Race to a Finish Line That Proves Elusive Brings Multiple Advances at Colombia’s Peace Table

March 15, 2016

With less than two weeks before the March 23rd deadline for a final peace deal between the Colombian government and the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC-EP), President Juan Manuel Santos announced this week that he would not “sign a bad agreement” just to meet a deadline and proposed setting a new date for a final agreement. (See Santos statement here.) The March 23 deadline for a final agreement to end Colombia’s half-century old conflict had been announced in a historic press conference in Havana with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC’s top leader Rodrigo Londoño (aka “Timochenko”) last September 23 following nearly three years of peace talks.

This weekend, FARC leaders agreed with Santos’s assessment and expressed their willingness to define a revised schedule. (See Timochenko statement here.)  In a March 13 interview, “Timochenko” noted, “We had already discussed that it was impossible to reach a final agreement for March 23, but we could come up with something, and what better than a bilateral and definitive ceasefire.”

Postponing the deadline is a bold and mature move, and a recognition that important items still need to be discussed at the table.  

In the last three years, the parties have secured provisional agreements on four of the six agenda items laid out as the basis for the talks.  It has taken persistence and hard work to get to this point.  There is still, however, much to be done before an agreement can be signed.  Two key agenda items–ending the conflict, and the mechanisms for endorsement, verification, and implementation of the agreements–remain without resolution, as well as a range of issues related to prior agreements that were put on the back burner.

Ending the Conflict

Ending the conflict and establishing the terms for formalizing a definitive, bilateral ceasefire has been the focus of much of the discussion since the negotiations initiated a new cycle on March 2.  There have been significant advances on this front in the first quarter of 2016:

  1. Agreement has been reached that the FARC would begin to set aside their arms 60 days after the signing of a final peace deal.  At the behest of the parties, the UN Security Council approved Resolution 2261 and agreed to establish an unarmed political mission in Colombia to oversee this process as well as to verify and monitor the bilateral ceasefire and cessation of hostilities. (See earlier post here.)  Planning for staffing the mission is already under way, although the budget and particulars will depend on the final agreement itself. (See “Misión de ONU…ya está en Colombia.”)
  2. On March 14, the UN Secretary General announced that the UN political mission will be headed by Jean Arnault, who has been serving as the Secretary General’s delegate on the technical submission to end the conflict at the peace talks in Havana. (See more here.)
  3. The parties have agreed to and begun implementing a variety of measures designed to de-escalate the conflict.  Since last July, when the FARC instituted a unilateral ceasefire and the government announced it would cease bombarding FARC camps, violence in Colombia (as measured in homicide rates) has been lower than it has been in decades.  Nonetheless, attacks on human rights defenders are up (see statistics here) as are attacks against indigenous and Afro-Colombian organizations and recruitment in some regions. (See “Grupos étnicos no quieren zonas de concentración“.)
  4. Joint de-mining exercises between the Colombian Army and the FARC have advanced in Antioquia and Meta. On the occasion of the recent visit of President Juan Manuel Santos to Washington, D.C. in early February, President Barak Obama announced that the United States would partner with Norway to lead a multi-donor fund for completing the de-mining of Colombia in five years.  Experts suggest that, while this is a laudable goal and would help Colombia meet its international commitments, for a variety of reasons, the process is likely to take far longer. (See “Desminado tardaría más de cinco décadas.”)
  5. Last October, the parties established new protocols to locate, document, and return the remains of some of Colombia’s estimated 79,000 disappeared. This joint plan has begun to be implemented, and has already led to the location, identification and turning over of the first group of bodies last December. (See here.)  Exhumations have been completed in San José del Guaviare, Villavicencio, Granada, Vistahermosa, and Macarena in the department of Meta; in Cimitarra in Norte de Santander; and in Bocas de Satinga in Nariño.  More than 1,000 bodies have been exhumed, or which 897 have been identified.  (See “Fiscalía exhuma.”)  A new report in English and in Spanish by the International Committee of the Red Cross provides further details on the humanitarian crisis in Colombia.
  6. The government has been reviewing the status and conditions of FARC-EP members serving time in jail and began a process of reincorporating some thirty FARC prisoners charged with the crime of “rebellion” and related minor crimes into civilian life. (See my earlier posts.)  In parallel, in February, the government announced that it would be moving military and police incarcerated for crimes related to the armed conflict to military jails. (See President Santos’s statement here.)
  7. In mid-February, the FARC announced it would stop recruiting minors under 18 (lifting its age limit for recruitment once again).  It also released the first of an estimated 2,000 child soldiers thought to be in the FARC ranks.  (See more here.)
  8. As per the terms of the joint communiqué on Jan. 22 (see communiqué here), the Centro de Pensamiento of the National University and United Nations-Colombia held a forum with the engagement of civil society on Feb. 8-10, 2016, to receive civil society inputs on the final two agenda items–ending the conflict and the implementation, verification, and endorsement of the agreements. The inputs were synthesized and delivered to the parties in Havana just one week later.

The race to meet the March 23rd deadline has meant the intensification of activity on numerous fronts simultaneously.  There is nonetheless still much to be decided, including the terms for turning over weapons–probably to a third party, with the oversight of the United Nations.  The parties must also agree on the exact number, nature, and size of the zones where the FARC will congregate, what the security provisions will be, and how many observers will be needed to oversee the process.  While a law to allow the concentration of troops to occur was passed last week, with the unanticipated backing Senator Alvaro Uribe and his Centro Democrático party, the issue is still somewhat contentious and needs to be sorted out at the table in Havana.  (See discussion here.)

Under the terms of the framework agreement signed on August 26, 2012 that set the agenda for the peace talks, a number of other particulars remain open for discussion under the topic of ending the conflict.  These include: the terms for the FARC’s reincorporation into civilian life; security guarantees; clarification of  paramilitary activity;  accountability for attacks against human rights defenders, social movements and political movements; and institutional reforms that would enable the government to confront anticipated peace-building challenges.

Ratification, Verification, and Implementation  

In addition to finalizing an agreement on ending the conflict, the last agenda item relates to endorsement, verification and implementation.  This topic has yet to be addressed at the table.  In some ways, this final cluster of themes would seem to be rather technical and merely a question of procedures.  These issues nonetheless are probably the most important of all, as they will dictate whether and how the peace agreements are transformed into reality and whether implementation is robust enough to address the drivers of conflict in a way that will enable the peace to be sustainable. Each of these topics–endorsement, verification, and implementation– merits its own discussion, and will be taken up in future blogs.

Provisional Agreements

In addition to finalizing the last two agenda items from the framework agreement, there are a number of items still pending from prior provisional agreements that are under review by the parties.

On March 3rd, the government announced that it would begin to implement part of the agreements reached on the theme of agrarian development, the first item taken up when the peace talks were launched in late 2012.  In this regard, Rafael Pardo, the Minister-Counselor for the Post-Conflict, visited the Amazonian department of Guaviare, and pledged that in the coming months, the government would be modernizing the department’s rural land registry in 12 locations. It would expand the registry to 100 more municipalities next year, and expects to complete the registry in 5 years. Some 21 percent of the land holders in Colombia do not have formal titles to their lands, and these efforts, as laid out in the provisional agreements reached in Havana on agrarian development, propose to address this deficit.

Juan Camilo Restrepo, former Minister of Agriculture, has urged the government to move expeditiously to prepare the institutional structures that will be needed to translate agreements into reality.  He has advised the government not to delay in establishing a budget for rural development in its national development plan, and noted the need to create a major rural development institution.  Likewise, the government will need to create and administer a land fund, which will be responsible for distributing land to 250,000 peasant families.  Restrepo has noted that implementation of this land fund in the first year after signing an agreement will be critical to the success of the peace deal. (See “El posacuerdo rural”).

For all of the provisional agreements reached and those to come, there will be a review by the gender submission.  There is also considerable institutional work needed on each of the agreements to have the structures in place to move quickly once everything is finalized.  According to a recent report by the Mission for Election Observing (MOE), for example, the implementation of the provisional agreement on political participation is likely to require some “eight statutory laws, seven decrees, 6 acts of political will, five legislative acts, four ordinary laws and at least one administrative action.”

A newly created civil society driven alliance between the National Afro-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA) and the National Organization of Indigenous Colombians (ONIC) has announced the formation of a non-governmental Ethnic Commission for Peace (Comisión Etnica para la Paz y la Defensa de los Derechos Territoriales de Colombia).  The groups called for an additional review of all agreements from an ethnic perspective. (See their statement here.)


In sum, there is much activity in Havana–and in Colombia–to prepare for peace.  There is much, much more to be done.  A delay of the March 23rd deadline is well-founded and buys time for advances to be made on many fronts.  A delay should not jeopardize the process so long as progress persists.  There is every reason to expect that the parties in Havana will continue what until now has been a responsible and serious job of creating agreements that will stick.   Added time to resolve pending differences and attention to strengthening the mechanisms for implementation of the agreements is a worthwhile investment of time that will help ensure that the accords can be brought to fruition successfully.


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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