War, then peace?: Colombia’s peace talks

peace talksAt the end of July an explosion rocked the mountainside surrounding the sweltering, coastal city of Buenaventura, Colombia. The target was specific; a generator which powered one of Colombia’s poorest cities. The attack was not aimed at bloodshed, but was one of inconvenience. Six hundred thousand of the city’s citizens went without power for days and the Colombian government, caught only slightly off guard, issued a state of emergency in the region. It was with an element of fatigued annoyance that President Santos attributed the bombing to FARC guerrillas, adding the blackout to the list of ‘soft’ terrorism which has surged in recent months. They were, to quote Santos, “playing with fire”.

It is in the midst of this tension that peace talks, aimed at bringing an end to the fifty-year conflict between the Colombian government and the severely weakened revolutionary group, restart in Havana, Cuba after a brief lull.

For President Juan Manuel Santos, the talks are particularly important with critics claiming that his wider legacy relies on success or failure. The negotiations are very much his brainchild and a far cry from the tactics of his predecessor and mentor Alvaro Uribe. Santos had served as defence minister under Uribe, unmercifully targeting FARC and ELN strongholds, pushing them to the brink of extinction. His move from ‘hawk’ to ‘dove’ has not been without criticism; Uribe’s faction of the Colombian Congress has gone from wholeheartedly endorsing Santos’s presidency to leading the opposition. As a whole, Colombians are divided over how peace should be achieved.

Perhaps the greatest split exists over how former rebels should be punished or rewarded in a post-conflict Colombia. As far back as 2006, leftist leaders – most notably Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez – were encouraging rebels to give up their arms and approach the Revolution from a democratic, peaceful perspective, but those opposed to the peace talks are worried they simply offer “immunity for the past”. A Constitutional Court ruling this week aimed to balance this by allowing those who had committed minor crimes to participate in political activities, whilst those guilty of “political offenses, crimes against humanity or genocide committed in a systematic manner” cannot and are liable to be tried.

The ruling, which will effectively eliminate many of the key FARC leaders from running for office, could stall the fourth, arguably tensest step in the six-point peace process: the rights of victims.

FARC’s continued subversive actions seem perplexing particularly at a time when good PR would serve them well. But some analysts believe that by causing major disruption without the high profile killings they were once infamous for they can demonstrate they are not yet defeated. The 10,000 strong guerrilla force is still at war with Colombian troops and plans to prove they are still a worthy adversary.

But a recent Human Rights Watch report shines a light on the darker side of FARC’s continued activities. Reports of torture, kidnappings, forced recruitment, forced evictions and sexual violence are amongst some of the crimes still being committed in the untameable southern provinces. The NGO’s Director for the Americas claimed that “whilst FARC continue peace talks in Havana, it’s soldiers continue to commit attroctities against Colombia’s most vulnerable citizens”, before concluding that “the government has to ensure that those who have committed crimes must be brought to justice”.

As Santos was sworn in for his second term as president last week he spoke optimistically of peace claiming that he “will employ all [his] energy to bring peace during this mandate.” But within his speech there was recognition that small steps would not be enough; with 45% of the electorate effectively voting for an end of peace talks, it is clear that almost all of Santos’s political capital will be invested in peace.

In another blow to Santos’s plans, FARC commander Rodrigo Londoño, known as “Timochenko,” claimed there was little chance of talks finishing before the end of the year. With a Historical Commission being established to help root out the causes and extent of the suffering of the conflict’s victims, as well as three points yet to go on the six-point plan, it is likely to drag out throughout his presidency.

In a humble acceptance that the nation is growing impatient with the negotiations, Santos said at his inauguration that the talks could be called off at any time, his reputation in tatters along with it. With many of the guerrilla’s demands and expectations – namely agricultural reform – unlikely to go unfulfilled, there is little to lose. For FARC, rightly or wrongly, more enticing gestures will have to be made. “[Right now] we see no gestures except bombardments”, said the group’s chief negotiator.

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