It’s Time to Nip Colombia’s Internal Conflict in the Bud

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed late Monday, August 27, that his administration and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) held a private talk to reach a long-awaited peace accord. He pledged to pursue a dialogue while adding military pressure should FARC commits any terrorist attacks, and noted that a smaller guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN) would also be included in this year’s peace process. The hopeful announcement sparked a slew of comments and policy outlines from local media outlets to attain a definitive peace agreement, such as a ceasefire, the halt of abductions and extortion, and the end of child recruitment into guerrilla ranks.  Despite outlining important steps toward a bilateral commitment to lay down arms, an important element is still missing from Santos’s proposed plan: the role of civil society and how it will complement the duties of both the government and the guerrillas in the peace talk process. While peace talks will officially start on October 5, 2012, in Oslo, Norway and are aimed at complimenting the peace discourse in Havana, this is not the first time the Colombian government and guerrilla groups have sought to reach a final peace agreement.  The last six administrations in a 30-year span have established bilateral communication, but the lack of compromise on both parties has in turn lengthened the armed conflict. One of the most emblematic peace talks was the Caguán negotiation under President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) that resulted in a 42,000 square meter demilitarized zone in southern Colombia.  Despite the massive media coverage and the population’s expectation of a possible signed agreement between the then-FARC leader Manuel Marulanda Velez “Tirofijo” and President Pastrana, the first never showed up at the negotiation table. Tirofijo’s absence was seen as an affront to President Pastrana and a lack of commitment to sign a peace treaty, which in turn ignited a string of military raids that, until today, have not stopped decimating the FARC’s rank-and-file. The Colombian armed forces’ success over FARC in the last 10 years are in part due to the U.S. multimillion-dollar aid called “Plan Colombia,” which has improved the military apparatus and its tactics to kill key FARC members.

It is fair to say that, despite previous failed accords, they provide a valuable tenet for the upcoming one: both sides of the negotiation must comply with what they will promise. On the FARC’s end, they must have a serious commitment to halt any terrorist attacks if they want to earn the trust of the public opinion and the government.  The March 2012 killings of 11 military members in the Arauca department and the April 2012 attack on former Interior Minister Fernando Londoño have deepened the population’s mistrust and scorn, which approves of an increase in military strikes against the guerrilla factions. In addition to halting abductions, military crossfire, use of landmines, and the massive displacement of persons from the countryside, the FARC must stop displaying the crudest side of the internal conflict: child impressment into FARC forces. An August 2012 report by the Colombian Institute of Family Well-Being collected testimonies from more than 491 children who deserted from FARC and ELN. They claimed that the guerrilla members pressured them to join their files. According to the report, more than 4,955 children have reintegrated themselves to Colombian society after having suffered from the conflict’s atrocities.

On the governments’ side, it must guarantee to disbanded guerrilla members that a reinsertion program by the government-run Higher Board of Reintegration will continue providing training, employment, psychological support, and education. Likewise, the government must evaluate a possible request by the guerrilla rank-and-file to participate in agrarian, socioeconomic, and political decision-making—something they have demanded in previous peace negotiations yet their wishes have not been granted. Political activities from former guerrilla members have proved possible: Gustavo Petro, for example, was a former member of the extinct M-19 guerrilla group and, years later, was elected Bogotá’s major in 2011.

The role of society is the missing puzzle in the peace process, and it is going to be a painstaking but necessary one. Colombian society still condemns the criminal activities FARC and other guerrilla groups have committed in the last 50 years, but there are ways to mitigate the harm: Colombia is enjoying a buoyant economy—with a relatively decreasing unemployment rate-- that can provide equal opportunities to civil society and reintegrated guerrilleros alike. Additionally, a recent study by Fundación Ideas Para La Paz explained that business leaders and multinational top executives in Colombia support the peace process with FARC and are willing to provide political and entrepreneurial advice to demobilized guerrilla members. The government-run National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation (CNRR) under the 2006 Peace and Justice Law not only must continue mending the fences between victims and former guerrilla members but also has to foster trust and mutual cooperation between these two parties. At the same time the CNRR cannot give the impression to the general population that rehabilitating outlaws to appease FARC is equivalent to letting crimes go unpunished. If the government, insurgency and civil society understand its pivotal role in the peace process, it will guarantee a long overdue compromise to end the oldest internal conflict in Latin America.