June 26, 2015
I have been traveling in recent weeks and without internet access, so, before the 38th round of talks which has been underway since June 17th comes to a close, let me do a brief recap of the prior cycle of talks, the escalation of the war that marked them, and some of the efforts to keep the process on track.
At dawn on the morning of Thursday, May 21, just hours before the 37th round of peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC was to resume in Havana, the Colombian Air Force, Army and police carried out a joint, coordinated attack on FARC Front 29 in Guapi (Cauca) and killed 26 FARC insurgents. “This operation is an important blow from our public forces, who I congratulate for their commitment and bravery,” declared President Juan Manuel Santos. (See his statement here.)
The coordinated operation reportedly responded to a FARC assault one week earlier that left 11 Army soldiers dead in the same region, and prompted public debates about whether the FARC had violated its own ceasefire, which had been in effect since last December. An investigative mission by the Broad Front for Peace found numerous irregularities and called for further investigation. (See more here and here.) In subsequent days and weeks, the military intensified offensive operations, and Santos renewed the bombing of FARC camps, which he had suspended for one month in recognition of advances in the talks and de-escalation measures that were moving forward regarding de-mining and recruitment of youths. (See my earlier post here.)
Suspension of Ceasefire
The FARC responded to the renewed military offensive by suspending their unilateral ceasefire. (See their statement here.) The FARC had reiterated for months that they could not hold the ceasefire indefinitely in the midst of an ongoing government military offensive, and it has undoubtedly proven challenging for the leadership in Havana to explain to their troops why they should maintain the ceasefire when they were under consistent attack.
Just days before the joint attack in Cauca, FARC peace negotiator Pastor Alape gave an interview that was cited in El Colombiano and outlined the FARC position: “The situation is complicated,” he said. “There are offensive operations throughout the country, shootings and aerial bombings, and mortar fire. The unilateral ceasefire decreed by the FARC is becoming unsustainable on the ground, because the intensity of the military operations has reduced the capacity for defensive maneuvers to avoid armed confrontations. … We hope that the government will understand the need to advance in the de-escalation of the conflict, and not encourage its acceleration.”
Unilateral ceasefires are by nature highly unstable and difficult to sustain over time. Of 37 ceasefire agreements reached globally in 2014, only 3 were unilateral and the remainder, constituting 91.9% of the ceasefires worldwide, were bilateral. The unilateral ceasefires–called by the TTP in southern Thailand, the PKK in Turkey, and the FARC in Colombia–were short-lived. (On this theme, see Vicenc Fisas, Anuario 2015 sobre procesos de paz, here.)
Many, particularly in the Bogota elite, failed to appreciate the impact of the unilateral ceasefire, declared Dec. 20, 2014, while it was in effect. Attorney General Alejandro Ordóñez called the FARC’s ceasefire a “caricature.” In practice, he said, citing violent attacks in recent months, “it was not being carried out.” (See article here.)
On the other hand, the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, an independent Colombian NGO, credited the ceasefire with saving 614 soldiers from casualties or injuries since it was announced last December–a 85% decline in attacks. Likewise, the research center CERAC recognized that with the unilateral ceasefire, civilian deaths declined by 73 percent and the deaths of public security forces declined by 64%. (See references here.)
Nonetheless, independent monitoring of the unilateral ceasefire proved difficult. Differentiating between offensive and defensive actions in an unfolding context of war was next to impossible, and each charge of rupture seemed to contribute to greater skepticism about the peace process more generally. When independent reports on the violations were issued, they had little echo in the media, and little capacity to alter an already hardened public opinion. The lack of a bilateral ceasefire in Colombia, widely and increasingly demanded by many sectors of civil society, continues to foster public skepticism about the peace process and the insurgents’ commitment to a political solution. Ironically, government actions on the battlefield don’t seem to generate the same level of skepticism, but rather are viewed widely as efforts to maintain pressure on the FARC to reach agreement in Havana.
Acceleration of War
The violence in Cauca beginning in April launched an intensification of hostilities, a hardening of media coverage toward the peace process and the guerrillas, increased skepticism among the public, and a (hopefully temporary) reversal of the de-escalation measures that had been slowly taking place in prior weeks. The military bombings during the last cycle of talks from May 21-June 4 also initiated a new displacement crisis in Cauca, where military operations have continued. Mauricio Redondo, the regional public defender (defensor del pueblo) from Cauca, reported that hundreds of Afro-Colombians had fled the region of Guapi (see more here and here.)
Fighting and military attacks since then have accelerated. A second Air Force bombing in Segovia (Antioquia) killed 10 more guerrillas shortly after the Cauca attack. (See article here.) At the end of May, Joint Air Force, Army and Police intelligence carried out a military operation in the municipality of Riosucio in the department of Chocó against the FARC’s 18th front, leaving 4 guerrillas dead, including long-time commander Alfredo Alarcón Machado, alias Román Ruíz. Dozens of guerrillas were killed in the attacks including two FARC peace delegation members who had been authorized to leave Havana to educate their troops about the peace process.
With the suspension of the unilateral ceasefire, the FARC has escalated its military operations in many parts of the country. They have carried out attacks on security forces, police stations and patrols. They have attacked electric-supply lines, oil pipelines and mining and energy infrastructure. Their activities have hit civilian populations hard, and are causing extensive environmental damage. In June, FARC attacks on energy towers left 200,000 people in four municipalities of Nariño without power. (See here.) In Putumayo, alleged FARC members attacked 19 oil trucks, each carrying some 15-20,000 gallons of crude oil, forcing massive oil spills. (See more on Putumayo here.) On June 29, insurgents attacked the Trans-Andino pipeline, causing a spill of some 410,000 gallons of crude oil near the port city of Tumaco, in the department of Nariño. (See more here.) They launched other attacks in Norte de Santander, Valle del Cauca, and Arauca, among other places. (See, for example, reports on damage to the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline.)
Violence and the Peace Process
The acceleration of violence should come as no real surprise in a context of ongoing war, but the consequences are tragic and may accelerate support for the peace process to do what it is meant to do–end the war. The decision to negotiate in the midst of the conflict was a condition imposed by the Colombian government and accepted by the FARC. It has proven a difficult strategy in that each bellicose action feeds the public’s skepticism about the peace process. This skepticism makes it increasingly hard to isolate the peace table from events on the battle field.
Ironically, each violent act by the insurgents is seen as a sign that their desire for peace is less than it should be. Acts of war by the government, on the other hand, are not viewed in the same way. The FARC continue to call for a bilateral ceasefire, a call which echoes the demands of many sectors of civil society and the international community for the same. President Santos has consistently posited that there will be no bilateral ceasefire until a final agreement has been reached.
It is unusual for peace talks to produce reductions in violence while a peace process is underway, particularly in the absence of a concerted bilateral ceasefire. The more common pattern during a peace process is that violence will spike when negotiations are hitting their most sensitive topics or when they are closest to achieving success. But these norms are often lost on populations that feel the heat of the conflict most directly, and violence can be used by spoilers to fan discontent and shut down a peace process.
Responses to the Escalation Vary
The intensification of the war has generated reactions from a wide range of politicians and civil society actors. It has provoked renewed calls for setting deadlines on the negotiating teams (including from within President Juan Manuel Santos’s own coalition), and debates about whether this is the best path forward. (For arguments as to why it might be best to avoid forced deadlines, see the article by Alejo Vargas on this topic here.) Former President Alvaro Uribe, who has been perhaps the staunchest opponent of the talks in Havana, has launched a new call for peace (see his proposal here) that is under review by the Santos government. With elections in October, his Center Democratic Party may be looking to soften its image as an anti-peace party or, as other more cynical analysts suggest may want to ensure that the failure of the talks will not be put at their door. Comptroller General Alejandro Ordóñez, another critic of the process, has also called for a broad political pact for peace (see more here). Green Alliance leaders Claudia Lopez and Antonio Navarro called on the Santos government to cut talks off on April 9 if an agreement was not signed by then. Their proposal created some waves, however, as it had not been fully vetted by the party leadership. (See more here.)
The hardening of the conflict has also prompted numerous actions and letters on the part of international organizations like the United Nations, the guarantor countries (Norway and Cuba), and a wide spectrum of civil society urging a political solution that includes de-escalation measures and a bilateral ceasefire. Fabrizio Hochschild underscored the impact of the escalation of violence, noting on June 3, that in the previous 50 days, 70 military and guerrilla insurgents had been killed, at least 400 people newly displaced, and 2,000 persons confined without access to health, education or work. He called on the parties to re-evaluate the rules of the process and the continuation of the war during the peace talks. (See his statement here.) The European Union called on the parties to reaffirm their commitment to “continue talks” and insisted on the adoption of “concrete measures for the de-escalation of the conflict.” In a rare intervention on May 27, 2015, Cuba and Norway called on the parties to advance in the construction of a bilateral, definitive ceasefire. (See their statement here.)
The Office of the Mayor of Bogota echoed the call of the Bogota citizenry calling for a bilateral ceasefire, noting that every Thursday since January 15 of this year and until a peace accord is signed, citizens will continue to light a Flame of Peace and hold a permanent vigil to support the peace process. (View the announcement here.)
Civil society organizations are also rising to the new challenges. The newly configured Afro-Colombian National Peace Council (CONPA) has demanded a bilateral ceasefire and the adoption of humanitarian accords and protective measures for Afro-Colombian leaders that are threatened or at risk. (See CONPA statement.) They announced that they would form a humanitarian mission to Tumaco and other communities and called for international support for their endeavor.
Dozens of women’s organizations and leaders called on the negotiators and their leaders to make a pact for a bilateral ceasefire. “War is the failure of politics, the death of democracy, the defeat of reason, and meaningless for us. We do not share its logics or its strategies, but we suffer its consecuencess and we cry for its victims, many of whom are members of our families, friends, and neighbors.” (See their letter here).
In the international community, dozens of faith leaders wrote to President Barack Obama and Members of the U.S. Congress, recognizing and applauding their bipartisan support for the peace process, as well as the February 2015 appointment of Bernie Aronson as U.S. Special Envoy for the Colombian Peace Process. (Read Aronson’s remarks at a recent Congressional hearing here or view them here— You may need to scroll to the bottom of the page.) The faith leaders urged the U.S. political leadership to support citizen initiatives to implement “peace with truth and justice,” and called on it to foster peace negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN). “Peace will only be fully achieved when all the actors on the battlefield seek to put an end to the conflict,” they wrote. (Read their full statement in Spanish or English.)
Additional Signs of Hope
In addition to the above samples of initiatives of support for the peace talks, the negotiation in Havana of specific measures to de-escalate the conflict–human rights agreements, de-mining initiatives such as that currently under way in Antioquia, agreements about the use of child soldiers or the disappeared–can sometimes help to build confidence in the process.
Throughout the 37th round and again in the 38th round of talks, which is just ending, the parties have sought measures to address reparations for victims and to de-escalate the conflict. (See article here.) Following the suspension of the unilateral ceasefire in May, the parties in Havana worked separately on Saturday, May 23, and resumed discussions on Monday. Their persistence at the table, under increasing pressures from each of their constituencies, is promising. In early March, the Army and the FARC embarked on a landmark joint de-mining initiative in Antioquia that has been put into practice with some success. (See my earlier post here.) Such measures are exactly what is needed to win back the faith of the public that the peace talks are making a difference. Furthermore, by the end of the 37th round (which was extended by four days to end on June 4), the parties were able to announce a major advance related to the theme of victims. In a joint declaration on June 4, they announced an agreement to establish a Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Co-Existence (Convivencia), and Non-Repetition, which would be initiated as an independent, impartial, extra-judicial body once a final peace accord is signed. (See the joint communique here.) This too is a huge step forward and reason to believe that the continued hard work of the negotiators will come to a positive conclusion.