Confidence Builds for Peace in Colombia

Dec. 2, 2015

Colombia’s peace talks have seen an acceleration of activity since Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC commander-in-chief Rodrigo Londoño (aka ‘Timoleón Jiménez’ or ‘Timochenko’) met in Havana on Sept. 23 and promised there would be a final peace deal signed in six months time. The parties have continued to work on two of the pending agenda items—victims and ending the conflict–and commissions and sub-commissions created by the parties have continued to meet in parallel sessions, making for a complex, intense, and accelerated pace of work.  The pressure is on, as the proposed deadline is now less than four months away.

This week, the parties are nearing the end of their 44th cycle of peace talks. The cycle, which began on Nov. 18, was extended on Nov. 28 in hopes of producing an agreement on victims before the parties recess.  According to press reports, the agreement is expected to be announced by week’s end and will address victims’ rights to truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition.

43rd Cycle Highlights

The 43rd round of talks ran from Nov. 3-13. It was marked among other things by efforts to resolve differences over the Sept. 23rd justice accords and a series of confidence-building measures that are contributing to greater momentum in the process.

Justice Accords Still Under Discussion

Disagreements over whether the justice agreement reached in Havana on Sept. 23 was final cast a temporary shadow over the innovative solution the parties had found to dealing with past abuses. The proposed solution creates a special jurisdiction for peace, including a peace tribunal and special courts; rejects amnesties for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide; requires “effective deprivation of liberty” (a concept yet to be fully defined) for perpetrators of serious crimes; provides amnesty for political crimes and related activities; and privileges restorative justice formulas that give victims a central role in determining outcomes and reparations. (See my previous posts on the transitional justice agreement.) The justice agreement is a critical part of the comprehensive system of truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition envisioned by the parties to address the rights of victims.

Soon after the Sept. 23 justice agreement was announced, it became clear that the parties had different interpretations of what had been agreed to. Humberto de la Calle, the lead government negotiator, maintained that the agreement, said to consist of 75 points, still needed to be finalized. (See my previous post for details.) Iván Márquez, lead negotiator for the FARC-EP, pronounced that the agreement reached on Sept. 23 was final and required no further adjustments; he noted that the clock for the six-month deadline was contingent on this assumption.

The FARC in the end accepted to re-open consideration of the particulars of the accord and the parties have been working to produce a final justice agreement.  With the assistance of Cuba and Norway, they agreed to a process for moving forward. They convened the transitional justice sub-commission that had helped to craft the initial agreement. The sub-commission has been meeting since Oct. 17 in an effort to help break through the logjam. In an interview on Nov. 23, Timochenko noted that the parties have now reached agreement on all but one of the 75 points, and it is thought that a full agreement on victims is close to completion.

Confidence Building Measures Announced

Since the Sept. 23 meeting of President Santos and Timochenko, a series of confidence-building measures by both the government and the FARC-EP demonstrate that the parties are preparing to wind down the war. Such gestures of peace are critical to maintaining trust at the table, particularly when differences arise. They are also helping to create greater confidence in the peace process among constituents in Colombia, who will be called upon to ratify and implement the agreements.

  • FARC Leader Calls Halt on Arms Purchases and Military Training

On November 11, FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño (aka ‘Timochenko’) announced that on Sept. 30, he had given the order to his troops to cease buying arms and munitions.  Likewise, in October, Timochenko instructed his troops to stop providing military training to FARC troops, and declared that FARC recruitment policies were under review.

  • FARC Commits to Ending Recruitment of Minors

On Nov. 6, the FARC-EP announced that they would stop recruiting minors under 18 years of age, and would release from their ranks any youths under age 15.  Progress on this issue has been slow but steady, and this is indeed a welcome gesture. In February 2015, the FARC announced its decision to stop recruiting minors under age 17, just short of the age limit set by international codes for childhood recruitment.

The FARC’s announcement came following a second visit to Havana by Leila Zerrogui, the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. Zerrougui spent several days with the government and FARC peace delegation members discussing the fate of children in Colombia’s armed conflict, the international standards relating to reintegration, and the need to protect the best interests of the child. She underscored in particular the importance of addressing the differentiated safety and security needs of girls, orphans, Afro-Colombians, and indigenous children at all stages of the demobilization and reintegration process, and of the need to find ways to prevent the re-recruitment of children.

Zerrougui called the FARC’s decision to cease recruitment of minors “an important step to protect the children of Colombia and to bring the FARC-EP’s recruitment practices in line with national and international law.” She urged the FARC to implement their latest commitment “through command orders disseminated widely within the ranks of the FARC-EP.”  (See her statement here in Spanish and English.)

  • Colombian State Apologizes for Palace of Justice Abuses

Another confidence- building gesture—this time on the part of the government–came on the occasion of the thirty-year anniversary of the burning of the Palace of Justice in 1985.

In a commemoration at the Palace of Justice on Nov. 6, 2015, President Santos recalled “one of the saddest and most painful chapters in our history,” when dozens of M-19 insurgents, in protest over the government’s failure to make good on a truce promised by President Belisario Betancur, took over the Palace of Justice and held hundreds of people hostage, including the 25 magistrates of Colombia’s Supreme Court. The outcome was tragic. The Colombian Army stormed the building in a dramatic show of force to reclaim it from the rebels. Calls to the President Betancur by Supreme Court President Alfonso Reyes asking for a ceasefire in order to negotiate a solution fell on deaf ears. In the Army siege, nearly one hundred people, including the President of the Supreme Court and all the magistrates inside, were killed, and a dozen people, mostly cafeteria workers, were forcibly disappeared.

Relatives of the victims have worked for years to seek justice and to clarify what happened to their loved ones. In Dec. 2014, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the State was responsible for forced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial executions and ordered the State to undertake a series of reparations, including providing educational opportunities and psychosocial support to victims’ relatives, historical memory initiatives to dignify the victims’ memories, and various other truth-telling initiatives.

View a film by the International Center for Transitional Justice on the Palace of Justice here:

In commemoration of the anniversary of the siege of the Palace of Justice, President Santos fulfilled part of the court’s order when he apologized on behalf of the State and asked for forgiveness from family members of the victims. (Read his full statement here.)  “Peace is forgiveness, peace is reconciliation, peace is re-encountering, but peace is also admitting responsibilities,” Santos declared. Santos’s move is a necessary step toward restoring faith in government institutions. Full disclosure, truth-telling, and justice in this paradigmatic case will be indispensable for greater reconciliation. 

  • Parties Advance on Missing Persons

As the 43rd cycle of peace talks in Havana wound down, the Government and FARC delegations continued to make progress on the issue of the disappeared. On Nov. 13, the delegates met in Havana with Carlos Valdés, the Director of the Legal Medicine Institute, and Christoph Harnisch, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Colombia, to discuss implementation of the Agreement on the Disappeared that the parties had agreed to on October 18. (See my earlier posts.) In their meeting, they agreed to prioritize the creation of a unit for seeking the disappeared in Colombia.

Shortly thereafter, Representative Clara Rojas, President of the Human Rights Commission of the Colombian Congress, invited Sergio Jaramillo, High Commissioner for Peace, to discuss the advances on the issue with the Congress. Accompanied by Paula Gaviria, the director of the government’s Victims Unit; Carlos Valdés from Legal Medicine; and the delegates from the ICRC who participated in the Havana conversations. As Jaramillo explained to the congressional session, the accord on disappearances is not just fulfilling a legal obligation of the government. “As [the] State, we have the moral obligation to do everything possible to end this so sorrow, to respond to these families [of the disappeared], so that the latter might find some form of relief,” he said. Jaramillo underscored the role of the Unit that is being created by the Accord in organizing and centralizing the information that exists on the disappeared and in proactively gathering new information. “At times the victims themselves are the ones who have to appeal to the victimizers and that cannot be. The State must be the one to do this.” Jaramillo also briefed the Congresspeople on the commitments made by the FARC to provide information that will assist in the identification of those who died in their hands.

International Support

 The international community has made its own new gestures of support for the peace process. In the first week of November, the European Union named Eamon Gilmore as special envoy for the peace process. Gilmore joins the special envoys from the United States (Bernie Aronson) and Germany (Tom Koenigs), the special representative of the UN Secretary General Jean Arnault, and Uruguayan representative of UNASUR José Bayardi in providing direct support at the talks. The United Nations, the ICRC, Norwegian People’s Aid, the OAS Mission to Support the Peace Process, and the group of nations accompanying the talks (Cuba, Norway, Venezuela and Chile) have continued to play quiet but essential roles in supporting various aspects of the process.

Ceasefire for the Holidays?

In late October, President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC peace delegate Ricardo Telles (aka “Rodrigo Granda”) conversed via Twitter on the prospects for a definitive bilateral ceasefire and cessation of hostilities by January 1 or even Dec. 16th. On Nov. 18, while on a trip to the Philippines for the 23rd Summit of the Forum of APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), President Santos announced that he had secured unanimous support from the 5 members of the United Nations Security Council (France, England, China, United States, Russia) to collaborate in the monitoring and verification of a bilateral ceasefire. Both the FARC and the Colombian government will need to make a joint request to the Security Council for the process to be initiated. Once a mandate is approved, the United Nations would need to authorize the resources and staff for the verification.


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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