Peace Talks with the ELN?

January 12, 2015

As the FARC and government prepare to move ahead with the next round of talks in Havana, it is worth stepping back to look at the evolution of what may become a formal peace process with the National Liberation Army (ELN).  This process is likely (at least initially) to be separate from, but closely linked to, the current process in Havana, and is something that civil society leaders have long solicited.

ELN Willing to Consider Abandoning Arms  

This week, political pundits in Bogota continue to grapple with the meaning of the Jan. 7 announcement of ELN top commander Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista (“Gabino”) that the ELN had concluded its Fifth National Congress in clandestinity, affirmed its commitment to a political solution to Colombia’s armed conflict, and agreed to set aside its arms pending confirmation of the “real will of the Colombian government and State to end the conflict.”  The final statement of the congress (read it here) noted, “For more than 50 years we have taken up arms because we understood that the legal channels for popular struggle were closed: we continue to think the same today. The government has proposed its disposition to put an end to the armed conflict and for that [reason] has summoned the insurgency.  We will attend this dialogue to analyze the real disposition of the Colombian government and State; if in this review we conclude that arms are not necessary, we would have the disposition to consider whether we would stop using them.”

In an interview with “Gabino”, the latter affirmed, “If the dialogues that we are carrying out with the government today reach satisfactory agreements, which is what we expect, the ELN will continue fighting within the definitions that these agreements outline; because the peace accords are a take-off point for continuing to fight for all the objectives and dreams that the Colombian people have.” (See interview with “Gabino” here.)

The statement, which was made fifty years to the date of the military launch of the National Liberation Army (ELN) with the insurgency’s siege of Simacota in the department of Santander, did not live up to the anticipatory hype in the press and on social media of previous weeks.  The media had suggested that the ELN were poised to announce a major initiative, and much of the press focused on the shortcomings of the statement, which fell short of the expectations created in the press that the ELN might announce a unilateral ceasefire, the date for the launch of formal peace talks, or a decision to end kidnappings or the recruitment of minors. (See related Semana article here.)

Significance of the ELN Statement 

Unfulfilled expectations aside, the ELN’s statement can be considered a positive sign.  It represents an evolving position of ELN unity and internal cohesion around strategic interests that favor peace.  Given that the National Congress is considered to be the “maximum authority” of the ELN, the Fifth National Congress’s backing for pursuing a political solution to the conflict will give the ELN leadership greater authority with which to negotiate should formal talks be launched.  This body is responsible for formulating the insurgencies’ policies and strategies, and its decisions provide guidelines for operations for the coming years (the ELN held its last National Congress in 2006).  (See related press release here.)

All of the key regional commanders of the ELN — including hard-liners such as Carlos Antonio Marín, aka ‘Pablo’ o ‘Pablito’, head of the Eastern Block of the ELN in the oil-producing Arauca region — participated in the latest Congress. The conclusions thus represent a consensus across the different regions of the country to embrace formal peace talks with the government.  Ariel Avila, an analyst with the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, underscored that the ELN, given their organizational structure, have traditionally had a hard time reaching agreement.  He observed, “Although people expected more and the ELN could have said more, it is important that such a decentralized, “federalist” structure would reach an agreement in which it would opt for a political exit and peace”.  (Read an interview with Avila here.)

Prospects for peace talks with the ELN are also strengthened by the continued leadership of Nicolás Rodríguez at the helm, and the integration of urban ELN leaders and hard-liners into the new ELN directorate (COCE).  Rodríguez was one of the founders of the ELN fifty years ago and a long-time advocate of peace talks.

Context of the Recent Announcement

The recent statements by ELN leaders and the conclusions of the Congress are perhaps best understood within the context of an evolving relationship between the ELN and the government of Colombia.  Last June, President Santos announced that secret, exploratory talks with the ELN had been underway since January 2014, after a series of prior conversations in 2013.  (See Santos’s statement here.)  Santos promised that the process with the ELN would be “serious, dignified, realistic, and efficient.”  In a joint statement, government and ELN representatives who had been engaged in the exploratory talks expressed their “reciprocal will to continue the exploratory phase in order to agree on an agenda and establish peace talks to arrive at the signing of a final agreement.” (Click here for their joint statement).

President Santos nonetheless laid out what would be required to advance to formal talks.  Unless the ELN met the “necessary conditions,” said Santos, the government “will not take the next step, which is the initiation of a formal peace table.”  These conditions, which were met by the FARC in their process, include agreement that:

  1.  The goal of the talks is to end the conflict;
  2.  The process will include disarmament;
  3.  The agenda will include themes specifically related to the conflict, like victims’ reparations, which has already been agreed;
  4.  The talks will be outside of Colombia, without a bilateral ceasefire, and without a demilitarized zone.

The statements subsequent to the ELN’s Fifth National Congress suggest that the ELN is now ready to meet the first two conditions.  Advances on the third item–establishing a common agenda–appears to have been more problematic.  While last June the parties announced their agreement that victims and the role of civil society in the peace process would be the elements of the agenda, the parties have yet to make public any further progress that they might have made in this regard.  (Click here for their joint statement).

Fleshing out the agenda and finding agreement on the scope of the talks is not easy but it may well be the key to the eventual success of peace talks.  The ELN has sought a process that would address a broad spectrum of substantive and procedural issues on its political and social agenda.  These include questions of national sovereignty, mining and extractive industries, environmental concerns, democratization and popular participation, and human rights.  (See related article by National University professor Carlos Medina Gallego here.)  President Santos has said that basic Constitutional principles, the economic model, and the Armed Forces are not under discussion.  Like the FARC, the ELN is known to favor a national constituent assembly over the government’s proposed referendum.  These differences are significant, but not insurmountable, and will need to be negotiated.  In this regard, the development of a solid agreed framework agreement is particularly important, as the FARC process has shown.  A good framework agreement will provide the road map and methodology that allows the parties to navigate through the rocky terrain of their differences.

On the fourth and final condition raised by Santos in June, the ELN appears ready to accept that the talks would not require a bilateral ceasefire to move forward, while ironically, the government may be moving toward accepting the need for a bilateral ceasefire.  Nor does there seem to be much contention around holding the peace talks out of country.  The ELN and Colombian government previously held formal talks in Havana under President Alvaro Uribe’s government.

Furthermore, the parties have assembled a small group of nations to accompany and serve as guarantors for an ELN process.  These countries include Ecuador, Brazil, and the four countries accompanying the FARC process (namely, Cuba, Norway, Venezuela, and Chile).  Ecuador has already served as a site for the exploratory talks and the location for formal talks could include any one of the aforementioned countries.

Challenges Ahead

This does not mean that peace talks with the ELN will be clear sailing.  The concluding statement of  the Fifth Congress underscores implicitly that the ELN is not looking merely to demobilize, but will continue to insist on the structural changes for which they have been fighting for fifty years.  In their peace process, the FARC has worked to secure agreements for similar structural changes.  (They reiterated this position in a statement on Jan. 8).  Both groups expect their engagement in a successful peace process to change the exclusionary and inequitable conditions that gave rise to their insurgency movements in the first place.

Ironically, the Colombian population and the international community widely accept the need for the kinds of changes that both insurgencies are proposing.  A study by the University of Vanderbilt showed that nearly 85% of the Colombian population surveyed in 2012 found the country’s income distribution to be unfair and more than 70% of the respondents believed the government should address this gap.  A recent Colombia Reports article notes the latest appalling statistics on income inequality, land inequality, and rural inequality in Colombia, including Colombia’s current status as the eighth most unequal country in the world.  (See the post here.)

While it would be naive to think that peace accords would immediately solve all of these inequalities, they could help channel national consensus toward this end.  The peace accords could guarantee that mechanisms for non-violent change and progressive politics are able to function effectively, and that, once insurgents lay down their weapons, they can safely continue to seek change within the Colombian political system.

Growing Consensus on the Need to Engage with the ELN

Furthermore, there seems to be a growing consensus that peace in Colombia requires agreements with all of the armed actors.  In this regard, President Santos has said, “A comprehensive peace process that includes both the FARC and the ELN is the best guarantee for victims and for the country that this conflict has ended for ever and that it will never happen again,” Santos noted furthermore, “We must be clear that there is only one conflict and therefore there is only one process to end the conflict.  There can’t be two models of disarmament, nor two processes of endorsement, nor two exercises for the clarification of the truth.”  (See Santos’s statement here.)

Gabino has agreed that the ELN needs to be part of a comprehensive peace process, though the ELN are clear that they want their own process.  Two months ago, the ELN leader affirmed that there will likely be a convergence of the processes with the FARC and the ELN.  “It’s about a single peace process with separate tables for a certain amount of time that at some moment will converge into a single negotiation,” he observed.

Civil society leaders have been increasingly vocal on the need for a peace process with the ELN (and periodically, the EPL as well).  In December, a few dozen notable politicians and civil society leaders and organizations expressed their concern that six months of exploratory talks still had not yet lead to formal talks. (See their statement here.)  “This concern,” they wrote, ” comes from our conviction that, without a process with the ELN, peace in Colombia will not be complete.”  They urged the government and ELN teams leading the exploratory phase to move judiciously to the next phase of formal peace talk, and not to deepen the disjuncture between the two processes by advancing the peace talks in Havana while delaying peace talks with the ELN.  Others are urging the ELN not to miss the window of opportunity.  (See Carlos Velandía’s recent articles in Semana and El Colombiano.)  The longer they wait, the less likely they will get the full process they so desperately want.


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.
This entry was posted in Colombia and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Peace Talks with the ELN?

  1. Pingback: ELN Talks Announced Last Week; Havana Talks Resume Today | COLOMBIA CALLS

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s