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Fancy footwork for peace


Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos announced that Colombian armed forces will cease their fighting with the FARC rebel forces. Ministerio Tic Colombia under a Creative Commons Licence

In a 15-minute speech delivered on Tuesday evening, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that for the next month, Colombia’s armed forces will stop their bombing operations against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Since August 2012, the central government and the guerrillas have been negotiating, in Havana, Cuba, a peace agreement to put an end to Colombia’s 50-year-old internal conflict.

In December last year, the FARC implemented a unilateral and indefinite ceasefire: the truce, as of today, still holds, and the guerrilla ceasefire has led to a significant reduction in the levels of violence across the country.

By declaring a month-long halt to the army’s offensive against the guerrillas not only does Santos’ administration respond to the FARC’s unilateral truce: the deal is a major step forward towards the de-escalation and ending of Colombia’s internal conflict.

What Santos outlined on Tuesday is neither a definitive agreement, nor a ceasefire in any simplistic sense. Should the FARC threaten the Colombian people or the country’s stability in any way, Santos has made clear the army will resume its offensives.

Despite criticism voiced by former President Álvaro Uribe’s opposition party, Centro Democratico, Santos’ decision is not tantamount to the government helping the guerrillas by giving up its prerogative to use violence against them.

The duty of the armed forces is to protect the Colombian people – the ceasefire does not undermine this. Nor does the deal entail a withdrawal or reconfiguration of the armed forces’ presence in the territory.

The president’s deal is neither a bilateral ceasefire, like that undertaken by former President Belisario Betancur (1982-86), nor a system of territorial concessions akin to those granted to the guerrillas during the negotiations carried out under Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002).

It is a temporary solution – a trial, so to speak – that places the responsibility for what comes next on FARC’s shoulders.

By implementing a unilateral ceasefire, the FARC had effectively made Santos’ administration co-responsible for a possible breakdown in the truce – and the crisis in the peace talks that would ensue.

By calling for a temporary halt to the armed forces’ hostilities, Santos has now shifted the burden back.

Whether or not the current state of things will be undermined, this concerns not only the government, but the guerrillas too. If the deal collapses because of the actions of the FARC, the group will lose the political capital it has acquired during two years of negotiations.

In light of this, the president’s announcement formalizes what is already a virtual, bilateral ceasefire, with each side too aware of the risks to want to disrupt the current equilibrium.

Levels of violence associated with armed conflict have dropped to levels unseen since the early 1980s. Civilian deaths decreased dramatically during the FARC-led ceasefire.

But intermittent clashes with the armed forces and guerrilla attacks against the country’s infrastructure have not increased public perceptions of security.

Convincing the public that the government strategy is the right one will be one of Santos’ most difficult challenges.

If the final peace agreement is to be put to a referendum – as the President has reiterated at length – then it is imperative for Santos to make sure that any decision his government takes can be justified before the eyes of the Colombian people and the conflict’s many victims.

Appealing to the ‘supreme good of Peace’, as the president did this week, can only work up to a point.

Quite another task will be fostering the support of the armed forces.

Santos has already involved the army more directly in the negotiation process through the establishment of a sub-commission in which military and guerrilla leaders can discuss recommendations for the end of the conflict.

Giving the army an active role in the negotiations is not just a way to legitimize the latter: it will also help the government to make sure a powerful source of potential dissent is tamed and co-opted.

The final challenge will be to ensure that the peace process has the engagement of those sections of the political spectrum that have so far been disenfranchised by the talks.

In other words, Santos will, as far as possible, need to involve Uribe’s party and its affiliates in the negotiating process.

In his speech, the president announced the establishment of an advisory board that will be joined by the likes of former presidential candidates Antanas Mockus and Clara Lopez, former M-19 member and senator Vera Grabe, and indigenous leader Ati Quigua. The invitation has also been extended to the former Centro Democratico presidential candidate Oscan Ivan Zuluaga.

Whether the opposition will reply by supporting or criticizing Santos’ efforts, no peace can be premised upon the exclusion of a political party.

The president’s decision to halt the army’s bombing of FARC targets is a major breakthrough. But its benefits will only be reaped if Santos can turn the negotiations into a process that involves all Colombians.

The engagement of the political opposition is necessary for the peace to be a legitimate and durable one. Somewhat paradoxically, establishing a dialogue with Uribe’s ranks may be harder for Santos than reaching a deal with the FARC.

Leonardo Goi is a researcher working for FIP (Fundación Ideas Para la Paz) – a Bogotá-based centre that focuses on the analysis of armed conflict and its close relationship with the country’s development.

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