A window of opportunity for peace in Colombia

The negotiators from Colombia's peace process give us 10 reasons why negotiations were possible from 2012, and why we can't miss this opportunity for peace. Español

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democracia Abierta IFIT Brain Trust for the Colombian Transition
23 November 2017

Signing of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC. September 2016. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The success of the negotiations owes a lot to the determination of all those at and around the negotiating table. Yet before the negotiations were underway, the stage had to be set and the parts put in place.Speaking with the IFIT Brain Trust, they shared 10 conditions that helped create this window of opportunity, without which we might be looking at a far less substantial peace in Colombia. 

1. It was the right time

In and around the time of the death of the FARC's Commander-in-chief, Alfonso Cano, in 2011, and the target of a sustained military offensive, there were fundamental shifts in the FARC leadership. The intelligence gathered indicated that the organisation favoured reforming into a political entity, rather than continuing as an armed movement. On the government’s side, the war was costing the country too much and so the time was ripe to try a new, and hopefully definitive, peace process.

2. A change of government

The previous government had approached conflict differently: they had seen it as a war against terrorism without recognizing the existence of an armed conflict within the country. That implied that the Government didn’t recognize the state victims and wasn’t willing to negotiate peace. When President Álvaro Uribe left office in August 2010, the new government could rethink its approach to the conflict. The political determination and leadership of the new president, Juan Manuel Santos, was a game changer.

3. Preparation of the ‘legal scene’

There was an important international condition to consider. The international legal framework, namely the International Criminal Court’s 1998 Rome Agreement, was established. However, the question remained as to how the Colombian case would fit within it. President Santos asked his technical team, "If Alfonso Cano calls me today to start negotiations, what can I actually do in terms of international and national law?" The government began researching the legal space and subsequently started the process of passing the necessary constitutional amendments. One such amendment, undertaken in 2012 when the exploratory phase was ongoing in Havana, was to lay the foundations for a possible peace negotiation.

4. Detailed methodology

Delivering a negotiation process is as much about the technical aspects as it is about the political. The method, the themes, and the way the agenda is put together are all extremely important. Having a detailed methodology prepared was therefore key to initiating talks with the FARC.

5. No ceasefire

There was no ceasefire put in place. This was an important albeit potentially unusual step to prevent the peace process from the unpredictable realities of war. It was certainly costly in terms of public opinion, but it meant that the negotiations in Havana were not dependent on maintaining a fragile ceasefire back in Colombia, where the slightest action or sabotage could derail talks. For example, the theory was put into practice when, early in the negotiations, an action by one of the guerrilla units caused the deaths of 11 soldiers in the Cauca region. This provoked a response from the government, which re-started air raids, killing around 60 FARC fighters in a guerrilla camp in Guapi, a small city by the Pacific coast. However, instead of derailing the negotiation, those at the negotiating table in Havana were able to detach themselves from difficulties in Colombia and focus on the objective of making progress.

6. Direct conversations without mediation

Direct negotiation was an essential part of the talks making it a distinctly domestic process without the perceived interference from an international mediator. When on 3 March 2014, two Colombian delegates travelled to a FARC camp close to the Venezuelan border without a security escort to initiate dialogue, this was not only a significant symbol of trust, but also a sign of things to come. Through that meeting, Havana was identified as the location for negotiations. International actors played more of a facilitator role - rather than a mediator role – but their contribution proved decisive at critical points throughout the negotiations. It was very important to determine their role from the beginning of the negotiations.

 7. Confidentiality

The toughest negotiations happened away from the microphones. Behind closed doors, around the three-by-three and four-by-four tables, there were no guarantors present. While the negotiations over the draft agreements were intense, individuals’ personalities also tended to be more open to negotiation. Public attention on a negotiation frequently provides extra pressure, emotion, and unwillingness to compromise on each side. For this reason, it was essential to have a confidentiality framework set up from the start. However, this was an aspect that the public did not like as they felt that the government, rather than representing them, were "negotiating behind their backs".

8. "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed"

This principle was at the heart of the negotiations. It is best understood through the analogy of cooking a soup: as the two delegations passed through the negotiations, they had to agree on what ingredients would go into the soup. The end result was that the parties would either like the whole thing or nothing at all. The principle, which is widely adopted in international negotiation agreements, had important implications for the Colombia case. First, it preserved the agreement in its entirety, and prevented both the negotiation process and final agreement from fracturing. There would be no partial agreement, nor could anything from the agreement be taken out of context. Second, it ensured no party could focus on its own interests at the expense of others. And third, it guaranteed a rush towards the end of the negotiating process to tie up loose ends.

9. Civil Society participation

Approximately 68,000 proposals for the negotiations were submitted by organisations and individuals, all of which were reviewed and considered. Of those, 27,000 came from victims. Incorporating such wide input helped the negotiations to strike the 'pulse' of the stakeholders. That said, there was no doubt that those submitting proposals were not completely representative of the wide range of Colombia’s voices. Nevertheless, this invitation for civil society to participate ensured that the voices of victims were at the table which brought legitimacy to the process.

10. Comprehensiveness & simultaneity

Both sides of the table needed to adopt a collaborative mind-set before going into the negotiations. There was no room for a one-sided effort to be accepted or rejected by the other side. For example, the FARC were not able to say, "the government can do its part, produce an agreement, and if we like the offer, we'll disarm". Instead, the parties would enter into and ultimately come out of the process together.

* * *

The importance of the set up should not be overlooked or underestimated. A combination of lessons from past peace processes in Colombia, international experience, innovation, and favourable circumstances ensured that the right conditions were at hand. Thus, Colombia was presented with a window of opportunity to pursue the disarmament of the FARC, and continue down a path towards peace in the country as a whole. The negotiating teams and their leaders took full advantage of this opportunity and were able to embark on what would become a four-year-long negotiation process.

The devil is so often in the detail, and perhaps without one of these conditions in place, we would be looking at a very different Colombia today.

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