The Colombian Government’s First Official Peace Talks with the ELN
31 Mar 2016
The International Crisis Group welcomes the announcement on 30 March of the “Agreement for Peace Talks between the National Government and the National Liberation Army” (ELN) in Colombia, and the beginning of a public phase of negotiations. These talks, together with those nearing completion with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana, are the greatest opportunity to end 52 years of armed conflict. The parties must now build confidence not only mutually, but also with a still sceptical public, synchronise both sets of talks and move rapidly to specific agreements, with full international support, particularly from the guarantor countries (Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Norway and Venezuela).
Negotiations with the ELN face many challenges. The first is that they are to begin while fighting continues, thus risking that violence may disrupt them. President Juan Manuel Santos has said the government will not advance the peace process while the ELN holds kidnap victims. The guerrillas have not announced the end of kidnappings, though they recently complied with the president’s request to release two hostages. With a bilateral ceasefire still remote, early agreement on de-escalation is essential. The ELN should consider a unilateral ceasefire, like those carried out by the FARC, to increase its legitimacy and that of the talks.
The six-point agenda, while covering key issues for both parties, is still quite general: participation of society in peacebuilding; democracy for peace; transformations for peace; victims; the end of the conflict; and implementation. Though it is important to maintain flexibility, further definition of the sub-points of the agenda would help guide the talks. Otherwise, the very generic approach may conspire against the intention to sign an agreement before Santos’s term ends in 2018.
Perhaps the feature that most distinguishes the peace talks with the ELN from those with the FARC is the announced participation of society. This new element is positive in principle and may help overcome the objections made to the confidential talks with FARC in Havana and otherwise increase the buy-in of Colombian society. However, participation needs to be designed, developed and carried out both carefully and efficiently, so it does not become an obstacle instead of a catalyst. At the same time, it is important to identify – in a well-balanced debate – and adopt specific lessons learned from the negotiations with the FARC. The significance of pilot projects, the use of advisers, the clear role of the international community and methodological clarity and flexibility are among the points that could be useful.
Another difference with the FARC process, in which negotiations have only taken place in Havana, is that the ELN will have negotiating tables with “sessions” in five countries: Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador and Venezuela. Coordination and timing of these tables and “sessions” will involve logistical, communications and methodological challenges. Two years of preliminary contacts with the ELN mean the formal talks have a solid starting point. Now the parties need to show rapid progress, de-escalate hostilities and synchronise the negotiations with the talks in Havana in a way that allows Colombians to enjoy the fruits of peace as early as possible.