Report: Sixth Conversatorio on the Colombian Peace Talks, London, 14 April 2014

Sixth Conversatorio on the Colombian Peace Talks

London, 14 April 2014

PDF available here.

Are Colombians ready for a peace process? This was the question which the 30 people who participated in the sixth conversatorio on the peace talks, on 31 March 2014, were left with. Analysis was provided by former student leader and Colombian writer – now Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck (University of London) – Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, with Andrei Gómez-Suárez (Researcher, Universities of Sussex and Oxford) moderating. To try to answer this question, the conversation between the participants went beyond an analysis of the circumstances of the ups-and-downs of Colombian electoral politics.

The starting point is to recognise that many people are deeply committed to peace. However, many Colombians are outraged at the behaviour of the guerrilla, and the Colombian government has not succeeded in persuading them of the legitimacy to negotiate. This demonstrates the validity of asking whether Colombians are ready for a peace process; but besides, four important events throughout 2014 so far reveal the many tensions that exist:

  1. The revelations about the monitoring of the government’s negotiating team and certain members of the State by some members of the Army;
  2. The dismissal of the mayor of Bogotá Gustavo Petro;
  3. The results of recent parliamentary elections which elected the Congress which will have to implement the peace accords; and
  4. The debate about ownership of rural land in Colombia and illicit crops, which involves confronting the current model of economic development and the traditional concept of private property.

Petro’s dismissal begs the questions whether what we are experiencing is history is repeating itself, thus justifying the violence from the institutionalised extreme right which caricatures the Colombian left as a “Castro-Chavismo” pawn. Consequently, the implementation of a potential peace deal with the FARC requires (1) recognising that the Colombian right exists; (2) that it is neither marginalised nor controlled, bearing in mind the evidence that suggests that sectors of the extreme right exercise power over the Colombian army; and (3) that the war has corrupted Colombian national institutions, making it necessary to reform and purify them.

The decision of Inspector General (Procurador) against the Mayor of Bogotá that resulted in his dismissal has been interpreted by many sectors as an attack on popular will. In this context the left’s poor participation in the recent elections has been noted (the abstention rate in Bogotá surpassed 65%). It will be hard to convince certain sectors of the left that the negotiations in Havana are the gateway to a democratic peace, while elements still exist in State institutions, for whom a political left with real possibilities of gaining power, has to cease to exist, by hook or by crook.

The left’s poor results in the last elections, however, show the importance of creating a coalition between centre-left parties and those on the democratic right who are working on issues of environmental justice, food security and climate change, among others. This is a must for effective implementation of any peace agreements.

Caution was expressed that the peace talks could continue to lack legitimacy insofar as they remain in the hands of exclusively military-economic elites without accommodating Afro-Colombian, indigenous and small-farmer participation.

Nevertheless, it is important to recognise the steps forward; for example, the joint statement at the end of round 22 of the negotiations, according to which the negotiators have “made substantial advances towards agreement about illicit drugs”, demonstrates that the parties are in one mind when it comes to re-evaluating the military approach to a social problem, which needs to be addressed on a global scale through to the local. Furthermore, the decision of President Santos to revive the National Peace Council, the declaration of intent to create a Truth Commission after an agreement is signed, and the debate about a model of transitional justice, manifest the willingness to establish State policy of peace.

Thus, there are three major challenges on the background of the current rounds of negotiation:

  1. Security, the fundamental basis to build confidence and secure adherence to the agreements;
  2. Justice, which should guarantee respect for human rights and strengthen the rule of law;
  3. Democratic civilian participation, where civil society may feel it has an active role in peacebuilding.

In conclusion, it is not easy to establish if Colombian society is prepared to accompany the peace process. Consequently it is necessary to generate and strengthen spaces for dialogue so that civil society actors may contribute to the construction of peace, by establishing alternative initiatives. International accompaniment and national support are the keys to success. Additionally, while the negotiating teams agree how to bring the armed conflict to an end, it is necessary to work on implementing structural reforms.

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Report on The Colombian Peace Process: A Roundtable. Centre for Latin American Studies University of Cambridge, 11 November 2013

The Colombian Peace Process: A Roundtable

 Centre for Latin American Studies

University of Cambridge

11 November 2013

After a year of negotiations the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have reached an agreement on two of a six point agenda to end the armed conflict in Colombia. The scepticism of many Colombians contrasts with unprecedented achievements in more than 30 years of dialogue between FARC and different Colombian administrations. The optimism of some political analysts about reaching a point of no return in the peace process can be jeopardised by the lack of national and particularly, regional ownership of the process. This mixed picture contains challenges not only for Colombian policy makers but also for the role that the international community should play in order to contribute to build long-lasting and legitimate peace in Colombia. 

Bearing this context in mind, a group of scholars were invited to discuss the prospects for peace in Colombia. Panelists included: the former British Ambassador in Colombia, John Dew; Andrei Gómez (University of Oxford); Clara Sandoval (University of Essex); Par Engstrom (Institute of the Americas, University College London); Roddy Brett (University of St Andrews), Nick Morgan (Newcastle University), and Grace Livingstone (University of Cambridge), who chaired the roundtable. These notes contain the main ideas expressed during the event.

  1. After five decades of armed conflict in Colombia and several failed attempts to find a political solution to the conflict, a peace agreement between the Government and the FARC guerrillas, experts agreed, might be feasible. It was also acknowledged that even if the peace process has been going on for over a year now, discussions to get there have been going on for several years.
  2. Although the importance of the peace process cannot be underestimated, it is necessary to remember that this is just a peace process with one of the armed actors in the Colombian conflict, an actor that is in a weak position, at least politically and militarily.
  3. Some speakers discussed that, although these negotiations are crucial for the future of the country, the conflict with the FARC is only one of Colombia’s manifold problems. There are a wide range of deep-rooted issues in Colombia that have to be faced, such as strengthening democratic politics and the rule of law, designing policies to reduce poverty and income inequality, planning a meaningful agrarian reform, improving security, promoting infrastructure and implementing further reforms to ensure Colombia’s economic growth.
  4. The majority of the experts also noted that both parties (the Government and the FARC) are under great pressure to conclude the talks before the 2014 presidential election, given that former President Uribe is one of the fiercest enemies of the peace process. Additionally, the pressure of reaching an agreement might have a negative impact in the way key points are discussed. In particular, all the experts showed their concern in relation to the fifth point of the agenda, related to victims.
  5. Some of the participants considered other reasons that confirm the importance of moving on with the peace talks. For instance, they indicated that there are very important trade related goals shaping the process (to facilitate foreign direct investment in the country). Other speakers pointed out that President Santos wants to change the image of Colombia outside the country.
  6. The outcome of the negotiations will have to take due account of international standards binding Colombia, particularly in the area of accountability, given the possibility that the International Criminal Court could exercise jurisdiction over the situation in Colombia while looking at cases such as those of the falsos positivos. In this regard, while it is clear that the event at Cambridge was about the peace process, various references were made by all the participants in relation to the obligations of Colombia to act with due diligence in the investigation of members of the military forces and others who could be implicated in conflict related violations of human rights as well as of humanitarian law.
  7. There was general consensus at the roundtable that if a peace agreement is signed, it would be mainly about ‘negative peace’. Santos has already stated that, for example, the agreement will not touch private property and the fact that the Victims and Land Restitution Law is about restitution and not about land reform, shows that both the peace process and the transitional justice process are not aiming at structural change in Colombia.
  8. Even if the ongoing peace talks in Havana only aspire to achieve ‘negative peace’, all the experts recognized that there is a window of opportunity to incorporate the root causes of the conflict in the peace talks in order to move towards a long-lasting peace.
  9. The experts who were discussing specific cases noted that the process in Havana is not perceived as important by the people living in the regions. They do not have a lot of information about the process and if they are concerned about it, it is for different reasons, such as how this process would affect current trading relations in the region or change labour markets.
  10. From a victims’ perspective, the process was criticized by several speakers as failing to allow the participation of victims. They made explicit reference to the complex procedure that needs to be completed in order to participate in the process. They also expressed concern about the lack of direct mechanisms to participate or to identify how the input from others than those negotiating in Havana is taken into consideration. Local ownership of the peace process was noted to be a crucial element for the successful implementation of transitional justice mechanisms in a post-conflict scenario.
  11. The support of Chile, Venezuela, Norway and Cuba was regarded as highly positive and helpful for the negotiations in order to move towards a legitimate peace.
  12. The role of the US in relation to the peace process was also noted and contrasted with  its previous role during the negotiations under the Pastrana administration. The US stand on the peace process would be central to guarantee the implementation of an eventual agreement, but also to deal effectively with drug trafficking.
  13. From a maximalist approach, the Santos-FARC peace talks could be seen as a means to solve the real problems of Colombia, whereas from a minimalist position they are seen as the way to end the armed conflict between the parties. So far, the negotiation teams are still trapped between these two approaches. Nevertheless, they have moved a long way since the negotiations started. Reaching an agreement may not bring structural transformations. However, it will constitute a window of opportunity for further change.
  14. The international community could play a fundamental role in helping Colombia to face the huge challenges that the implementation of a peace agreement will bring and to achieve a sustainable and long-lasting peace.

Report: Fourth Conversatorio on the Colombian Peace Talks

Fourth Conversatorio on the Colombian Peace Talks

 London, 30 November 2013

 “Political participation: Small step or giant leap?”

Available as PDF here.

When the 16th round of negotiations began there was a general view that the talks were stagnating. Now that this round finished with an agreement on the second point of the agenda there is a renewed optimism about the negotiations. In the conversatorio, held on 22 September at Canning House with the participation of four Colombians, eight British citizens, guest speaker Henry Robinson (founder member of Against Violent Extremism network) and facilitated by Andrei Gomez-Suarez (researcher at Oxford and Sussex), we discussed how relevant and important this new agreement is for the future of the talks in particular in relation with illegal drug trafficking, next point in the agenda.

Political Participation

The full details of the agreement have not yet been made public. However, based on the experience of other peace negotiations, it would be safe to say that the current state of the negotiations in the Havana is very positive. The suggestion of a comprehensive security system for the exercise of politics is very important to protect the FARC from attacks by paramilitaries after demobilisation.

How significant is the agreement on political participation?

The recent agreement is so significant that optimists argue that there is no turning back on the road to peace. The FARC have decided to give up the armed struggle and come to an agreement with the government on how to use politics to fight for their goals. The agreement is also central in the run-up to the National Congress elections in March and the Presidential elections in May 2014. Álvaro Uribe, the most vocal critic of the negotiations, is now trapped in his anti-negotiation stance while public opinion has swung in the negotiators’ favour and the popularity of Santos has risen.

Colombian Defence Minister’s role

Minister Pinzón often expresses positions which are contrary to those expressed by Santos and this seems to undermine the unity of the national government, but these statements do represent the views of a large right-wing sector of the state. Therefore it seems like Pinzón is playing the useful role of ‘bad cop’ in counter position to the role of Santos as ‘good cop’ during the negotiations.

The Peace Process and the war on drugs

The next point on the peace agenda is a solution to the problem of illegal drugs. It was suggested that President Santos’s two main goals are to end the armed conflict with the FARC and to fundamentally change the war on drugs. The war on drugs is a global affair and recent signs of change include the legalisation of marijuana in Uruguay and the US states of Colorado and Washington, and the report by the Organisation of American States suggesting alternatives to the failed war. Santos is one of the two current Presidents to advocate for change in the war on drugs and Colombia remains a huge producer of cocaine as well as an important hub for the transport of many illegal substances. Therefore the decisions on how to handle the drug routes and coca plantations controlled by the FARC could be a very significant part of the changing global context. However, it is worth remembering that some units and members of the security forces, paramilitary groups, and criminal gangs are heavily involved in production and/or trafficking so this is a problem which permeates both parties participating in the negotiations.

The role of Simon Trinidad and the USA

Some people view Simon Trinidad as a future political leader of the FARC and as an important figure to negotiate the problem of illegal drugs. The FARC have consistently demanded that he be released from the US prison where he is held. If this were the case, would FARC respond with a definitive unilateral cease fire? What effect would this have on Colombian public opinion? However, the US is the main proponent of the war on drugs and it is not clear whether is unwilling to change its stance. In the next couple of weeks Santos will meet Obama. Will he be able to secure convincing support from the US while the issue of drugs is being negotiated? Will he discuss the issue of Simon Trinidad and an alternative to the war on drugs?

Peace versus Justice

Peace is not just a piece of paper. It’s about reintegrating former armed actors who have committed crimes into communities to ensure that the cycle of violence does not reignite. Without justice and reconciliation, there will be no lasting peace. But what kind of justice is appropriate? It is unlikely that the FARC are prepared to give up the armed struggle to go to prison. Moreover, the criminal justice system focuses on whether a crime has been committed and this is often unsatisfactory for victims because they have specific questions about what actually happened. Therefore maybe truth commissions could be a substitute for formal justice. But are victims prepared to accept alternative forms of punishment for the people who have killed their loved ones?

Overall, participants considered that although the agreement on political participation is a milestone in the peace processes, serious challenges remain: first, to solve a puzzle that balances truth, justice, and peace and second to articulate a Colombian solution to criminality by tacking into an alternative approach to the war on drugs.

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Second Conversatorio on the Colombian Peace Talks

Second Conversatorio on the Colombian Peace Talks

 London, 5th October 2013.

The report is available as a PDF here.

This conversatorio (discussion) took place on the 25th September at Canning House, with the participation of fourteen Colombian and British citizens interested in learning more about, discussing and contributing as part of civil society to the question of the Colombian peace talks. Miguel Puerto, a lawyer and human rights defender, was the guest speaker and Andrei Gómez-Suárez, researcher at the University of Sussex, acted as the facilitator.

The conversatorio took place after the farmers’ strike and also Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’s speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations. The discussion focused on the 14th round of negotiations between the government and the FARC, which dealt specifically with the second point on the negotiators’ agenda: political participation.     

The first matter at hand – and of the greatest concern for participants – centred on the sensation that the talks had become ‘stagnated’. For this reason it is important to suggest alternatives and to support the process. The following questions were discussed:

  • Political participation outside the FARC. Recent social protest in Colombia appears demonstrative of the call from different social sectors to secure real participation in the administration and the taking of government decisions. 
  • The approval mechanism continues to be an obstacle to reaching agreement. Despite clarification that the approval mechanism is a point on the negotiators’ agenda in its own right, the actions taken by the government to approve the referendum and other ideas on the matter amongst the parties, held sway over the course of the 14th round of negotiations. The government is in the process of legislating for a way of validation by Referendum, while the FARC are still proposing a National Constituent Assembly. Such critically-timed debate on the subject and the space it has occupied amongst public opinion, as well recent days of protest in Colombia, suggest that the negotiations in Havana do not have the same relevance for all Colombians. 
  • The Legal Framework for Peace (Marco Jurídico para la Paz, or MJP) is an obstacle in its own right. Like many human rights defenders, Miguel Puerto argued that the MJP creates a space for impunity and should be revised or even rejected outright. In parallel, another option put forward has been that of a transitional justice tribunal. The FARC also oppose the MJP as they consider it to have been imposed by the government. President Santos, meanwhile, appealed to the international community at the General Assembly of the United Nations to respect the sovereignty of Colombia and support a transitional justice model that would enable the conflict to be brought to an end. The discussion on the MJP is important because international institutions such as the International Criminal Court and Human Rights Watch are closely following developments, to strike a balance between justice and peace. 
  • Secrecy of the talks and contradictions between the discourses within the government. A debate took place around the need to maintain the confidentiality which has characterised the process thus far. People noted the difficulty society has in understanding the position of the government when the conciliatory and optimistic discourse of the negotiating team (under Humberto de la Calle) is contradicted by the more belligerent discourse of the Defence Minister. This impression has been compounded by certain ambiguous statements from the President. According to some of those present, the pressure which the government has been under lately suggests that it will not be possible to sustain this secrecy for much longer and that civil society should be included. For others, this pressure is a reason to maintain and strengthen the level of secrecy. 
  • The discussion about the points on the agenda should be focused on ending the armed conflict. There is external pressure, coming from different parties not at the negotiating table, to include complex social problems. For this reason it was suggested that the five points on the agenda be very limited. However, the conclusion was that future rounds of negotiations should be focused on putting an end to the conflict and on offering guarantees so that the debate and the search for solutions to other problems might continue in the post-conflict phase. 
  • A politically, but not militarily, polarised Colombia? Those present recognise the likelihood that the armed conflict will come to an end, but it is to be expected that social conflicts will continue. The important thing is that the peace process succeeds in laying the groundwork for the country’s problems to be played out in political and not armed struggle. 
  • Lessons from the paramilitary demobilisation process for the negotiations with the FARC. The role of the State was discussed in terms of protecting ex-combatants so that events such as the wiping out of the Patriotic Union (UP) and the proliferation of criminal bands are not repeated. 

The most important conclusion from the conversatorio was that the dialogues should remain focused on the points on the agenda and continue to be supported by all Colombians.

New article: Overcoming the Original Sin of the “Original Condition”: How Reparations May Contribute to Emancipatory Peacebuilding

Overcoming the Original Sin of the “Original Condition:” How Reparations May Contribute to Emancipatory Peacebuilding

Abstract

This short article explores the relationship between transitional justice mechanisms and peacebuilding by analysing the role that reparations may play in transforming or deepening conflict. Research seeks to identify potential components of an emancipatory approach to peacebuilding through the prioritisation of ‘transformative reparations’ processes, framing this proposal within the case study of collective reparations to the trade union movement in Colombia.

Submitted as part of the special section on Reparations and Peacebuilding edited by Pamina Firchow and Roger Mac Ginty.
Human Rights Review, July 2013. Available here (behind paywall)