Colombia Peace Process: Lurching Backwards
26 May 2015
Colombia’s peace process faces its most serious crisis yet, after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) suspended a five month old unilateral ceasefire. Instead of more measures to de-escalate the conflict ahead of a final peace agreement, there are now new risks that the confrontation will escalate, causing fresh humanitarian damage, crippling trust between the parties and further weakening public support for the process.
FARC´s decision came on the heels of a military air and ground operation against a guerrilla camp in the southwestern municipality of Guapí (Cauca), which killed at least 26 fighters. Details have remained scarce, but according to official information, the attack was part of ongoing operations against drug-trafficking and illegal mining activities in which the FARC’s 29th front has long been involved. This event came only five weeks after a FARC ambush in the same region, which killed eleven soldiers and prompted President Santos to revoke an earlier suspension of aerial bombardments.
The scale of the losses arguably left FARC little other choice than to call off the ceasefire. Its leadership, many of which are now part of the negotiation team in safe Havana, has already come under pressure from combatants in Colombia who have remained exposed to offensive operations by the security forces. The suspension of the ceasefire is a costly move for the already highly unpopular guerrillas, but showing no decisive reaction might have seriously impaired their control and command abilities.
FARC have blamed the “incoherence” of the government for the end of ceasefire. This is disingenuous. The guerrillas have used the unilateral measure not just as a humanitarian gesture or a way to shore up political support but also as an instrument to pressure the Santos administration into an early bilateral ceasefire, despite being aware of the strong resistance to this idea within the government, significant parts of public opinion and, last but not least, the security forces. They have also failed to halt drug-trafficking and other criminal activities, including extortion, thus undermining the credibility of their ceasefire pledge.
But questions remain regarding the government’s handling of the situation. Security forces are doubtless entitled to carry out strikes against guerrilla camps. But military leaders should have anticipated that an operation which easily counts among the bloodiest against FARC in the last five years risked forcing guerrillas into giving up their ceasefire, with potentially significant negative implications for the entire peace process. In a speech on 22 May, Santos sounded the right tone when he expressed grief about the deaths of the FARC members. Yet the high number of casualties and the fact that the attack was against the regional structure that is held responsible for the April ambush have also given the entire operation unhelpful overtones of revenge.
Dragging the talks out of this hole will not be straightforward. FARC have repeated their call for a bilateral ceasefire. But that remains a highly unlikely ambition. If anything, skepticism towards silencing the weapons before a final deal has grown. Negotiations on a formal bilateral ceasefire, underpinned by a robust and independent verification mechanism, are underway, but an agreement on this point is probably months away. In the meantime, the parties should consider the following steps to bring the process back on track.
- First, as bilateral hostilities are about to resume, both parties need to show maximum restraint on the battlefield. In particular, they will need to strictly protect the civilian population and abstain from disproportionate attacks, in an effort to maintain, as much as possible, recent humanitarian gains and prevent public support for the process from falling even further. FARC must also ban planting new land mines and refrain from attacking energy infrastructure, one of its most frequently used offensive operations.
- Second, the parties will need to ring-fence the negotiations from this new conflict dynamic. Preliminary agreements on rural development, political participation and the problem of illegal drugs need to be preserved and completed, and complemented by similar achievements in the talks on the “end of the conflict” and transitional justice, the last two points of the agenda. The announcement that negotiations will continue as planned on Saturday (23 May) is a positive early sign in this regard.
- Third, the parties will need to redouble efforts to demonstrate concrete progress. With discussion on transitional justice moving slowly, this should entail a new push to implement conflict de-escalation measures, including a joint humanitarian demining scheme agreed on earlier this year.
Despite the setbacks of the last few weeks, the government and the FARC leadership appear to remain firmly committed to reaching a deal, not least because a collapse would be very costly for either side. The shared interest in a successful peace process is a strong base from which the parties can reset and relaunch the negotiations, ideally with the support of the trusted guarantor countries, Cuba and Norway. In April, we warned against the risks of an involuntary breakup over military escalation or a political backlash. As is clear now, such dangers can no longer be ignored.