Feb. 25, 2015
As the Colombian government and the FARC-EP resumed their next round of talks in Havana today, they received a strong boost of support with the designation of Bernie Aronson as U.S. Special Envoy to the Colombian Peace Process. He already has plans to meet with the parties in Havana during this round, which ends on March 7.
The announcement of Aronson’s appointment came on Friday, Feb. 20. In a midday press conference, Secretary of State John Kerry introduced Aronson, noting his distinguished diplomatic career in hemispheric affairs, and his role in helping to resolve the conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua, for which he earned the State Department’s Distinguished Service Medal. Aronson was former assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs from 1989-1993 under Presidents Bush and Clinton.
The decision to appoint a special envoy to the peace process, according to Sec. Kerry, responded to a request by President Juan Manuel Santos last December. Kerry noted, “After careful consideration, President Obama has come to the conclusion – which I share, needless to say – that first, while significant obstacles remain, a negotiated peace in Colombia is absolutely worth pursuing and absolutely worth assisting if we are able to; and second, as Colombia’s close friend and ally, the United States has a responsibility to do what it can in order to help Colombia to achieve that peace.”
Watch the press conference and view the announcement here: http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2015/02/237688.htm.
President Santos was quick to express his appreciation for the appointment of the envoy, and for the prestige that Bernie Aronson brings to the job as a business man and as someone with experience related to peace processes. (See Santos’s statement here.)
The FARC, which has been calling for U.S. engagement in the peace process since the talks began, also welcomed the appointment. In a statement released shortly after the announcement, the FARC-EP peace delegation sustained that a more direct role for the United States in the peace process is a “necessity,” given the “ongoing presence and impact of the United States in the political, economic and social life of Colombia.” They noted that the United States can now “contribute to the establishment of social justice, real democracy, and the overcoming of inequality and misery, which is the way to open the certain path to peace.” (Read the communiqué here.)
Reactions in Colombia
Here in Bogota, U.S. ambassador Kevin Whitaker told me he thought Bernie Aronson was an “ideal” choice, given the strong bipartisan support he enjoys in the United States, his long-standing experience in the region, and his experience as a negotiator. In the NGO community, there is a strong sense that this is a good move and it is understood as a bold statement of support for the peace process. I announced the news as it was breaking to a meeting I was facilitating with our partners at the National Autonomous University of Bucaramanga of some 30 women mediators from 9 regions all around Colombia. The women’s reactions were favorable. They were nonetheless curious about who Aronson is and what the role of the special envoy might be. In more than five decades of war and four peace processes with the FARC (and numerous others with other groups), this is the first time the U.S. has appointed a special envoy, a sign that the process is seen as solid and likely to produce results. (The U.S. Institute of Peace published a special report on the role of special envoys that can be viewed here; view the program here.)
Most people I have talked to here seem to be pleased with the news. The feeling is that the United States has been a strong support for the Colombian government in its execution of the war, and it should be a part of its solution. Many hope that the appointment will send a message to exPresident Alvaro Uribe that the United States–both Republicans and Democrats– is no longer interested in a military solution to the conflict and is putting its full weight behind a diplomatic solution.
Issues at Stake
The issues that are on the table in this round of talks include some of the toughest yet to be encountered. The solutions reached may require U.S. (and international) support. At stake, for one, is the fate of the insurgents following the signing of an accord. FARC negotiators reiterated in the press this week their longstanding position that they would not negotiate their way into jail. All of the FARC Secretariat have pending extradition orders. There is understandable concern that they could be extradited to a U.S. jail, as were a dozen paramilitary leaders following their demobilization some years ago. Some feel that the United States might be able to give assurances that if a deal is reached on this point, it will be honored. “If Aronson is capable of ensuring that those who have the capacity to promise that there will be no extraditions in his country do so, this hurdle will be overcome,” noted one analyst. (See La Silla Vacía).
Another theme in the conversations in Havana is how to handle drug-trafficking charges and whether the United States will accept the framing of drug trafficking as a political crime. The FARC have asserted that narcotrafficking has helped to finance their insurgency, which, under Colombian law, could classify it as a crime related to rebellion. Pres. Santos has endorsed this position, but the Colombian public has found it hard to swallow, given the extensive nature of the crime. U.S. support for Santos’s position, which would allow FARC leaders to engage in politics in the future, could help unblock this particular issue.
There is also the general issue of what the international community will accept in terms of transitional justice measures. This is the first peace process to be conducted in the shadow of strict regulations of the International Criminal Court that limit negotiators from offering general amnesties and require States to investigate, judge and sanction war crimes. The threat of ICC action in the aftermath of a peace agreement that is not sufficiently punitive could help ensure that victims get their due, but finding a solution that will not cause the FARC to leave the peace talks is tricky.
In a forum this week sponsored by the newspaper daily, El Tiempo, and the Universidad de El Rosario, lead negotiator Humberto de la Calle discussed the problem of public opinion. With some 80 percent of the Colombian population favoring jail terms for the FARC, on one side, and the FARC reiterating its longstanding position that they will not serve one day of jail, on the other, the challenges for finding a solution that will be acceptable to the Colombian public and the international community are vast, and solutions have yet to be agreed to.
View the program in Spanish here:
Today, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was in Bogota, where he has been speaking in support of the Colombian peace process. I am off to hear him speak a forum on truth commissions–another pending issue for Colombia’s negotiators–sponsored by the Kofi Annan Foundation and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). They will launch the release of ICTJ’s publication, Challenging the Conventional: Can Truth Commissions Strengthen Peace Processes, in Spanish.
(A version of this article was posted earlier today on the U.S. Institute of Peace Olive Branch blog.)