Self-imposed deadline in FARC peace process a grave misstep for Colombian government
This post was written by GRI senior analyst Daniel Lemaitre and guest author Ana Caridad.
Among all the woes that President Santos suffered in March, the worst one was self-inflicted—announcing a tentative deadline for a peace agreement with the FARC.
Colombia missed the March 23 deadline for a peace accord between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The two sides had set the deadline back in September, when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the top FARC commander Rodrigo Londoño, better known by the nom de guerre Timochenko, pledged to end the fifty-year conflict in the next six months, sealing the pact with a historical handshake. Talks between the Colombian government and the leftist guerrilla have been held in Havana since 2012. Several past attempts to end Latin America’s longest running insurgency, which has claimed over 260,000 lives since 1958 according to official figures, have failed.
Both President Santos, and Humberto de la Calle, the government’s chief negotiator, announced on March 9th that the government is seeking a “good accord” that will include a disarmament “with a set timetable [and] with no grey areas,” and would not sign a “bad peace deal” to meet the self-imposed deadline. The leadership of the FARC also anticipated it would be impossible to finalize the negotiations by March 23, but reiterated their commitment to see the talks through.
The long struggle
The delegations representing the Government of Colombia and the FARC in Havana have reached partial agreements on four of the six official agenda points, including comprehensive agreements on agrarian and land reform, political participation for ex-guerrillas, illicit drugs and drug trafficking, and justice for the victims of the conflict. The two remaining unsettled issues are disarmament and how to ratify the final accord.
One of the main remaining tensions is agreeing to a roadmap on how and when the FARC fighters will begin demobilizing. The second sticking point between the parties is how to ratify the accords. The government wants a plebiscite, as the administration has promised popular ratification of a peace process through direct citizen participation, whereas the FARC seeks a constitutional assembly, which would legitimate their struggle.
The Colombian peace talks have been one of the most comprehensive and thoroughly planned peace processes in the post-Bretton Woods years.
The talks have remained highly technical and insulated despite growing public dissent for the process and a highly organized political opposition. Public approval of President Santos has gradually taken a toll over the course of the peace process reaching an all time low of 22% according to a Datexco poll published on March 27th. Specifically, the month of March 2016 has proven difficult for President Santos.
An energy crisis triggered by El Niño, a debilitated fiscal position, FARC leaders appearing in public in the Guajira department, and lagging peace talks in Havana have created a general perception that Mr. Santos is not governing effectively.
While many in Colombia are growing weary of the process and widespread pessimism and skepticism surround the negotiations, the peace talks have reached a point of no return.
A hard deadline should not have been announced because it is imperative for the process to continue insulated and at a steady pace. The technical nature of the talks require time and space from the public. Too much visibility may lead both parties to succumb to the loudest voices on each side of the political spectrum.
It is clear that in hindsight, the government of Colombia should have released a broad statement after the Santos-Timochenko handshake declaring that both sides are committed to continue advancing the peace talks, without creating false expectations. The government should have also asked the public to look at this peace agreement in context with other peace deals in the past quarter century. Comparatively, the Colombian peace talks have progressed quickly.
Duration of peace processes in recent years
As the chart above illustrates, the Colombian armed conflict lies on the upper end of the scale in terms of violent deaths, which serves as an indicator for the scale and depth of the conflict. The Colombian armed conflict has lasted three times as long as the others, another indicator for the complexity of the crisis. A possible strategy for the Colombian government as the peace process progresses is to educate the public about the time frame of other successful large-scale political mediation processes.
Furthermore, comparative experience from other recent negotiations, such as the Northern Ireland case, show that disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) processes are more than technical exercises; they are deeply political. It is therefore crucial to have clear roadmaps rather than deadlines to ensure the success of the implementation and prevent the return to conflict.
The government should arguably have not announced a March 23rd hard deadline for a peace agreement, since the most complicated portions of the peace agreement are still on the table and imposing a deadline politicized the issue further.
The Santos administration has shown an exceptional ability to maneuver politically despite a low public approval, but it is clear that announcing a hard deadline for the peace agreement was a grave political miscalculation. The missed deadline had political costs, but does not jeopardize the peace process.
While it is unclear when the pen will hit the paper, both parties are optimistic about the outcome. As the Ides of March finally end for the Santos administration, they should resist from rushing the process with any more deadlines and instead push the negotiating team to promote a fundamentally strong process.
Ana Caridad currently works for an international NGO focused on promoting democracy and human rights. She holds a dual M.S./M.A. in International Service and Conflict Resolution.
Daniel Lemaitre is a GRI Senior Analyst. He has worked in policy research centered on the political economy of the Andean region in the public, NGO, and private sectors. Daniel holds an MSc in Comparative Political Economy from the London School of Economics, concentrating on Latin American markets.