After decades of failed attempts to defeat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) militarily and flawed negotiations, a political solution to the Western Hemisphere’s oldest conflict may finally be possible.
Colombia: Peace at Last?, the latest International Crisis Group report, welcomes the recent announcement that formal talks with FARC are scheduled to begin in Oslo next month and will continue in Cuba. There seems to be a firmer willingness to strike a deal, as the government realises military means alone cannot end the conflict, and FARC appears to recognise that the armed struggle enables survival but little else.
“What is new compared to previous processes is that these talks are focused on the termination of the armed conflict”, says Christian Voelkel, Crisis Group’s Colombia Analyst. “This reflects an evolution in FARC’s position. The guerrillas had previously maintained they would only disarm once their historic claims had been successfully addressed”.
There are many challenges, but they are less formidable than on previous occasions. Scepticism remains widespread, and there is political opposition to the talks, most vocally and radically articulated by former President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010). His discourse resonates strongly among large landowners and other powerful local actors with significant stakes and a historical proclivity for using violence to defend their interests. But the large majority of Colombians back the process, and mainstream political forces have endorsed it. The security services are better aligned with the civilian leadership than in the past and represented at the negotiation table.
Nevertheless, the outcome depends on more than the will and negotiating skill of the parties. After 50 years of guerrilla warfare, systematic human rights violations and indifference by both sides to the plight of rural communities, the parties need to promote social ownership of the process, balancing the requirements of confidential negotiations and of representativeness and inclusion. Women must play a substantive role in all stages of the process. To produce immediate tangible humanitarian relief in conflict zones, both parties should, in the absence of a ceasefire, exercise military restraint and adhere strictly to international humanitarian law obligations.
Negotiations need to be sustained by the active participation and endorsement of civil society, notably of the rural and indigenous communities that are suffering most from the conflict. To lay the foundations for durable peace, talks will ultimately need to lead into a wider social process aimed at tackling the problems affecting the countryside that provide the backdrop for the conflict.
“Colombia arguably has a more than even chance to make peace talks succeed, because the underlying conflict trends are favourable”, says Silke Pfeiffer, Crisis Group’s Colombia/Andes Project Director. “Despite achievements, a decade of intense counter-insurgency efforts has shown that military operations can only do so much. Both the government and FARC know that the time for a political settlement is now or possibly never and that Colombia deserves to have peace at last”.