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After three years of exploratory talks, the Colombian government and the country’s largest remaining insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN), are due to open formal negotiations tomorrow in Quito, Ecuador.  The beginning of the long-delayed talks represents another significant breakthrough in prospects for peace in Colombia, even as the government starts implementing the terms of its agreement last year with the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP). The ELN talks also offer a new kind of opportunity for public participation in peace processes. 

Tents in one of the zones set up to transition the former FARC rebels back to civilian life near La Paz, Colombia
Tents, to be replaced by prefabricated homes, to transition former FARC rebels to civilian life under a peace deal with the Colombian government. Authorities are set to start formal talks with a smaller rebel group. (New York Times/Federico Rios Escobar)

The government and the ELN already had set an agenda and methodology for formal negotiations, but the launch has been delayed repeatedly. A major obstacle was the ELN’s continued detention of Odín Sánchez, a former Colombian congressman from the Chocó region. The ELN released him last week, in exchange for a government pardon for two jailed rebels. Other factors that delayed the start of formal talks included new government conditions after the two sides had announced terms for the process, and the unforeseen renegotiation of the peace agreement with the FARC after voters rejected it in an Oct. 2 plebiscite. Colombia’s Congress ultimately approved a renegotiated pact with the FARC.

The new talks with the ELN are likely to be difficult for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that they will begin without a ceasefire.  But several factors could increase the likelihood of success. 

First, each side has named a new head for its delegation--Juan Camilo Restrepo for the government and Israel Ramírez Pineda, aka “Pablo Beltrán,” for the ELN; they are likely to bring fresh perspectives to the table. Second, both teams include women, whose meaningful participation on negotiating teams has been shown to speed up the process and to increase the longevity and legitimacy of agreements.  Third, the Catholic Conference of Bishops has named five bishops from ELN-dominated regions to a Peace Council that is on standby to assist as needed. They could be particularly helpful considering the ELN’s origins in social justice teachings of the Catholic Church. Fourth, the international community--represented by Ecuador, Norway, Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil and Chile--and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) will accompany and guarantee the process, as a similar grouping did with the FARC talks.  

Finally, civil society, in its many iterations, is likely to play a pioneering role. The rejection of the first peace agreement with the FARC revealed the tremendous gap between peace talks in Havana and the citizenry back home, as well as the polarization of the population. The ELN talks offer an opportunity to address these divides.

The new model emerging challenges the conventional sequencing that puts peacemaking (negotiations) before peacebuilding.  Instead, the negotiating teams have put social participation in the peace process as the first item on the agenda in Quito.  President Juan Manuel Santos also has sought representation on the negotiating team from the party of former President Alvaro Uribe, a key opponent to peace talks with the FARC, in recognition that the negotiations may outlast Santos’s term and that any accord reached will be more stable if it enjoys broad-based support.

Research has shown that engaging civil society in peace talks produces better results, and civil society already has been pivotal in the ELN process. Civil society leaders served on a commission with representatives from government and the military that crafted the solution to the last impasse with the talks, securing, among other achievements, the release of the ex-congressman.  

How civil society might contribute in the formal talks remains to be seen. Continued dialogue will be necessary to address local and regional conflicts; to engage the business sector, local government authorities, and communities; and to link regional peace agendas to the national peace process.  Already communities are discussing proposals for participatory mechanisms, such as “cabildos abiertos” (open town hall meetings) and a national dialogue for peace. The ability to keep communications open with the negotiating table and to move towards agreements that are implemented in a timely manner will be key to putting the conflict to rest once and for all.   

Virginia M. “Ginny” Bouvier is a senior advisor for peace processes at USIP and editor of Colombia: Building Peace in a Time of War; she blogs at “Colombia Calls” (vbouvier.wordpress.com).

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