Kristian Herbolzheimer is Colombia Programme Director at Conciliation Resources. The English version of this article was first published by Fox Latino.
Negotiating while fighting continues is the main risk for ongoing peace dialogues between the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The insurgents are calling for a bilateral ceasefire, which the government has rejected. While diminishing the humanitarian costs of the conflict is urgent, the discussions on a ceasefire should avoid further polarisation. Ceasefire is not an either/or question, but rather a confidence-building process.
The Colombian Government faces a complex quandary. On the one hand, it can’t give in to FARC’s request for a bilateral ceasefire because the Colombian public doesn’t fully trust the guerrillas’ will and capacity for peace. Failed negotiations and ceasefires in the past still weigh heavily on the government’s mind, and it would be difficult to justify a truce in a moment of relative strength in military arenas. The Colombian Government also fears it would give oxygen to sectors of society who are opposed to peace negotiations.
Nevertheless, the country needs gestures from the negotiating panels that increase people’s trust and support for the peace talks. Opinion polls describe a predominantly skeptical population. This only benefits opponents to the peace negotiations, who have a well-articulated discourse.
There is an interesting correlation between recent declarations by Humberto de la Calle (head of the Government delegation) and statements made by FARC’s historic leader Manuel Marulanda some years back: the goal is not to humanise war, but to end it.
It is, of course, good that opposing sides share the primary goal of terminating the armed conflict. But this does not contradict the parallel goal of stopping the bloodshed even before an agreement is signed. It is unacceptable that soldiers, insurgents and civilians keep sacrificing their lives while the warring factions have decided to end the war through negotiations.
At the same time, the bilateral ceasefire suggested by FARC does not seem feasible for the moment, for two reasons.
Firstly, a formal ceasefire requires a complex and expensive verification mechanism. Experience shows that the discussion can tangle and lengthen, eventually distracting the focus of the peace talks from the political agenda. For example, the Colombian Government and a federation of guerrillas started peace negotiations discussing a ceasefire for several months in Venezuela in 1991 and in Mexico in 1992. The talks collapsed before being able to address any of the political items. During Alvaro Uribe’s first period in power, the Colombian Government and ELN also engaged in a sterile debate about the scope of a “cessation of hostilities,” without reaching the stage for political discussions.
Secondly, a ceasefire agreement does not necessarily shield negotiations. Furthermore, due to the difficulty for its verification and the immediacy of media reporting, it is quite easy to spoil negotiations with acts falsely attributed to either side. This happened in 2000 when an execution falsely attributed to FARC had a serious impact on the peace negotiations.
It is undoubtedly urgent to reinforce the call for a cessation of hostilities. There is no human reasoning that can oppose this. But the demand should be dealt with in a creative manner, preventing it from contributing to the reinforcement of polarisation. A departure from the dichotomy of ‘yes or no’ to a bilateral ceasefire can allow for more unilateral acts. FARC’s two month unilateral ceasefire over Christmas was a very important gesture. This is the path to be followed, by both sides.
A ceasefire is not just a humanitarian gesture; it is also a confidence-building measure. Without trust, negotiations cannot progress.
War de-escalation should be a direct result of progress at the negotiating table. Both the Colombian Government and the FARC can agree on multiple unilateral gestures that can prove, with facts, their commitment to change. This is about a humanitarian agenda being the path toward peace, not a substitute for peace. This humanitarian agenda does not even need to be publicly announced, but simply implemented with discretion.
Sooner rather than later, the dynamic of the peace negotiations will reach a tipping point, when the parties will stop using violence because, fundamentally, peace building and armed confrontation are incompatible.