As the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group  resume their next round of peace talks in Havana today, they received a strong boost of support with the recent 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 will end on March 7. 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry congratulates Bernie Aronson after announcing that Mr. Aronson will serve as the new Special Envoy for the Colombian Peace Process at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on February 20, 2015. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry congratulates Bernie Aronson after announcing that Mr. Aronson will serve as the new Special Envoy for the Colombian Peace Process. Photo Credit: Department of State

In announcing Aronson's appointment on Friday, Feb. 20, Secretary of State John Kerry noted the retired diplomat’s distinguished career in the region, especially 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 assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs from 1989-1993 under Presidents Bush and Clinton. 

“Leaders of civil society also see this as a … bold statement of support for the peace process.” 

The decision to appoint a special envoy to the peace process, according to Kerry, responded to a request by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in December.

"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,” Kerry said. “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."

President Santos was quick to express his appreciation for the appointment, and for the prestige that Aronson brings to the job as a businessman and as someone with experience related to peace processes.

The FARC, which has been calling for U.S. engagement in the peace process since the talks began, also welcomed the announcement. The group’s peace delegation said in a statement 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."  The negotiators noted that the U.S. 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."

Reactions in Colombia

Here in Bogota, U.S. ambassador Kevin Whitaker told me he thought Aronson was an "ideal" choice, given the strong bipartisan support he enjoys in the U.S., his long-standing experience in the region and his experience as a negotiator. 

Leaders of civil society also see this as a good move and a bold statement of support for the peace process.  I was facilitating a meeting with the National Autonomous University of Bucaramanga at a retreat center a few hours outside of Bogota at when the news broke and I was able to relay the announcement to the group, which consisted of about 30 women mediators from nine 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

I also have been sounding out Colombian analysts and USIP partners in Bogota about the appointment.  Everyone seems to be quite pleased with the news.  The feeling is that the United States has lent strong support to the Colombian government’s war with the guerrillas, and it should likewise support a resolution.  Many hope that the appointment will send a message to ex-President Alvaro Uribe that U.S. leaders -- both Republicans and Democrats -- are no longer interested in a military solution to the conflict and are putting their full weight behind a diplomatic resolution. They note that the timing of the announcement, just after Uribe visited the U.S. to make his objections to the peace process known , sends a clear signal to Colombians that the U.S. position remains firmly behind the peace process underway since late 2012.

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 media this week their longstanding position that they would not negotiate only to land in jail at the end of the process.  All of the FARC negotiators in Havana are subject to pending U.S. or other international 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 observers believe that the U.S. 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.

Another theme in the Havana talks is how to handle drug-trafficking charges and whether the U.S. will accept the framing of drug trafficking as a political crime.  The FARC have asserted that narco-trafficking has helped to finance their insurgency, which, under Colombian law, could classify it as a crime related to rebellion. 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 would allow FARC leaders to engage in politics in the future, and 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 seen as 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 Feb. 24 forum sponsored by the daily newspaper, El Tiempo, and the Universidad de El Rosario, lead negotiator Humberto de la Calle discussed the hurdle 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 jail time, the challenges for finding a solution that will be acceptable to the Colombian public and the international community are vast.  Groups like the International Crisis Group, and former President César Gaviria have offered a series of creative alternatives that are being debated on television, in academic forums and in the press.  

  Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan is in Bogota today, speaking in support of the Colombian peace process at a forum on truth commissions, another pending issue for Colombia's negotiators.  The forum is sponsored by the Kofi Annan Foundation and the International Center for Transitional Justice. He is expected to travel to Havana to meet with the delegations in Cuba on Thursday, according to the Cuban Foreign Ministry.  The presence of Annan and Aronson in Havana are likely to bolster the process in Havana and to help solidify a constituency for peace back in Colombia.

Virginia M. Bouvier is a senior advisor at USIP for Latin America programs, and editor of Colombia: Building Peace in a Time of War, recently released in Spanish.  She blogs at vbouvier.wordpress.com.

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