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Colombia’s government won a reprieve from growing public pressure to call off peace talks with the FARC rebel group when the guerrillas declared a unilateral ceasefire this week amid a surge in violence around the country.

Luvin Mejia, a member of an army battalion that searches for land mines in now-peaceful areas once disputed by guerrilla fighters, uses a metal detector in the mountains outside of Cocorna, Colombia, April 9, 2015. In Colombia, a country with one of the highest numbers of land mine victims in the world, the government and the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, agreed to find and destroy land mines laid by the guerrillas.
Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Meridith Kohut

Iván Márquez, lead negotiator for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in the Havana talks, said July 8 that the group would suspend hostilities for one month beginning on July 20, offering at least a temporary respite from what had become a growing crisis for the government. One research institute counted June as the most violent month in Colombia since peace talks began in November 2012.

“With this [declaration], we seek to generate favorable conditions for … a bilateral, definitive ceasefire,” Márquez said. The FARC delegation called on churches, members of the peace movement and the Broad Front for Peace, a coalition of Colombia’s leftist parties, to help monitor the ceasefire. (USIP will host a discussion on July 15 with the Ecumenical Group of Women Peacekeepers (GemPaz), an organization that seeks to foster the conditions for reconciliation in Colombia through a variety of mechanisms, including transitional and restorative justice and psycho-social healing. The event is part of USIP’s ongoing Colombia Peace Forum series.)

The FARC’s move followed a call the previous day by Norway, Cuba, Venezuela and Chile, which are facilitating the talks, for the government and the rebels to “restrict to the maximum extent all actions that cause victims and suffering in Colombia, and to intensify the implementation of confidence-building measures.” The countries urged both sides to de-escalate the conflict and to adopt a bilateral ceasefire and a definitive cessation of hostilities. Cuba and Norway made a similar plea in late May.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos responded favorably to the FARC’s announcement, saying that, “If the ceasefire is accompanied by concrete commitments on advances in the theme of justice and the bilateral and definitive ceasefire, then we would be speaking about a very serious and important advance in obtaining peace.” Santos urged the parties to accelerate their timetable. The United Nations called the FARC’s move “significant.”

The Colombian government and the FARC have been in the 38th round of peace talks since June 17, with a short break from June 27 to July 3. They have continued to discuss the theme of victims and mechanisms for de-escalating the conflict. According to Santos, the creation last month of a truth commission represents progress on the issue of victims, and the parties are close to reaching agreement on reparations. The FARC has suggested beginning to implement some of the measures the parties had agreed to regarding drug trafficking.

In this extended session, which has been marked by renewed violence and heightened public impatience with the peace talks, the parties continue to seek agreements on dealing with victims’ rights to truth, justice, reparations and guarantees they will be safe in the future, as well as measures for de-escalating the conflict.

Progress on Terms Regarding Victims

“If the ceasefire is accompanied by concrete commitments …, then we would be speaking about a very serious and important advance in obtaining peace.” -- Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

While the media have focused on lack of movement regarding treatment of the conflict’s victims, there in fact has been steady progress on this difficult issue in the past year. The negotiators have received testimony and documents in Havana and many sectors of Colombian society have submitted proposals for review. Likewise, the parties have been working through the 14 reports produced by the Historic Commission on the Conflict and its Victims. In June, the two sides reached agreement to establish a mechanism for moving ahead with a truth commission. The parties are developing a broader integrated system for truth, justice, reparations and assurances violations won’t be repeated, and the truth commission will be only one component.

Attacks escalated in June, including 24 assaults on police and military posts and 17 on roads and other infrastructure, according to The Guardian newspaper, which cited the Conflict Analysis Resource Centre (CERAC), a research institute in Bogota. In April, the FARC lifted their unilateral ceasefire and renewed attacks on public forces and economic infrastructure. The Colombian government responded with renewed bombings of FARC camps. In recent weeks, explosions in Bogotá, which the government has attributed to a smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army, have rekindled security concerns.

This week, it became apparent that the peace talks had reached a tipping point. Polls have show a growing public impatience with the peace talks and accumulating support for reverting to a military solution. One published on July 8 indicated that 75 percent of those surveyed didn’t think that there would be a peace deal with the FARC.

The crisis in public support comes at a time when the negotiators are tackling the difficult issues relating to transitional justice. Colombian government negotiators acknowledged that the process had entered what Sergio Jaramillo, High Commissioner for Peace, in remarks  before a national meeting of community radio broadcasters, called “the most difficult moment of the process.”

On July 5, media published an interview given by government negotiator Humberto de la Calle to journalist Juan Gossain, in which he warned that the peace process “is in its worst moment since we began.”  

Rethinking Strategy

The interview was stark in its candor. “For better or worse,” said De la Calle, “the peace process is coming to an end … It is possible that one of these days the FARC will not find us at the table in Havana.”

Still, in the interview, De la Calle revealed that the government is rethinking its strategy of refusing to agree to a bilateral ceasefire before a final peace accord is reached. Despite the FARC’s declaration of a unilateral ceasefire on a number of occasions, the government hasn’t reciprocated. Now the government appears to be considering matching the move “if it is serious, definitive and verifiable,” De la Calle said.

Despite the polls, important segments of the population continue to support a peaceful resolution to the conflict. On July 5, 26 leaders representing a wide spectrum of faith communities urged the parties to stay at the table until they reach agreement. The faith leaders offered their prayers and talents toward the transformation of Colombia, asserting that the use of arms represents the “failure of words.” 

Church leaders are calling for an interfaith service on July 14 to urge the government to make official the talks with another rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and to de-escalate the conflict with the FARC.

Likewise, other peace organizations are preparing for a major mobilization on July 22 and 23. A steady stream of communiques  supporting the peace process is coming from many sectors of Colombian society and the international community.

While the parties have been talking in Havana, some 900 Army personnel were training at the center for de-mining at the Tolemaida military base. A pilot humanitarian de-mining project conducted jointly by the Colombian Army and the FARC in collaboration with the community in the municipality of Briceño has shown success in clearing land mines and will be replicated in other regions. Such gestures are important confidence-building measures that represent some movement in the right direction.

All in all, the negotiations seem to have weathered the latest storm, though there is clearly a need to continue efforts to ensure public support for the process and increase confidence between the opposing sides. A reduction in violence, and measures to de-escalate the conflict and lay the ground for a bilateral ceasefire with adequate monitoring, are steps in the right direction.

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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