Friday, November 08, 2013

Colombia: A Step Forward in Colombia Talks



A Step Forward in Colombia Talks



The Colombian government and negotiators for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) agreed on Wednesday 6 November that FARC would be able to participate in democratic politics once a final peace agreement is ratified. Javier Ciurlizza, Latin America Program Director, discusses the implications of this advance in the negotiations.

Q: What is the significance of the announced agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) on political participation?

This partial agreement provides a much-needed boost for a peace process besieged by public scepticism, spoilers and the uncertain will of the FARC to really move forward. There was fear that talks had stalled after the first breakthrough agreement (on rural development) five months ago. (See Christian Voelkel’s 18 October post.) Political participation is one of the most sensitive and difficult issues for the parties to agree on, so it is remarkable that they have managed to make such progress on the specifics of FARC participation in Colombian democratic politics and on other forms of political participation and guarantees.

However, this does not mean that the final agreement is around the corner. Under the principle that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, the document signed yesterday is provisional. The parties will also need to work hard on several political-participation issues they have left for later talks, and also on the complex and fundamental issue of transitional justice. How transitional-justice problems are resolved — particularly regarding accountability for serious crimes — will greatly affect who will be able to participate in politics. The parties will also require both imagination and flexibility if they are to agree rapidly on drug policies, termination of the conflict, reinsertion of combatants, and supervision and implementation of the final agreement.

Q:  How does the new agreement envision political participation of former guerrillas?

We only know what is in the joint communiquĂ© of the parties and not the full text of the agreement. We do not yet know the concrete mechanisms that would enable the constitutional and legal reforms necessary to allow FARC’s conversion into a legal political party or movement. A special commission will be set up by the current political parties and movements, and reviewed by a group of experts, to hammer out the details.

Q:  How likely are existing Colombian political parties to welcome this new competition? How do they figure into the process?

Although most of the current political formations have expressed support for the peace talks and are open to some degree of political participation for FARC, there is an increasing polarization between the government and those who support its leadership in these negotiations and political forces aligned with former President Alvaro Uribe, who consider the talks illegitimate. As the legislative and presidential elections (March and May 2014, respectively) approach, the peace process will be the central issue for the campaigns. An increased presence of Uribe and his allies in Congress (where he is running for the Senate at the head of his party’s list) will put further obstacles in the way of legislation required to approve and implement the peace deal.

Finally, although there is formal support for the peace talks within the governmental coalition, President Juan Manuel Santos will need to be extremely persuasive in convincing the public that the concrete mechanisms which will allow FARC members to take public office, particularly at the national level, are in the best interests of sustainable peace and security.

Q: What are Special and Transitory Peace Electoral Districts?

One concrete idea advanced yesterday is the creation of Special and Transitory Electoral Districts (“circunscripciones”) in the areas most affected by the armed conflict, which would have a special representation of their interests in the House of Representatives in addition to the ordinary list of congresspersons. This would imply the direct appointment of representatives in areas with FARC influence, allowing a temporary representation until an eventual political movement is created and established to represent the interests of the guerrillas in legal politics.

This scheme was used in 1991 in order to allow former guerrillas to form political parties and have time to organise themselves before participating in direct polls. However, there will be some resistance to allowing FARC to, in effect, have representatives in Congress who are not elected in some way or another.

Q:  Does the agreement include means for truth-finding and reconciliation?

The agreement signed yesterday expressly avoided questions of transitional justice, including how to prosecute and punish serious crimes, provide reparation for victims and guarantee non-repetition. (See our most recent report, Transitional Justice and Colombia’s Peace Talks.) However, the parties did agree on the creation of National and Territorial Councils for Reconciliation and Co-existence in order to promote “a culture of reconciliation” involving respect for “ideas of the political opposition, social and human rights organisations”. It is still pretty obscure what these mechanisms will produce and how they will work.

Q: What has been the reaction to the agreement in Colombia?

There is a general feeling of relief in the sectors supporting the peace process, including the government. This agreement should provide some momentum to President Santos, who will announce before 25 November if he will run for a second four-year term in May 2014. It will also provide some damage control for FARC´s image, although much more will be needed to reverse decades of the distrust that most Colombians feel towards the guerrillas.

This feeling of relief will be strictly limited in time and scope. President Santos has seen his popularity steadily erode; it is now below 30 percent (one of the lowest in Latin America). There is also strong resistance to moving forward on the other topics of the peace agenda. The greatest test will come when the parties discuss transitional-justice mechanisms, as this will reveal the price they are really willing to pay to reach the termination of one of the oldest armed conflicts in the world.