Talking Peace in a Time of War

January 20, 2014

Delegations of the Colombian government (now joined by Nigeria Rentería and María Paulina Riveros) and the FARC-EP (joined by Julián Conrado) initiated the nineteenth cycle of peace talks in Havana on Monday, January 13.   On Wednesday, January 15th, they issued their thirty-first joint communiqué, advising that the delegations have exchanged proposals related to the problem of illicit drugs and will now work separately to study them before resuming joint conversations at the table.

Unilateral Ceasefire Ends

The FARC announced an end to their one-month unilateral ceasefire, which lasted from Dec. 15, 2013-January 15, 2014.  (It had enacted a previous two-month ceasefire from Nov. 20, 2012-Jan. 20, 2013.)  Analysts agree that despite some violations of the ceasefire, violence dropped significantly in the last month, and the ceasefire largely  demonstrated FARC cohesion and capacity to control virtually all of their fronts.  Fundación Paz y Reconciliación, headed by León Valencia, reported that during the ceasefire, the FARC conducted 20 military operations, down from the monthly average of 182 military actions between the FARC and the military during 2013, and that 4 of these could be considered in violation of the ceasefire.  The Centro de Recursos de Análisis del Conflicto (CERAC) reported 12 violations, and the Early Warning System of the government’s Defensoría del Pueblo reported 7 violations, including 3 cases where FARC actions caused civilian populations to be forcibly displaced. (See Semana coverage of the debate here.)

From the table in Havana, the FARC noted their “full compliance” with the ceasefire, despite the “permanent aggressions and provocations of the Government armed forces.”  In a FARC-EP statement read by one of the FARC negotiators, Pablo Catatumbo noted that the military actions in which some FARC units engaged were acts of “legitimate defense” in response to aggressions by the government troops.  He called the ceasefire evidence of the FARC’s political will and commitment to the Colombian people, as well as a sign of its “cohesion and political unity”.  (Read his statement here.)

Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón contested FARC assessments of a successful ceasefire and insisted that the FARC had showed themselves “incapable of fulfilling their word.”  The Colombian military, under instructions from President Juan Manuel Santos, has continued to exercise military pressure on the FARC throughout the peace talks.

Gestures of Peace in the Midst of Violence?

Ironically, the government’s decision to escalate the war while they are talking peace makes it more of a challenge for the government to identify “gestures of peace” that might show good will and build continued confidence at the peace table and among the public at large.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.”

In an open letter to the government and the guerrillas on Dec. 10, 2013 (International Human Rights Day), Colombian social sectors joined in a “social clamor for peace” and warned that “negotiating in the middle of the conflict can strangle the peace talks, because they lead to the incredulity  of the primary constituency called to endorse the accords.”  Moreover, they wrote, it allows advocates of war to use the armed confrontation to “strengthen themselves as an electoral option against peace.” (See the “Social Clamor for Peace” here.)

Short of a bilateral ceasefire, which the government has consistently rejected, concrete actions that relieve the suffering of civilian populations in particular areas for particular time periods, including de-mining or limiting military actions to areas not occupied by civilians, could contribute to building the legitimacy and momentum of the talks.  There are many proposals from civil society that offer good ideas on how this might be done.  The Citizens Commissions for Reconciliation in Arauca have proposed that the parties commit to protecting the civilian populations, and avoid perpetrating military attacks near schools and hospitals. (See post on Arauca meetings here.)  Those who signed the Social Clamor for Peace called on the insurgency to cease attacks on infrastructure, the recruitment of child soldiers, and the planting of land mines.  There could be agreements not to use certain kinds of weaponry or to bomb areas that could result in  civilian casualties.  Such policies as part of a peace process would go a long way toward preparing the populace to support a peace accord.

In the context of an ongoing war, however, both sides tend to scale up their military activities in order to garner a better negotiating position at the table.  This can be counterproductive for peace, as the ongoing violence feeds public skepticism and creates the illusion that a military victory might yet be possible.  In South Africa and Northern Ireland, violence escalated at critical points during peace negotiations when agreements were just about to be reached.  In both cases, the increase in violence was used to underscore the urgency of a negotiated settlement and did not derail the negotiations.  In Colombia’s last peace process, the talks ended in an upsurge of violence that caught peace proponents off guard.  This time, civil society sectors, such as the Women’s Summit for Peace, have been clear that they expect the parties to stay at the table until agreement is reached, regardless of any outbreak of violence.

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About Ginny Bouvier

Love reading, writing, thinking, and working with people to make the world a better place. Family and friends, yoga, travel, photography, perusing dessert menus keep me sane. Latin American enthusiast. Peace practitioner yearning for justice. Heading up the Colombia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, but tweets and posts are my own.
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