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Why Colombia’s Negotiators Couldn’t Manage a Cease-Fire by March 23

It sounded over-ambitious when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced last September 23, during a historic handshake meeting in Havana with the FARC guerrilla leadership, that both sides’ negotiators would sign a final peace accord in just six months—that is, by today, March 23, 2016.

The slow-moving FARC-government negotiations still had a lot of ground to cover. It then took nearly three more months just to finish the talks’ “Victims” agenda item, of which the September 23 agreement, on transitional justice, was only a part. During that period, several FARC spokespeople warned that the March 23 deadline would not be met.

A more realistic hope was that the negotiators could agree by March 23 on something more modest than a final accord, but still tremendously important: a bilateral ceasefire. This would be a genuine, full cessation of all hostilities—all forms of violence, from extortion to recruitment of new fighters—with UN verification, as laid out in a January Security Council resolution).

The “ceasefire by March 23” scenario had seemed likely. When WOLA staff visited Bogotá during the first week of March, a strong majority of experts and officials we interviewed saw the sides as “almost there” on the details. “Something will be signed on March 23,” Colombia’s foreign minister said earlier this month. President Santos warned on February 19 that if a ceasefire and precise timeline for laying down arms weren’t ready by March 23, he would see it as evidence that “the FARC aren’t prepared for peace.”

A ceasefire by this week would have been important enough for President Obama to alter his Cuba visit schedule to appear in the photo frame, along with Santos, Raúl Castro, and FARC leader “Timochenko,” at a triumphant signing ceremony. Such a photo could have had huge symbolic value for U.S.-Latin American relations, a break with a history punctuated by gunboat diplomacy, cold war proxy conflicts, and the war on drugs.

But there was no ceasefire accord, despite last-ditch efforts by President Santos’s older brother to break an impasse. So there was no photo opportunity by the time President Obama boarded Air Force One bound for Argentina on March 22. Instead, on March 21 the negotiators got the “participation award” of separate meetings (and photos) with Secretary of State John Kerry.

In order to protect guerrillas during a ceasefire, and to guarantee both sides’ compliance, it is necessary to gather FARC fighters in specific zones around the country. Colombia’s security forces would be absent from these zones (though they would guard the perimeter), and the government would suspend outstanding arrest warrants for all guerrillas assembled there.

Agreement on these “concentration zones” remains elusive. They are the main point standing in the way of a ceasefire. In fact, the parties may be more distant on the concentration zones issue today than they were two months ago.

On January 23, the negotiators’ “End of Conflict Subcommittee”—an expert group made up of five senior active-duty military officers and five of the FARC’s most battle-hardened commanders—submitted a confidential consensus document recommending how these zones would operate. Things appeared to be on the right track.

Why Colombia’s Negotiators Couldn’t Manage a Cease-Fire by March 23

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