Parties at Peace Talks Re-Commit to Reaching a “Good Accord”

March 29, 2016

In an historic meeting in Havana last September, the President of Colombia and the head of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) surprised the world when, after three years of peace talks, they announced they would sign an agreement to end half a century of violent conflict by March 23rd.  For months, there was speculation that President Obama and even the Pope would travel to Havana for the occasion.  While there was much disappointment that the parties did not meet the deadline in time to celebrate President Obama’s visit to Cuba–the first of a sitting U.S. President in 88 years — President Santos announced that he would not “sign a bad agreement” just to meet a deadline, and FARC leader “Timochenko” agreed that postponement was for the best.

The decision not to rush to a premature conclusion signified a recognition that, as lead negotiator Humberto de la Calle noted, “important differences on substantive issues” remain between the parties. FARC leader “Timochenko” affirmed that the delay was “fruit of the very dynamic of the negotiation, which is [dealing with] one of the most delicate and sensitive points for both sides.”  (See Univisión interview transcript here.) Timochenko added that, for the FARC, one of these issues has to do with “defining the basis by which we will be reinserted into the legal political life of Colombia,” and establishing both minimum guarantees of physical security as well as maximum guarantees that the conflict will not be reproduced.

There were also numerous unanticipated diversions that made it difficult to complete the full agenda. (See “Los obstáculos que faltan superar en el proceso de paz en su recta final.”) Major interruptions included the need to reconsider aspects of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace that were thought to be already resolved when President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC’s top leader “Timochenko” set the six-month deadline last September. (See related blog post here.) The parties were also required to deal with the “Conejo” crisis (see below), and to address and revise protocols for FARC returns to Colombia to educate their base about the peace accords. In addition, time was spent to secure a commitment by the UN Security Council to set up a political mission in Colombia to oversee the verification of a ceasefire agreement and the setting aside of arms.

The parties have reached and are moving forward implementation of a range of other agreements to build confidence.  These include initiatives on disappearances, political prisoners, and reconciliation.  The different subcommissions also continue to operate, and teams are working to fill in the gaps pending from earlier agreements on rural development, political participation, illicit crops and drug trafficking, and the accord on victims were reached.  All  vie simultaneously for the time and attention of the parties at the negotiating table.

The lack of a final agreement is clearly disappointing to all concerned.  It is already giving momentum to opponents of the peace talks and those lobbying for a military solution.  Still, the decision to extend the deadline for a final accord was well taken.  It was clearly not part of a delaying strategy nor was it indicative of a lack of political will on either side, but responded to good judgement by the Havana negotiators that more time was needed to resolve the difficult issues that remain on the table and to reach an agreement that would last. A premature signature to an incomplete agreement (such as was done last September) would have been even more damaging to the process.  Nonetheless, a rigorous education campaign is sorely needed to bring the public along.

Working Toward A “Good Accord”

Late Wednesday night, the government and FARC negotiating teams issued statements that reaffirmed their commitment to ending the conflict and seeking a way forward.  De la Calle directed himself primarily to a skeptical Colombian public, which has strongly opposed ex-FARC engagement in politics and has had little faith that the negotiations will  be successful.  A Gallup poll released earlier this month showed that 80 percent of those questioned believed that the deadline would not be met. (See summary of poll results here.)  Admittedly, the high level of skepticism responded in part to the timing of the poll, which was conducted on the heels of a much publicized incident in mid-February when FARC negotiators returned to Colombia to educate their supporters about the peace agreements  and were widely depicted as engaging in “armed proselytism.”  Images of armed FARC militants in the hamlet of Conejo in the Fonseca district of the Guajira department went viral and FARC leaders were called back to Havana.  With Norway and Cuba, the Colombian government revised the rules of engagement with stricter protocols and the crisis was overcome, but not before Comptroller General Alejandro Ordóñez launched a formal investigation against the Defense Minister and the military leadership for establishing a demilitarized zone in Conejo in violation of the law [Law 418 (1997)], and summoned the High Commissioner for Peace Sergio Jaramillo and lead negotiator Humberto de la Calle among others to appear in the case.  (See “De la Calle y Jaramillo citados…”)

De la Calle’s March 23rd statement went directly to the security concerns raised by the Conejo incident.  In his statement, De la Calle explained that the government would only sign a “good accord,” and such an accord would provide security guarantees for everyone, especially for rural populations and for the FARC.  A good accord will sever once and for all the link between politics and arms and ensure that those who engage in politics neither carry weapons nor become victims of violence.  A good accord will provide an orderly and transparent process with concrete timelines for setting aside and destroying weapons and for a bilateral ceasefire and cessation of hostilities with international verification and oversight.  The provisional agreements on transitional justice and political participation depend on breaking this link, De la Calle emphasized.  Likewise, De la Calle noted that the FARC would need to sever its links with illegal activities; the government for its part would provide legal and physical protection for the FARC.

De la Calle spoke also to the greater aspirations that peace accords often embody.  He explained that a good accord will be based on a policy of human security that respects dignity and guarantees equality and non-discrimination, and that satisfies the rights of the victims to truth, justice, and reparations.  It will “intensify efforts for greater social equity,” seek cleaner politics with greater participation, and promote more dialogue and greater integration of the country.  Such changes would guarantee that the country would not return to violence and would “open the doors to reconciliation.”  Finally, De la Calle reaffirmed the government’s commitment to a “great and good peace,” one that “opens the door to the future.”  He noted that the negotiating teams would not be in Havana forever and had been charged with redoubling their efforts.

The FARC, for its part, echoed the government’s commitment to reaching a final agreement and to “constructing a good agreement.”  (See the delegation statement here.)  In its communiqué, the FARC-EP peace delegation noted its hope that the parties would discuss a proposed road map for moving ahead when the next cycle of talks resumes (April 4-14).  The road map, the FARC delegation proposes “synthesizes the most important points of view of the government and of the FARC-EP, and shows clear and definitive commitments to resolve pending themes.”  It establishes a timeline for agreements to be reached in 2016, what FARC hopes will be “the year of peace, the year of the end of the war in Colombia.”

Looking Ahead 

As the parties prepare to go back to the table next week, a few things remain on their plates.  First and foremost, agreements must be crafted on two sets of agenda items–the terms for ending the conflict and the setting aside of arms, and the mechanisms for ratification, implementation and monitoring of the agreements reached.

In the first category, the Subcommission on Ending the Conflict submitted its report on January 23, and its proposal is still under review by the parties.   The nature of the concentration zones (“zonas de ubicación”)–when they will be set up, who they will involve, how many zones there will be, the size of the zones, the process and timing of setting aside weapons, and the presence of the State–have yet to be decided.  Failure to reach agreement on these issues was the main reason that a ceasefire was not announced on March 23. Even President Santos’s brother, Enrique, who was one of the original negotiators during the secret phase of the peace talks and flew to Havana to trouble-shoot, failed to produce an agreement by the deadline.  Secretary of State John Kerry’s offer last week for the United States to assist with security for demobilizing guerrillas–in historic meetings in Havana with both the government and the FARC delegations–could help unblock this impasse.

On the second set of pending agenda items– endorsement, implementation, and verification–the Colombian Congress has prepared legislation to advance a plebiscite, and it is awaiting review by the Constitutional Court. However, differences over the mechanism for endorsement of the accords remain, and while Congress has moved forward, the issue has yet to be discussed by the parties at the peace table in Havana.

In addition, implementation of the agreements is probably the most important item of all, since an accord is nothing but a piece of paper if it is not implemented.  This is a topic that should not be given short shrift, especially since those sitting at the table are unlikely to be the ones responsible for implementation of the agreements they sign. Clear mechanisms for resolving differences of interpretation will be required, and strong civil society organizations that can hold the parties to account for their agreements will be key to sustaining the peace.

Ensuring agreements are of good quality is key to sustaining the peace. Such agreements, like the one aspired to in Havana–will address the drivers of conflict and the reasons that conflicts persist, and will craft a new social contract that embraces all parties without discrimination, and has the support and legitimacy of the populace.  Increasingly, negotiators and mediators understand that crafting a quality agreement is important.  Less well understood is the need to both engage the public and to model the kind of inclusive new society envisioned in the future.  In this regard, the negotiators would do well to continue to open the process to the participation of civil society, which, after all, will be responsible for ratifying and monitoring the implementation of any agreements reached in Havana.   A number of sectors that have yet to be brought into the process will be particularly important.  In particular, Afro-Colombian and indigenous groups have established a new ethnic subcommission to review any agreements reached (modeled after a gender subcommission that is doing the same), after they were unable to get a place at the table in Havana.  Such external reviews will be important preventive mechanisms for future conflicts and should be a welcome contribution toward increasing the legitimacy of the process, and preventing the emergence of future conflicts down the road.




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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