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Colombia: Prospects for Peace with the ELN

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Alvaro Uribe was inaugurated President of Colombia on 7 August 2002 with a strong electoral mandate to fulfil his pledge to enhance the state’s authority and guarantee security. In his inaugural address, Uribe promised to search for a negotiated solution to the long-standing armed confrontation with both insurgent groups, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as well as with the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC). However, in stark contrast to his predecessor, Andrés Pastrana, he conditioned new negotiations on a ceasefire and complete suspension of hostilities.

Uribe’s first announcements dealt with both the conflict and related longer-term governance issues. In a setting of general insecurity, epitomised by the FARC’s mortar attack on the inauguration ceremony in the centre of Bogotá, he imposed an emergency “state of public unrest” for 90 days, decreed a “security tax” to fund an expanded war effort, and submitted a far-reaching constitutional reform proposal to parliament. The latter would provide authority for election or presidential appointment of representatives of the irregular armed groups to local government chambers and the national parliament if they are seriously engaged in a peace process. The new president also requested the UN Secretary General’s good offices to help establish peace negotiations with the FARC - an offer the FARC rejected. However, confidential, direct ceasefire talks have been resumed with the ELN in Cuba.

Both the Uribe administration and the ELN are aware of the shortcomings of the unsuccessful peace process under Pastrana (1998-2002). The talks with the FARC in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) overshadowed and prejudiced those held simultaneously, and by the same High Commissioner for Peace, with the ELN, mostly in Cuba and Venezuela. Substantially smaller and militarily weaker than the FARC, and under sustained attack from the paramilitaries, the ELN was possibly perceived as less of a danger. In the Pastrana government’s media-oriented peace process, the ELN component was mostly treated as a sideshow. This compromised the progress, however limited, made in previous talks between representatives of Colombian civil society and the ELN under the auspices of the German and Colombian Conferences of Bishops in Germany at the end of the Samper administration (1994-1998). The ELN’s demand for its own demilitarised zone became the critical obstacle to an agreement.

The Pastrana administration was never able to commit the ELN to a ceasefire or a permanent halt to kidnapping, and it did not respond appropriately to ELN gestures of goodwill, such as two unconditional releases of numerous hostages. Third party domestic and international actors, including the UN, could potentially have played a more decisive role had they been allowed.

If he learns from past errors, President Uribe has the opportunity for a strong new start. Several points are key. Firstly, his government should adopt the stance that peace with the ELN is at least as important, and more feasible, than peace with the FARC. It would produce an important breathing space for Colombia and an encouraging example for the AUC and FARC. Secondly, while the ELN has suffered battlefield reverses, the government should not treat it as if it were close to defeat. Thirdly, the government should pursue a carefully structured process, with appropriate third party facilitation to follow as quickly as possible the confidence-building talks already underway.

Since the end of the Cold War, the ELN has demonstrated a more political vision than the FARC. Some of its more conciliatory leaders, including its chief commander Nicolás Rodríguez, appear to be relatively realistic about the need to adjust maximalist demands in a negotiation. As substantive negotiations under conditions of ongoing warfare are unsustainable, the current talks in Cuba should aim primarily at a ceasefire, humanitarian accords, security guarantees for the insurgents and perhaps some initial consensus about a new substantive peace agenda. The Colombian and German Catholic Churches could, if requested, help create an appropriate environment of trust during this initial stage. The UN and other neutral third parties could, if requested, play important roles in detailed negotiations over monitoring, verification, logistics and safeguards. Once a ceasefire is in place, substantive talks could begin with some optimism. However, continuing ELN violations of international humanitarian law and criminal activities would seriously jeopardize them, as would continued complicity and coordinated operations between some army brigades and paramilitaries and human rights violations by regular army personnel.

To stress the new approach and make full use of the good offices of important domestic and international actors, the administration should consider eventually broadening the support structure of the negotiations. Without abandoning Cuba as a location for the ceasefire talks or radically altering its confidentiality policy, it would appear beneficial for the government gradually to integrate other countries and mediators into the peace effort. Flexibility is advisable because the different stages of the peace process require the assistance – financial, logistical, political and technical – of a changing set of third parties. However, for continuity and coordination, the government and ELN should consider selecting one such party to facilitate the entire process. Result-oriented convenience of location and facilitation should therefore be the order of the day.

The more time passes without decisive progress toward peace, the more likely it is that hard-liners on both sides will gain the upper hand. This could produce deeper ELN involvement in criminal activities, including drugs, and military cooperation with the FARC. Government advocates of a military solution would be strengthened, as would the FARC’s conviction that the only solution to the conflict is military victory.

While ICG believes that a negotiated settlement with the ELN is achievable in the short to medium-term, this cannot happen unless the government has a clear strategy for the control and, ultimately, disbandment of the AUC. A combination of measures, including enhanced law enforcement and continued military pressure, appears advisable. Any existing ties between army and paramilitaries must be severed.

If any of the three irregular armed groups fail to cut ties to the drug business and other criminal activities, the government and the international community should treat them as criminal organisations or drug cartels. The final goal of the peace process must be to protect the lives and expand the opportunities of all Colombians by democratic, inclusive and legitimate politics. Refusing to tolerate drugs, kidnapping, and crime in the name of “revolution” or “the defence of the state” must be part of that equation. This will also require Colombia to make substantive reforms in health and education and citizen security as well as profoundly reassess its counter-drug, national security and environmental policies.


To The Colombian Government:

1. Continue confidential and direct negotiations with the ELN in Cuba as part of a three-stage process that moves from establishing trust and an initial ceasefire agreement to implementation and verification, and then to substantive political negotiations.

2. Consider including during the present talks in Cuba, or in such alternating locations as may be agreed upon to advance the process, the development of the substantive agenda that will need to be discussed at subsequent stages of the peace process.

3. Urge mutual gestures to enhance confidence at this initial stage, including release of kidnap victims, no new kidnapping, and conditional release of appropriate ELN prisoners.

4. Ask the UN, Colombian and German Conferences of Bishops, or another neutral third party to provide good offices, at least if ceasefire negotiations stall, but also possibly as general facilitators to help both parties agree to a clear structure and timeline for further stages in the process.

5. Approach now friendly governments, the Catholic Church, the European Union, the OAS, the Colombian and International Red Cross, and particularly the UN to obtain assistance in implementation and verification of the ceasefire during the second and third stages of peace negotiations.

6. Conduct now expert meetings on incorporating ELN militias into a ceasefire.

7. Identify locations for “Neutral Zones” and mechanisms to monitor them and to protect ELN fighters concentrated within them, and clearly distinguish those zones from the former Demilitarised Zone for the FARC and the Zone of Encounter previously discussed with the ELN by planning to keep local civil, police and judicial authorities in place.

8. Devise a strategy to insulate the ELN negotiations from AUC or FARC interference, including preventing those groups from infiltrating areas formerly under ELN influence and protecting the “Neutral Zones” against attacks.

9. Continue strengthening the state’s capacity to provide basic services throughout the country; reinforce the commitment to protect civilians against AUC and FARC attacks while reaffirming willingness to pursue appropriate and distinctive mechanisms for ending the conflict with both those groups.

10. Pursue more effective international counter-drug policies.

To the ELN:

11. Accept the principle of a ceasefire and cessation of all hostilities, including kidnapping, prior to the initiation of substantive peace negotiations.

12. Demonstrate goodwill by early release of hostages and stopping all violations of international humanitarian law.

13. Agree to the three-stage negotiation process aimed ultimately at achieving successful substantive negotiations on a reform agenda and the reinsertion of all ELN members into civilian life.

To the international community:

14. Respect the confidentiality and integrity of the ceasefire talks between the Colombian government and the ELN currently underway in Cuba.

15. Be responsive to requests for financial, logistical, technical or political assistance issued by the Colombian government or by the government and the ELN jointly during the different stages of the peace process.

Bogotá/Brussels, 4 October 2002


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