Postconflict in Colombia (16). The missing actor

For the peace-building scenario in Colombia to be complete, an autonomous, meaningful negotiation process, with full respect for the political identity of the “other” guerrilla force, is crucial. Português Español

Kristian Herbolzheimer
13 September 2016

Demobilized rebels of the National Liberation Army, ELN, Colombia's second largest rebel group, surrendering to the army back in 2009 in Tumaco, Colombia. AP Photo/William Fernando Martinez. All rights reserved.

Today, the peace process in Colombia is the world’s main referent in peace-building. On September, 26, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) concluded the agreements that put an end to 52 years of armed confrontation. If the Colombian citizens endorse these agreements in the October, 2, plebiscite, this will be the main peace-building achievement since the end of the war in Nepal in 2007. These, however, will still be lame agreements, because they do not include the other armed movement in Colombia - the insurgent National Liberation Army (ELN). Without the ELN, peace will not be full.

Even though on March, 30, the government and the ELN announced the start of formal negotiations, on the basis of a five-point agenda, so far the talks have stalled over procedural disagreements. The government has urged the guerrilla force to put an end to kidnappings before proceeding with the peace talks, to which the insurgency has replied with astonishment that it accepts no condition for starting negotiations. This disagreement has resulted in major discredit for the guerrillas before a public that does not understand and does not accept that kidnapping should be something to negotiate. But this has not only meant a media and moral blow to the guerrilla force - the government and the country have also lost out.

To have the ELN on board of the peace process is a priority as a matter of political coherence on the part of the government and also for practical reasons. If negotiations with the ELN fail, what we are risking is an all-out offensive against the guerrillas. But this option would seriously delegitimize the governmental commitment to resolving the politically-based conflicts through dialogue. How would you explain in Colombia, and to the world at large, that while you are negotiating with one set of guerillas you are fighting the other?

From a practical perspective, the government urgently needs to negotiate a bilateral ceasefire with the ELN to facilitate compliance with the recently agreed ceasefire with the FARC. Such an agreement with the guerrillas would greatly ease the task of the security forces in fighting and controlling the remaining illegal armed groups in the conflicting territories.

Two guerrillas, two processes

The ELN has fewer combatants than the FARC and a political-military strategy that tends to put more emphasis on strengthening social movements and underground political opposition than carrying out armed actions. This means less visibility in the media and also, in military terms, it is perceived as a minor guerrilla force.

At the same time, decision making within the guerrilla is more horizontal –“democratic” in elena (from ELN) terminology – than the FARC’s. This entails slower processes, in which internal dissent is more likely to surface, and which sometimes produce confusing results. If to this we add the fact that the different fronts enjoy broad operational autonomy, it is not surprising that the guerrillas are perceived as indecisive and somewhat incoherent.

Finally, an unwavering commitment to social and political change, to which it has devoted as many years as the FARC has, persists in the ELN’s ethos. Clearly inspired by the liberation theology, its interpretation of commitment to the disadvantaged and historically marginalised underclasses leaves little room for compromise. A profound distrust of the country’s ruling class prevents them from committing themselves to disarming if no guarantees of structural transformations are given.

Many do not understand the reasons why the elenos have not jumped on the peace train. They are being criticized for their alleged failure to understand the political situation in the country, for being prisoners of outdated ways of thinking and practices, and for missing an unprecedented window of opportunity.

And yet, from the elena point of view, there are serious objections to the established peace process. They experience some degree of frustration because their lower military activity as compared to the FARC’s has placed them in a secondary role. They disagree with the elitist character of the negotiations in Havana, where a small group of people has taken decisions affecting the whole country. And there is much unease at the apparent renouncement by the FARC to ensure greater social, political and economic changes at the negotiating table.

The negotiations scenario

Despite the current setbacks, Nicolás Bautista "Gabino", the guerrilla’s top commander, has insisted in a recent interview on the ELN’s commitment to the  peace negotiations and expressed his confidence that the dialogues will prosper.

On the premise of a formal start of the peace talks, the most pressing questions are methodological. If the central axis of the process with the ELN is citizen participation, how should it be structured? More specifically, four key questions must be answered: Who calls for participation (who has the necessary power to convene the whole of society)? Who is to systematize information of the participatory process? Who will make the final decisions? And how long will this negotiation process take?

Several social organizations have made proposals about these, and one of the first decisions at the negotiating table will be to answer these questions. Given the social and political dynamics of the country, three guiding ideas could be suggested for the pending discussion:

Drawing upon what has been built up. Social movements have been, for years, structuring agendas for social, economic, political and even cultural change. Moreover, the government and society have undertaken multiple negotiation processes - with the unions, at the Agrarian Summit, regarding indigenous and African descendants’ claims, and citizen resistance to big energy-mining projects. Several of these agendas are clear enough, and there are even government commitments, legislation and court rulings that point to significant changes. However, these changes are slow or they are not seen coming. The talks should then start with a shared diagnosis about the flaws in the existing participation mechanisms before drafting a new, long "market list".

Recognizing autonomy. The dynamics of citizen mobilization and negotiation with the state are characterized by a high degree of autonomy. The negotiating table can make these initiatives visible and recognize them, and thus increase their impact. It can also promote other processes throughout the country. But a centralized design for the peace process is just not possible, nor desirable. A creative formula must be found for promoting synergies between the different, autonomous social processes and the negotiating tables, and no one should claim to have or assume representative and binding power. A positive outcome of this exercise would have a major impact on the commitment to strengthen democracy.

Delimiting the timings. Change does not come with the peace agreement, it is rather the peace agreement that should lead to changes. To avoid frustration and possible new violent episodes, it is important to identify clearly the results that can be expected from the peace process in the short, medium and long term. The most significant success in the short term would be to put an end to violence in politics. This is what prompted the armed uprising of the guerrillas in the first place. Other changes will take longer, such as the processes for agreeing and implementing new public policies at the local, regional and national levels. Unfortunately, to do away with structural and cultural violence could take decades.

A confluence framework for the negotiations with the ELN and the FARC.

The government must guarantee that the ELN will be able to negotiate in dignity - that is, that it will not offer them to simply join the agreement with the FARC, but that it will conduct an autonomous, meaningful negotiation process, allocating the necessary resources and allowing for the time needed, and with full respect for the political identity of the ELN.

At the same time, it is essential that both processes share a common framework. In this sense, it seems appropriate to recall the sequence of the negotiating process agreed by the government and the FACR in 2012: the aim of the negotiations in Havana is "to end the armed conflict", while "peace-building" is a task that must be undertaken by the whole of Colombian society once the negotiations are concluded. This task has just been announced, but the agenda, the actors, the processes and the timings of what is known as Phase 3 of the peace process have yet to be specified. By emphasizing citizen participation, democracy and transformations for peace, the process between the government and the ELN could fill this gap and thus complete a new global framework for peace-building.

Necessary gestures and decisions

Making peace is harder than waging war. It requires vision, courage, leadership and capabilities to replace a polarized, maximalist rhetoric with actions that respond to the diversity of expectations in society.

Having failed to get the support of social majorities, the guerrillas start from a complex situation. Before a skeptical – or even hostile - public opinion, they need to demonstrate with facts their commitment to peace. So does the government.

Peace-building requires not only restoring confidence between the government and the insurgencies, but also between both of them and the whole of society.

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