Colombia’s government and the country’s FARC-EP guerrillas are pressing ahead with peace talks at a pace that could yield a final agreement by the end of June. Having missed a self-imposed deadline of March 23, the two sides are working quickly through the remaining parts of an agenda set nearly four years ago, reaching accords this month on a process for Colombians to ratify a final agreement and a plan to remove minors from the battlefield.
These agreements represent a major victory for negotiators in Havana and show creative compromises on both sides. While there are hurdles to overcome at home on the mechanisms for endorsing a final accord, the latest pact on that contentious issue appears to satisfy the needs and interests of both parties—as a good agreement should.
The accord on young fighters living in the FARC’s jungle camps, reached on May 15, is already being put into action. It signals the imminent end of the half-century conflict—a “final stop” in the words of Humberto de la Calle, the government’s lead negotiator.
Youth recruitment has long been a sticking point in peace negotiations with Colombia’s rebels. While armed groups rely on bringing in young people to replenish the ranks, they often deny or hide child recruitment because it’s considered a crime against humanity and a war crime under the Rome Statute of 1998 for anyone less than 15 years of age. By FARC rules, 15 is also the minimum age for recruitment; FARC leaders argue that they do not forcibly recruit young people, but have instead offered refuge for poor youth, victims of paramilitary violence, and war orphans.
The Colombian government doesn’t know how many minors can be counted among the FARC’s current forces. According to Colombia’s acting Attorney General Jorge Fernando Perdomo, between 1975 and 2014, the FARC recruited 11,556 minors– 33 percent girls and 67 percent boys. Of these, the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare reported that between November 1999 and March 2016, it had assisted 5,969 boys, girls and adolescents to leave the ranks of armed groups. Sixty percent of those youth were from the FARC.
The issue of minors surfaced during initial contacts between the FARC and the government and almost scuttled early efforts to negotiate. Then, on Feb. 12, 2015, the FARC unilaterally decided to stop recruiting minors younger than 17 years, paving the way to open secret peace talks in Havana. A year later, amid progress in the talks, as well as pressure from civil society and the international community, the group said it would end recruitment of minors under 18.
15 Years Old or Younger
Now, FARC leaders have agreed to immediately turn over the 21 minors 15 years old or younger who they acknowledge are living in their camps, as well as minors who left in the past two years. They are to be returned to their communities under protective programs and will have their legal rights restored, including the ability to claim compensation as war victims.
The government has promised to launch a comprehensive program within a month to meet the differing needs of all minors, especially girls. Yesterday, the government and the FARC said they’ve already established a joint committee to work out the details on the agreement. UNICEF and the International Organization of Migration (IOM) have agreed to serve as guarantors of the process, and the parties have invited as monitors the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, the Carter Center, and Geneva Calls, among others.
The May 12 agreement on ratification of a final accord—and how to keep it binding regardless of future changes in policy or administration—represents a huge step forward in the talks. It’s a sign of the FARC’s willingness to work within Colombia’s existing democratic frameworks and highlights the accelerating pace of developments: The issue was taken up for the first time at the main negotiating table only in April.
The government has pushed for an endorsement of any final accord by plebiscite, and the Congress passed laws to make one possible. The FARC has long rejected the idea, at least in part because it considered a plebiscite to be a unilateral imposition. Instead, it sought a constituent assembly. Its positions have shifted over time, however, and on May 6, FARC delegation leader Iván Márquez said “No one has affirmed that the results of the negotiations should not be consulted with the populace.” The nature of that consultation is still under discussion, but the FARC at least no longer discounts the possibility of a plebiscite.
Process on a Fast Track
This agreement on endorsement, implementation and verification is highly technical and requires a series of immediate measures that put the peace process on a fast track.
It gives the Colombian Congress a role in turning the final deal into law, calls for the Constitutional Court to rule on it and gives Colombian voters an opportunity to endorse or reject the plan.
International guarantees would be a part of any final pact. The parties agreed to deposit the accord with the Swiss Federal Council, which oversees the Geneva Conventions applicable to internal armed conflicts, and to annex the final agreements to the United Nations Security Council resolution signed last January to oversee a ceasefire. These moves suggest a commitment to compliance and would give the deal a kind of international stamp of approval, and make it less vulnerable to challenges from the International Criminal Court.
The agreement also includes details and timelines that required the government to send Congress modifications to legislation governing the peace accords. That legislation is now moving through Congress despite strong oppostion from Alvaro Uribe, the former president and now a senator. He has called for “civil resistance” if the accords are signed in Havana. If approved by the full chamber, a final peace deal would be incorporated into the Colombian Constitution. This will not be an easy process, however, and legal battles loom on the horizon.
The FARC also won agreement on its proposal to recognize the final peace accords as a Special Humanitarian Agreement under the Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which govern internal armed conflicts and are part of Colombian law.
With the FARC dropping staunch opposition to a plebiscite and the government accepting these unique international mechanisms, both sides are poised to complete the remaining agenda.
Virginia M. (Ginny) Bouvier is senior advisor for peace processes at USIP.