioning to civilian life. Stripped of their identity as a fighter, many spend their stipends on drugs and alcohol and become handy men for local drug gangs.17 Ultimately, the DDR’s biggest problem is the lack of employment opportunities. Rather unsurprisingly, the average Colombian business owner is less than likely to open his doors to an ex-guerrilla. If a demobilised guerrilla cannot find work, convincing them to surrender their gun and pride would almost be insulting at some levels. Many rebels have been fighters for tens of years, or even generationally. Membership of FARC consists of more than just being a believer in agrarian reform and protesting against the massive wealth gap between the urban elite and rural poor; it is a job, a way of life. A valid fear is that if demobilised fighters cannot find legal work, they may opt out and return to a life of crime and violence. Victim Reparations Among all the objects on the six-point agenda, the issue of victim reparations proves to be one of the most difficult. Both the government and FARC blame the other for crimes against humanity, murder, and kidnapping. Throughout past failed talks, the negotiators failed to reach an agreement on how to hear directly from the victims of the conflict, but in August 2014, a group of victims travelled to Cuba to sit with the government and FARC negotiators. For the first time, FARC admitted that there had been civilian deaths and victims in the conflict, and assisted in founding the Truth Committee, a body to determine what crimes each side is guilty of committing.18 On October 1, 2014, FARC completed their 10-point list of proposals on victim reparations, which will be their basic claims when discussing the topic. Some of the proposals include special recognition of collective victims, systemic responsibility, full compensation for victims, agreed legal mechanisms to ensure the rights of the victims, provisional guarantees of non-repetition, and political and social pardons to construct the bases for a process of national reconciliation.19 Proposal number four, which deals with responsibility, is particularly controversial, as FARC will not take full responsibility for the victimisation, nor should they, as they are not alone in committing atrocities in the name of the conflict. The guerrillas believe the state, paramilitary groups, political parties, businesses, as well as intelligence agencies of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel should carry the responsibility. One of the most shocking truths to be exposed in Colombia in recent years was the False Positive Scandal, in which security forces brutally murdered civilians and placed them in the jungle to pass as enemies killed in action, in order to inflate their success rate, and also for officers to obtain promotions and financial benefits.20 In addition, under Plan Colombia, the United States played a direct role in the increased offensive against FARC under President Uribe, a time period in which FARC’s numbers decreased by 50 percent.21 Another proposal set forth in FARC’s 10-point list is the creation of the Special Fund for Comprehensive Compensation (FERI). This fund would place three percent, roughly $11.3 billion in a fund with the goal to “re-establish the situation of individual and collective victims as it was before the victimising events took place, and compensate for the impact on their lives.”22 Shortly after the release of the ambitious fund proposal, Humberto De la Calle, the chief government negotiator, urged FARC to shoulder more responsibility, calling for ‘a clear statement, without excuses.”23 Some FARC leaders will have to answer for their crimes, as it was seen with the demobilisation of the AUC. The issue with demobilisation is that it does not mean that FARC is not involved in other criminal networks. A senior US military official told the International Crisis Group that while the number of violent incidents dropped sharply (assassinations dropped from 1,240 to 329 between 2003 and 2005), the paramilitaries maintained control over illegal operations and drug trafficking.24 The legal framework behind the demobilisation of the AUC has been subject to criticism. Under the peace deal signed with the paramilitary group, the government promised to restrict legal action that could be used against its members. Amnesty International said that by providing ‘de facto amnesties’ for human rights abuses, the government is making the law worse.25 While some leeway must be found to strike a deal, surveys done by the International Center on Transitional Justice report that nearly 75 percent believe that the government must prosecute paramilitary members, and roughly half of those polled consider themselves direct or indirect victims of the conflict.26 In order to move past the issue of demobilisation and deal with the contested topic of victim reparations, the government and FARC must agree to equally shoulder the responsibility of the on-going conflict that has left 220,000 dead since 1964. While it is important to discuss all options and possible avenues for payment for the victims, it is not to be prematurely celebrated. FARC’s declaration of a unilateral ceasefire is a welcome gift to the armed forces of Colombia, but there is still a great distance to go before a lasting peace can be agreed on. References:

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William Rurode

William Rurode is a Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA).

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