Sidelining the Spoilers

November 26, 2014

When the news broke last week that Colombian Brigadier General Rubén Darío Alzate and two colleagues had been detained in the Chocó region by the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC-EP), it threw the country’s two-year old peace talks into crisis. The FARC action, which appears to have occurred without specific authorization of FARC leadership, prompted President Juan Manuel Santos to suspend temporarily the Colombian government’s participation in the peace talks, which were about to resume their 31st round in Havana. With that, the negotiations to end the more than 50-year-old conflict ground to a sudden halt.

While the crisis is by no means insurmountable, it may have an impact on the peace talks.  When he suspended the talks, Santos conditioned their renewal on the release of the three abductees in Chocó, as well as two other soldiers who had been detained on the other side of Colombia, near the Venezuelan border. On Monday, Nov. 24, FARC guerrilla leader Rodrigo Londoño (known by his nom de guerre, “Timochenko”), claimed that Santos had “destroyed confidence” in the process by violating the parties’ agreement to engage in “direct and uninterrupted talks” until a final peace accord was signed, and to continue the war during the peace process without benefit of a bilateral ceasefire. The peace talks “cannot just resume,” said Londoño, without some unspecified adjustments.

On the Way to a Resolution

On Tuesday, Nov. 25, following agreements between the Colombian government and the FARC negotiators — facilitated by international guarantors (Norway and Cuba) and with logistical support from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) — the FARC released the two soldiers being held in Arauca. In the Chocó region, however, FARC leaders claim that the Colombian military’s deployment of troops, bombings, and over-flight missions violates the parties’ agreement to suspend military activity in the region, making the release of the general and his two companions “impossible” for the time being. The Ministry of Defense, on the other hand, claims that all military operations there have been suspended.

Navigation of this impasse can strengthen the peace process, but the resolution of the current crisis cannot be taken for granted. In Colombia’s highly charged political environment, getting the talks moving again means managing the spoilers on both sides who want to affect the peace process’s pending agreements or even derail negotiations altogether. The incident in Chocó fits the pattern of actions taken by groups looking to waylay the peace process. Call it a page from a kind of spoilers’ playbook. The Basque, Irish, and Middle Eastern peace processes have faced similar critical moments where internal actors have lashed out in efforts to provoke a harsh reaction from one side or other. These crimes test the commitment, political statesmanship, and diplomatic inventiveness of negotiators on both sides dedicated to keeping a peace process alive. And looking at how past crises have been managed can give insight as to how the parties at the Colombian table might be able to get their process back on track.

As happens in war, truth is the first casualty when spoilers try to sabotage peace talks. When there is such an incident, the parties first have to verify the facts — together, and as quickly as possible — to discern whether the spoilers are operating as individuals, as a local unit spontaneously, or are taking action from orders at a higher leadership level.

Parties Caught Unawares?

The incident in Chocó — called a “kidnapping” by the government and a “casualty of war” by the FARC — appears to have caught the leaders of both sides unawares. FARC negotiators initially reacted with surprise at the event, before the regional block claimed responsibility. On the government’s side, there are still many pending questions about the general’s trip down the Atrato River into territory that is occupied by two FARC fronts, the National Liberation Army, paramilitary groups, drug traffickers, and criminal bands. In violation of security protocols, the General was unarmed, in civilian garb, without a bodyguard, and had been warned by the soldier piloting the boat that it was not safe to go down river. Early on in the crisis, Santoscalled on the Minister of Defense through his Twitter account to explain why the general “broke all the security protocols and was in civilian garb in a red zone.” The Colombian Senate is also calling for an explanation of General Alzate’s actions.

Talk More, Not Less

Counter-spoiler practice in other conflicts around the world suggests that the representatives of the Colombian government and FARC need to talk more, not less, right now. Their dialogue has to recognize two complex realities to keep the peace process on track. First, each side must acknowledge that they have factions in their midst who will act as spoilers of the process at any time, and must take responsibility for controlling and demobilizing their own rogue actors. Secondly, the negotiating parties must build shared interaction, responsibility, and mechanisms for managing together the complications that arise when spoilers of one negotiating party — through kidnappings, bombings, and attacks — strikes directly at the other party. In short, they need to recognize that these things are all but bound to happen at some point, and they need to plan for how to deal with it when they do.

The parties have a lot going in their favor, and efforts to sabotage the talks may even be a testament to the successes already produced at the table. The current process has accomplished significantly more than any other attempt to end the conflict, including groundbreaking agreements on land reform, the FARC’s political role, and the drug trade.  The next round was slated to address the remaining, complex areas of the demilitarization and demobilization of the FARC, and the compensation and reparations to be awarded to victims of the bloody five-decade war — areas clearly of concern to both the Colombian military and the FARC’s rank-and-file.

Role of Third Parties

Keeping a peace process on track doesn’t just fall to the parties sitting at the negotiating table, however. Outsiders can also help control spoilers and maintain the momentum of a peace process.  At the invitation of the parties, Norway, Cuba, Venezuela, Chile have served as guarantors accompanying the peace process since its launch, and earned them the trust to help facilitate the recent agreements that are likely to enable the resolution of the incident in Chocó. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is currently providing logistical support for the release of the detainees, has facilitated the liberation of more than 1,500 people kidnapped or detained by armed groups in Colombia.  The engagement of such disinterested third parties increases the likelihood that this crisis will be resolved without derailing the peace process.

Role of Civil Society

Civil society organizations from women’s groups to religious leaders can help manage spoiler violence and provide a shield against spoilers, too. Through marches, mobilizations, letters to the parties, and public statements, Colombian civil society sectors have repeatedly sounded the call for a bilateral ceasefire and a reduction in the violence against civilians. From the start of the talks, they have insisted that the parties stay at the table until a final peace agreement is signed — a call that has been amplified in recent days. Such actions can bolster the mandate for continued peace efforts and isolate spoilers and would-be spoilers.

Colombian history has shown that walking away from peace talks when violent events explode can easily undermine or even end a peace process. It has taken a decade to get the FARC and the Colombian government talking again; the last peace talks ended in 2002, following the FARC downing of an Avianca plane and the kidnapping of Senator Jorge Gechem Turbay, who was aboard the plane. However violent and dangerous the recent spoiler incident may seem to the Havana peace process, the Colombian parties who have so far been constructively engaged with one another need to recommit to the peace that is within sight and to return to direct bargaining at the Havana talks soon. The parties should not permit either this event — or the escalating rhetoric that has quickly engulfed it — to deter their efforts to bring an end to this anachronistic conflict.

The FARC and the government have gone a long way down the road to peace. Both sides have the strong backing of international friends and civil society allies pushing for cool heads to prevail. But getting past their shared spoiler problem, and letting the negotiators get back to work on crafting an agreement that will end Colombia’s long-standing conflict, means foregoing brinksmanship and grandstanding in favor of even more intensive dialogue. Anything less means a small set of spoilers win — and millions of peace-seeking Colombians lose.

This piece, co-authored with George López, was published earlier today in Foreign Policy.

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Crisis Management in Colombia: Update on an Unfolding Crisis

November 24, 2014

A week that should have been given over to reflection on the achievements and pending agenda of the Colombian peace talks in Havana was spent seeking to manage a crisis that caused the suspension of the 31st cycle of talks before it even began.  The crisis is still not resolved.  International mediation appears to have things well on track, however, though the dangers posed by spoilers are ever present.

The Crisis of Chocó

At midnight on Sunday, Nov. 16, following the capture and disappearance of an Army General and his two colleagues in Colombia’s western department of Chocó earlier that day, President Juan Manuel Santos suspended the peace talks pending the release of the aforementioned, along with two soldiers whom the FARC had detained in the department of Arauca near the eastern border with Venezuela one week earlier.  (For details, see my earlier post here.)

On Nov. 17, the Iván Ríos block of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC-EP) claimed responsibility for what it called the “capture” of Brigadier Army General Rubén Darío Alzate Mora (commander of the Joint Titan Task Force) and his companions–Corporal Jorge Contreras Rodríguez, and Gloria Urrego, the civilian lawyer and coordinator for special Army projects in the department of Chocó.  The FARC communiqué, issued from the “Mountains of Colombia,” noted that “in exercise of their security duties,” FARC units had intercepted the boat carrying the three aforementioned passengers at one of their mobile check points on the shores of the Atrato River.  The insurgents considered the occupants of the boat to be “enemy military personnel” who were carrying out their duties in an active war zone, and thus legitimate military targets.  (See the Iván Ríos block communiqué here.)  The FARC communiqué underscored their willingness to find a resolution, noting, “We respect the life and physical and moral integrity of our prisoners and are fully disposed to guarantee it. … The solution to the large ills that our country is suffering must be that of dialogue.”

International Facilitation Requested and Granted

On Nov. 18, President Santos called on the international guarantors who have been accompanying the peace process since it started two years ago to help mediate the crisis.  The following day, the guarantors held a press conference in which Rodolfo Benítez, for the Cubans, and Rita Sandberg, for the Norwegians, announced (in Spanish and English, respectively) that the FARC and the Colombian government had reached agreement on the conditions needed for the release of General Alzate, Corporal Jorge Rodríguez, Cesar Rivera, Jonathan Díaz, and Gloria Urrego. (Read the press communiqué of the guarantors here.)

In their statement on behalf of the international guarantors of the peace process, the Cuban and Norwegian guarantors acknowledged the “constructive attitude” of both the government of Colombia and the FARC-EP in finding a solution.  Benítez and Sandberg noted that mediation efforts were underway to secure the liberation of those captured by the FARC, and that the release of the aforementioned persons would take place “within the shortest possible time frame.”  The terms of the agreement provided for the participation of the guarantor countries as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the release.  View the press conference in Spanish:

and in English:

By Nov. 20, Pres. Santos announced from Popayán that “as soon as the kidnap victims in the hands of the FARC appear–since the procedure is already under way–…I will give instructions for the negotiators to return to Havana and to continue the negotiations, hopefully at a good pace, in order to finish this process in the shortest time possible.” (See statement here.)

Release Process Under Way 

At 10:15 am on Saturday morning, Nov. 22, President Santos first confirmed via Twitter that the coordinates for initiating the release had been received and that he was giving the orders to move ahead to secure the liberations in the next week.  (See relevant article here.)  Later Saturday afternoon, in compliance with a presidential order, the Ministry of Defense signed a Memorandum of Understanding and Security Protocol with the ICRC for the liberation of the five Colombian citizens.  The ICRC has a strong presence in Colombia and has frequently provided logistical support for the liberation of political detainees and kidnap victims, as well as crafted other humanitarian agreements and arrangements.

Pending Concerns

The immediate willingness of both parties to enter into agreements to secure the release is a testament to the trust that has been created at the table, as well as the confidence that has been  established between the parties, the international guarantors, and the ICRC.  Still, there are external factors that could undermine the process and the sensitivity of such an operation cannot be overestimated.

-Security Breaches

First, there are concerns that exPresident and Senator Alvaro Uribe might reveal relevant coordinates of the guerrillas that could torpedo the plan.  Earlier, Uribe had revealed details of the detention of General Alzate through his Twitter account before the government had made them public.  (See related article here.) Likewise, on prior occasions, Uribe had publicized information about the location and coordinates of guerrilla leaders preparing to join the talks in Havana.

FARC leader ‘Pacho Chino’ on Saturday called on Uribe to “stop attacking the peace negotiations and to link himself to peace.”  The FARC leader noted in an interview with Radio Caracol, that the statements and “constructive” opinions of the exPresident are “welcome” because “peace must be achieved with everyone, including Uribe and his followers (uribismo).” (See related article here.)

-Military Provocations

Second, there are concerns that ongoing military operations could undermine or delay a mediated solution to the crisis, or could provoke a new crisis.  On Sunday, Nov. 23, the FARC issued a statement charging that the military operations under way in the Atrato region could delay the release of the General and his companions, as “the area of the Atrato and its main tributaries have been taken over militarily with landings of troops and bombing, intelligence aircraft overflights, and the establishment of measures that restrict the movement of the civilian population composed mainly of indigenous and Afro communities.” (See the statement here.)

In such an environment, there are legitimate security concerns for those who have been detained, the communities, and FARC troops who would engage in the liberation.  In their statement, the FARC note, “As long as this situation is not modified, it is unlikely that general Alzate and his companions will be freed in the next week.”  Their statement notes, “If the protocol is strictly observed as has happened on other occasions, we can say that next Tuesday the professional soldiers captured in combat in Arauca, may embrace freedom.”

It does seem relevant to ask why a large military operation is under way in Chocó when the FARC have expressed their willingness to find a solution through dialogue.  Since an agreement has been reached under the good offices of the international guarantors, and the parties have signed on to a process for moving forward, military protocols that respect a political solution and the agreed protocols will provide the greatest assurance that those who have been captured are safely returned to their communities and families.

-Distortion of the Facts

Third, misinformation and disinformation thrive in an environment where emotions are high and reliable information is hard to come by.  Given the discretion necessary to pull off such a complex mission, it is not surprising that there are mixed signals even from within the Colombian government.  The rapidly developing events also lend themselves to the temptation of “speaking through the microphones,” which often produces further confusion and undermines trust in the process.  The international mediators can play a role in helping to verify information and check misinformation whenever possible. As long as the parties have agreed to a plan and comply with their commitments, the process should be given the necessary time to carry it out successfully.

On Nov. 23, contrary to the President’s statement one day earlier that all coordinates had been received to move ahead with the release of the five retained Colombians, the Minister of Defense issued a press communiqué declaring that only the coordinates for the release in Arauca had been received, and that no information was received on the coordinates in the  Chocó region.  Pinzón noted that the agreed “protocol establishes the suspension of operations of the Armed Forces (Fuerzas Públicas) for a determined time” and that “in no moment does it establish the demilitarization by the Armed Forces of geographic areas of the national territory.”  This contradiction has yet to be clarified.

-Protocol Violations

Fourth, there are still many unknowns related to the abduction of the three Colombians in the Chocó.  Jimmy Chamorro Cruz, president of the second commission of the Senate, which oversees security and defense issues, has already cited General Rubén Darío to come before his committee to explain irregularities related to his abduction.  The General, in violation of security protocols, was in a “red zone,” dressed in civilian garb, unarmed, without a body guard, and in defiance of recommendations not to travel downriver given the presence there of two FARC fronts (34 and 57) of the Iván Ríos block. (See more information here.)

-Saboteurs on Both Sides

Fifth, the role of saboteurs–even within both sides represented at the peace table–is high and must be managed.  Neither the FARC nor the government is monolithic.  Both of the negotiating parties have members whose interests may be threatened if a peace deal goes through.  It is perhaps no coincidence that the issue about to go to the table in the next cycle of talks in Havana includes the particulars of demobilization and transitional justice (which affects both soldiers of both the Colombian state and the FARC).  Furthermore, the Iván Ríos block is thought to be heavily involved in drug-trafficking and could lose out on considerable profit should the peace accords on drug-trafficking be implemented.  (See “The Future of the Bacrim and Post-Conflict Colombia” here.)

-Contradictions of Pursuing War and Peace Simultaneously

Finally, the incidents of the last week illustrate some of the contradictions of a strategy that calls for the continuation of the war while peace is being negotiated.  Under the framework agreement signed in August 2012, the parties agreed to “initiate direct and uninterrupted talks” with the goal of reaching a “Final Accord for the termination of the conflict that might contribute to a stable and durable peace.” (See framework agreement here.)  Although the “rules of the game” are that the war will continue to be executed while the peace talks take place, the FARC has sought a bilateral ceasefire since the talks began, and has successfully carried out a unilateral ceasefire on two occasions, as well as another joint ceasefire with the National Liberation Army (ELN).  The parties were reportedly discussing a number of options for de-escalating the conflict–reducing bombardments and youth recruitment, increasing de-mining operations, and seeking other ways to reduce the impact of the conflict on Colombia’s civilian population.

It is unclear why this particular incident in Chocó set off the crisis, given that the parties had agreed that they would not be diverted from reaching a final agreement by events outside the table.  There have certainly been other violent actions on both sides. Ministry of Defense statistics show that during these two years of peace talks, the military and the guerrillas have both been hit hard.  The Army has killed 545 guerrillas, captured 4,670, and demobilized 2,248; while 561 members of the security forces have been killed and 3,973 injured. (See more information here.)  Early on in the peace process, the Army took out FARC commander Alfonso Cano, but this provoked a measured response and a commitment to stay the course.  Some criticize the arbitrariness of this particular incident in provoking the suspension of the talks when there have been so many other incidents, including killings, bombings, and mining of territories with disastrous consequences.  Furthermore, as the peace process has not diminished the violence in many communities, such as Arauca and Quibdó, there is a high level of skepticism around the peace process, particularly where the conflict violence has been most severe.

Finally, it is clear that the FARC pays a high political cost for acts of violence it commits in the midst of the ongoing war, while the government reaps political benefit for its military successes.  Incidents such as the retention of the General and the others give plenty of fuel to the press and to opponents of the peace process, and generate bad will toward the FARC that could make their eventual integration into civilian life more difficult, while Colombian Army successes seem to increase the prestige of the Armed Forces. This disequilibrium creates a vulnerability for the process down the road, when a peace agreement is signed and the FARC will become a legitimate part of the Colombian polity.

Crafting the Messages for Peace

As Carlos Cortés pointed out in an article in La Silla Vacía (click here), it is telling that President Santos has surrounded himself with military men to support the resolution of the current crisis.  While this may or may not help his credibility among the skeptics of the peace process, it would be prudent also for Santos and the international guarantors to make more public use of the negotiating teams and their international and civil society allies.  This might help tamp down inflamed public opinion, validate the work that the negotiators have done, and re-affirm the reality that the parties at the table were able to reach agreement quickly on how to move the process forward and resolve the crisis.  The public also needs to be reminded that the parties at the table are not monolithic and patience is needed to support those who are working for a peaceful settlement. (See my forthcoming article later this week in Foreign Policy, co-authored with George López, on the issue of spoilers.)

Photo by Javier Casella, SIG, Nov. 16, 2014

Photp by Javier Casella, SIG, Nov. 16, 2014

President Santos and the negotiators, who have much vested in the success of this peace process, could do more to educate and empower citizens to help defend the process.  They have sought the support of governors, mayors, and personeros, among others, in the regions. It would be appropriate to also call on the National Peace Council to help design a strategy for a peace pedagogy that could counter-act the war-mongering discourse of recent days.  Activating and empowering the other existing local and regional peace infrastructures can strengthen important allies to help support the peace process and implement agreements down the road. A new report by Silke Pfeiffer on “Peace Infrastructures in Colombia” produced by the Berghof Foundation outlines some of the concrete mechanisms that exist and how they might be strengthened.  (Download the report here.)

Surrounding the Process

This week, for what was to be the two-year anniversary of the peace process, civic leaders have organized marches, mobilizations, and meetings across the country.  Last week, a  regional encounter for peace was held in Tumaco.  It was the ninth of a dozen regional encounters throughout Colombia sponsored by regional social organizations in alliance with the National Network of Regional Programs of Development and Peace (Redprodepaz), the Network of Grassroots Peace Initiatives and Communities, Thought and Social Action (PAS), and the Pacific Route of Women, with the support of the Embassies of Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland and the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace.  Those assembled in Tumaco called on the negotiators in Cuba not to give up the achievements that have been gained at the table.  “We call on the FARC for the immediate, unconditional release of the kidnapped and retained.  And to the negotiators in Havana: reinitiate the talks as soon as possible and don’t get up from the table until everything is agreed.”  (More here.)

Women, Afro-Colombians, and indigenous groups are among those most affected by the war.  While their messages have yet to be articulated in a single call for peace, each of these sectors is demanding from their own particular vantage point that the parties in Havana stay the course.  The Pacific Route of Women/Ruta Pacífica de la Mujer (recent winner of Colombia’s National Peace Prize for 2014) appealed to the negotiators in Havana:  “War has nourished inequity, has impoverished and feminized poverty, bleeding the nation, and has only sowed pain and desperation, and today it is in your hands to end this armed conflict.” (See their statement here.)

Afro-Colombian women marched from Cauca to Bogota in defense of life and their ancestral territories, and against impunity for crimes committed in their territories.  (See their statement here.) The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) has offered to help mediate and to provide hundreds of their indigenous guards to participate in the liberation of the General and his companions.  They have called for a massive national mobilization for peace on Nov. 25th, which is also the National Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.  (See their statement here.)

Faith-based organizations and victims’ groups are also raising their voices.  Fifty-nine religious leaders and counting have called for a bilateral ceasefire and a renewal of talks.  (See their statement here.)  The Ecumenical Working Group (Mesa Ecuménica) called furthermore for Colombians to “play a more active role in the defense of the Accords that the negotiation tables are approaching” and to “constitute Citizen Monitoring for Peace at the national and regional levels, through which clear actions of citizen control, social mobilization, and demands [made] of the parties, protect the accords and demand the fulfillment of what is agreed on.”  (See their statement here.)

A new Broad Front that congregates many of the political actors of the left has also supported a bilateral ceasefire, called on all of the armed actors to avoid actions that affect the civilian population, and announced that it will convene a Great Summit of Convergence for Peace for December. (See their statement here.)

The list of such civil society initiatives is endless and these are just a few examples.  Such demonstrations of support, particularly if they show a coherent and strong position of a civil society that favors peace, can provide momentum to the process and help protect it from reversals.  The voices remain somewhat fragmented from decades of war and a recent surge in death threats against social leaders, but the strengthening of independent, autonomous civil society organizations is key now.  Empowering these organizations now will also help prepare them for their role in ensuring the implementation and monitoring of any agreements that might be reached in Havana down the road.

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Unfolding Story: Temporary Suspension of Colombian Peace Talks in Cuba

Monday, November 17, 2014

Just after midnight this morning, as the government of Colombia and the FARC-EP were preparing to resume their 31st round of conversations in Havana, President Juan Manuel Santos ordered his negotiators not to travel to Havana today as planned, and announced the temporary suspension of the peace talks.  On Sunday, November 16, an Army major in the municipality of Quibdó in the Chocó department had reported the kidnapping late that afternoon of Army commander general Rubén Darío Alzáte Mora.  The details are still unfolding, but it appears that the general was retained in Quibdó with two companions– Gloria Urrego (advisor for Army Special Projects in the Department of Chocó), and Captain Jorge Rodríguez Contreras.  The general appears to have violated a number of protocols–the group was traveling in civilian garb, they were unescorted by bodyguards at the apparent insistence of General Alzate, and the general acted against the advice of the military man piloting their boat who had cautioned him against traveling so far down the Atrato River into a red zone known to be occupied by armed groups. (For more details, see report here.) The whereabouts of the three is unknown at this time.

In his official Twitter account, President Juan Manuel Santos called on Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón for an explanation.  “I want you to explain to me why BG Alzate broke all the security protocols and was in civilian garb in a red zone,” tweeted the President. (See Semana article with tweet here.)

The governor of the department of Chocó, Efrén Palacios, called a security council meeting to analyze the situation, but military leaders postponed it until Monday morning in order to gather more information first.  The governor declined to assign responsibility to either the FARC or the ELN, both of whom are active in the Chocó.  (See related article here.)  Some believe the action was the work of the 34th Front of the FARC, but there are multiple groups operating in that zone, including criminal/paramilitary bands known as bacrim and ELN forces.

Presidential Press Conference

Presidential Press Conference in Bogota. Photo by Javier Casella, SIG, 16 November 2014,

Presidential Press Conference in Bogota. Photo by Javier Casella, SIG, 16 November 2014,

Late Sunday evening, President Santos met with the military leadership, including Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón, and they consulted with general Jaime Lasprilla, who was on site in Quibdó.  In a midnight press conference, President Santos classified the action as a kidnapping, which he attributed to the FARC.  “We already have information that makes us certain that it was the FARC,” he announced.  Santos called the kidnapping “totally unacceptable,” charged the FARC with responsibility for the lives and security of the three retained persons, and demanded their immediate release. (Read the press statement here.)  He announced the suspension of peace talks until the situation was clarified and the individuals released. He is also seeking to clarify the General’s apparent breaches of protocol.

Santos announced that military rescue operations are now underway in the Chocó, and the International Committee of the Red Cross has been called on to assist.  Military rescue operations also have been accelerated in the department of Arauca, on the border of Venezuela, where two other soldiers were captured earlier this month.  There the FARC has claimed responsibility for the soldiers’  detention. They consider the two soldiers they hold in Arauca as “prisoners of war,” not “kidnap” victims, and are legitimate targets in the conflict. The FARC have nonetheless expressed a willingness to negotiate the soldiers’ release. (See more here.)

The President is wise to investigate, and a pause in the process should give him the means to do so, but he would also be wise to ensure that it is only a symbolic pause to ensure a careful evaluation of the events and the development of a proportionate response.  The pause will allow the FARC, if they are indeed responsible, the opportunity to rectify their error.  The chain of command is undoubtedly weaker than usual, given that much of the FARC military regional leadership is currently in Havana for the talks, and the kidnappings could well be the actions of renegade FARC seeking to undermine the peace process.  It will be important to consider the FARC’s official response before making judgements, and not to jump to conclusions, given that the region is inhabited by a variety of armed actors.

For the peace process to move forward, it will also be important to manage other spoilers and potential spoilers to the process.  The ELN, which has been in exploratory talks with the government, has been ratcheting up its activities, undoubtedly seeking to get a peace table of its own.  The failure to launch formal talks with the government could well slow down the process with the FARC.  Likewise, within the Army itself there are also potential spoilers.  In recent weeks there have been revelations about new efforts to sabotage the peace process through hacking and interfering with the communications of the negotiating team. A debate scheduled to be held in the Colombian Congress last week on the “chuzadas”, as the hacking is known, had to be rescheduled for this week when the Ministers of Defense and the Interior failed to show. (See related article here.)  It will be telling if this week’s debate is postponed once again and will be important that Santos hold the military accountable for any actions its members have taken to undermine peace efforts, especially when those actions are illegal.  Finally, former president Uribe continues to use his Twitter account to generate opposition to the talks.  Last month, he once again publicized confidential information about the location of guerrillas preparing to join the peace talks–in a move whose legality was challenged by some in Congress.

President Santos should exercise particular prudence in coming days and weeks and seek to manage these potential efforts to undermine the peace process. Regardless of the outcome of his investigation of the missing general and his companions, Santos would do well to remember that there are saboteurs on all sides.  It would be foolhardy to let this incident, as important as it might be, derail the peace process.  It would be much wiser to use the incident to push the process forward and end the war once and for all.

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Movilización de Mujeres Afrodescendientes por el Cuidado de la Vida y los Territorios Ancestrales

Originally posted on ACSN:


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DC Event on Demobilizations in Colombia

Please join us on November 17th from 2:30 to 4:00 pm. for the U.S. Institute of Peace’s next Colombia Peace Forum discussion on “Demobilizations in Colombia.”  The event will take place at USIP headquarters (2301 Constitution Avenue, NW) and will be webcast (view here during the event).   RSVP here.

The event is co-sponsored with the Colombia Committee for Human Rights and the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University and will feature two former insurgents who have gone through a demobilization process under previous peace agreements.  The panelists will discuss the evolution of Colombia’s DDR programs, the strengths and weaknesses of Colombian approaches to DDR, and anticipated opportunities and challenges for future demobilizations in Colombia as part of a peace process. Join the conversation on Twitter with #ColombiaPeaceForum.

Panelists will include:

José Aristizábal: Social researcher, writer and expert in issues of globalization, armed conflicts, the  Colombian conflict, peace movements, indigenous movements, and new social movements. A participant and leader in social and political struggles in Colombia in the second half of the 20th century, Mr. Aristizábal was exiled in Spain from 2003 to April 2014. He was a founder of Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, where he coordinates the Observatory of the Armed Conflict and Post-Conflict.

Myriam Criado:  Former spokeswoman of the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) of the Magdalena region, and former member of the Colombian communist party. Ms. Criado was a candidate for the House of Representatives in 1992 and for the regional assembly (1992-1994) but was not elected. She occupied various leadership positions with the non-profit organization, Fundación Progresar, established to facilitate the demobilization process of the EPL. She is currently a researcher for the National Center of Historical Memory, and was nominated as a spokeswoman to the National Peace Council for the association of demobilized women of the insurgency.

Marc Chernick, Director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University, will serve as a discussant.

Virginia M. BouvierModerator,  senior advisor for Latin America at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and editor of Colombia: Building Peace in a Time of War, just released in Spanish by the Universidad del Rosario Press.


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Update on Talks in Havana

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, is 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.

This piece was originally published by the International Peace Institute Global Observatory.

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Victims Arrive in Havana for End of Round 30; Ver conferencias de prensa aquí

Sunday, Nov. 2, 2014

Today, the peace delegations of the government of Colombia and the FARC-EP are meeting with the fourth delegation of victims in Havana.  The group includes six women and six men, of which three have been victimized by paramilitaries, two by guerrillas, two by agents of the State, and five by multiple armed groups.  A press conference will be held at 5 pm today, Cuban time, and televised live on TeleSur.  (You can watch it live here:  TeleSur Report on Fourth Victims’ Delegation).

Yesterday, the National University, the United Nations, and the Colombian Episcopal Conference –the three organizations charged by the peace delegations with the selection and organization of five delegations of a dozen victims each to participate in the peace talks–held a press conference in which they announced the names of the twelve participants for the fourth delegation to Havana.  To read about the participants, click here.  To watch the press conference in Spanish, click below:

The organizers’  press conference and statement provide insights into why particular delegation members were chosen for this cycle’s delegation.  Some of the victims represent particular categories of victimization that the organizers wanted to highlight.   The inclusion of a land-mine victim from Arauca was meant to underscore the ongoing problem of land mines–596 new cases of victims of land mines have been reported since the peace talks began.  The inclusion of a victim of childhood recruitment by armed groups–a member of the AUC (paramilitary self-defense forces) recruited at the age of 13–highlights ongoing concerns about child soldiers.  Finally, the naming of Jineth Bedoya, the first journalist victim to go to Havana and a victim of kidnapping, torture, and sexual violence at the hands of the paramilitary puts a focus on both the risks that the armed conflict has presented for journalists, and the systematic use of gender-based violence in Colombia’s conflict.  Bedoya, who will be leading the fourth victims’  delegation, has been internationally recognized for her tireless crusade against violence against women.  Last August, President Juan Manuel Santos decreed May 25, the day of Bedoya’s kidnapping, as the National Day for the Dignity of Women Victims of Violence in the Internal Armed Conflict.  Likewise, while no one has been held accountable for Bedoya’s case, which was brought to the OAS’s Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, Colombia’s Attorney General (Fiscal) recently proclaimed the case as a crime against humanity.

New Voices

Delegation members include other voices that have not yet been heard at the peace table.  A representative of Colombia’s large exile community, a member of the LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual and Intrasexual) community, and a survivor of a paramilitary massacre that killed 100 people in  El Naya in southwestern Colombia will participate in the fourth delegation of victims.  Likewise, victims from the previously unrepresented regions of Arauca, Casanare, and Córdoba will be present, bringing to twenty-three the number of Colombia’s 32 administrative departments that will now have been participated in the victims’  delegations.

For the first time, the testimony of a FARC prisoner will also be heard in Havana.  Tulio Murillo Ávila, alias ‘Alonso’, is currently serving time in Picaleña jail in Ibagué.  He has publicly denounced his treatment as a prisoner and will testify for the peace delegations  via a videotape that he sent to Cuba. (Click here for more information.)  Fabrizio Hochschild, UN resident coordinator in Colombia, explained that the FARC request was “repetitive and insistent”, that the Colombian government did not object, and that both peace delegations facilitated the process.  (See “¿Quién es alias ‘Alonso’?“)

In the twenty-ninth round of discussions, there were charged debates over whether General (ret.) Luis Mendieta, who participated in the third delegation of victims, should be considered as a victim.  The FARC have consistently argued that international guidelines define different definitions of victimhood for combatants and civilians, and while they did not object to Mendieta’s participation, they did not believe he should be considered a victim.   They reiterated their position on victims in a statement on Oct. 25,    noting that the recognition of combatant victims should be guided by Conventions I, II, and III of the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol II, which establish the standards for the treatment of civilians and combatants in internal armed conflicts.  (See the FARC statement here.)  Only those combatants whose rights under these protocols have been violated, the FARC argue, should be considered as victims.

Furthermore, the FARC have consistently called for parity at the table.  If the military were represented in the victims’ delegations, they have stated, the same treatment should be extended to insurgent victims.  (See the discussion in my earlier post here.)

Movement in Discussions on Victims

During the thirtieth session, with the hefty reinforcement of their leadership (see my last post here), the FARC has generated and made public numerous proposals and positions related to the topic of victims.  In a press conference on Oct. 30, 2014, the newly arrived Pablo Atrato, a spokesmen for the peace delegation of the FARC, read a statement on behalf of the FARC, in which the FARC admitted that their actions had affected the civilian population during the 50-year armed conflict, and that they would assume their responsibility before the victims.  “We are aware that the consequences of our actions have not always been foreseen or expected by the FARC-EP,” the statement read.  “The FARC-EP will assume the responsibility that concerns it before the victims.”  (Read more here).

Threats Continue

The Nov. 1 press release by the UN, National University, and Episcopal Conference reiterated the critical situation faced by men and women leaders of land restitution processes, members of the LGBTI community, journalists, and members of human rights groups and peace communities.  In the press conference announcing the delegation members, Hochschild denounced the continuing threats against staff, including members of the Government, who are involved in the peace process.  Hochschild called the threats an “indicator of a country that is still in conflict, where there are actors [operating] on the margins of the law and with a certain impunity.”  (See more here.)

New threats were reported again this week against supporters of the peace talks.  (See related Semana article here.)  It is clear that these are just the tip of the iceberg.  In a meeting one month ago of thirty women mediators sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Institute of Political Studies at the University of Bucaramanga, most of the women participants reported being under threat.  A few who enjoyed the protection of the government’s National Protection Unit had come without bodyguards because budget shortages would not permit the guards to travel outside of Bogota.  One woman had gone into hiding because of continued threats and was unable to attend the workshops.  Most of these threats occur in conflict regions outside of Bogota, where threats against women appear to be especially underreported.

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