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Mediation Perspectives: Innovative Approaches in the Colombian Peace Process

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Photo: flickr/Lucho Molina

The Colombian peace process has advanced steadily without major interruption since it was formally launched in Norway and peace talks between the Colombian government and the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) began in Cuba in late 2012. As with most peace processes, the Colombian process has evolved over time and in stages, with adjustments to the methodologies, focus, and engagement of the stakeholders. A number of these modifications are breaking new ground, particularly with regard to the roles of civil society and the design of strategies for dealing with the past.

Where does the process stand today?

Talks with the FARC are now in their 27th round and progressing apace. Discussions with a second, smaller guerrilla organization, the National Liberation Army (ELN), entered a secret exploratory phase in January 2014 but have yet to become formalized. In June, the government and the ELN issued their first joint communiqué expressing their intent to continue the exploratory phase until they could “agree on an agenda and establish peace talks.” The two parties have thus far agreed on the first two agenda items—victims and civil society participation in the process—two themes that have also been important in the process with the FARC.

The peace process with the FARC has relied heavily on a framework agreement signed by representatives of the FARC and the Colombian government in August 2012 following six months of secret talks in Cuba. In the document, the parties agreed on the goals of the talks, an agenda, a methodology, and a road map. This framework agreement has proven critical for keeping the parties on track and has served as the touchstone for working through disagreements and maintaining mutual respect at the table. It reminds us about the importance of framework agreements in establishing rules that can help mediate a process. The peace process with the FARC is driven by Colombians and has no international mediator, though Cuba and Norway have served as its guarantors, joined by Venezuela and Chile, who accompany the process. The aforementioned countries plus Brazil and Ecuador are accompanying the ELN process.

While part of the framework agreement posits that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, prospects for a final peace deal with the FARC look good. The parties have reached preliminary agreement on three of the six items on their agreed agenda. These preliminary agreements—on rural agrarian development, political participation, and drug trafficking and illicit crop cultivation—are widely believed to address the roots of a conflict that has lasted half a century, caused 220,000 deaths (81% civilians), and displaced more than six million Colombians. The fourth and fifth agenda items—victims and the end of the conflict—are currently under discussion at the table. The last agenda item will be the mechanisms by which the Colombian population will endorse, implement, and verify any agreements reached in Havana.

Opening the process to include civil society

A fairly exclusionary, hermetic process is slowly opening up to civil society engagement. From the beginning, the government negotiating team included respected leaders of the military, police, and business sectors—which were spoilers in past peace processes in Colombia—and envisioned somewhat minimal roles for civil society. The parties encouraged civil society to submit peace proposals via an online mechanism or through their local mayors and governors, and anticipated a role for thematic experts to provide input at the table. Some sectors of civil society—including indigenous people, Afro-Colombians, women, and victims—demanded representation at the table and many were concerned about the limited options for citizen engagement.

These civil society sectors, which have been disproportionately affected by the conflict, have been calling for a political solution for years. With the advent of the talks, they have participated in official forums and taken advantage of circumstances to generate their own forums and alliances and to make their proposals known. There are indications that their voices are being heard at the peace table. Following a nationwide women’s summit in Bogota in October 2013 that demanded greater participation of women in the peace process, the government added two women to its all-male team of negotiators. A few months ago, the negotiators announced the establishment of a gender sub-commission to ensure that all agreements reached are gender-sensitive. Such a commission was established in the process in Sri Lanka, but lacked buy-in from the stakeholders at the table, so women’s proposals were not implemented in the end.

New roles for civil society have been evolving throughout the Colombian process. The Colombian Congress’s peace commissions, with the support of the United Nations, initiated several rounds of regional consultations throughout Colombia that generated and channeled thousands of proposals from civil society to the table in Havana. Likewise, the parties in Havana called on the National University and the United Nations to organize thematic forums to garner proposals from civil society on each of the first four agenda items.

Innovative approaches for including victims

The Colombian peace process has been breaking new ground in relation to how to deal with the past. While the process is still unfolding, a number of innovations are worth examining. First, a visionary Declaration of Principles agreed by the parties on June 7, 2014 laid out the parties’ philosophical approach for addressing what is the most difficult and emotionally charged of the agenda items— victims. Recognition of the victims and of those responsible are key elements of the declaration. The declaration commits the parties to measures that will satisfy the victims’ rights to truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition. Among other things, the Declaration of Principles also agrees that there will be no “exchange of impunities”, underscores the importance of victims as citizens with rights, and establishes victims’ participation as a crucial part of the peace process. The parties have recognized the need to engage victims directly in the process in order to determine the measures that will satisfy their rights. This is a new approach, fraught with possibilities and challenges.

A second and related innovation has been the engagement of thousands of victims in four forums organized by the United Nations and the National University at the behest of the peace delegations in Havana in July and August 2014.

A third element of innovation has been the engagement of victims at the peace table in Havana. In June 2014, the parties in Havana invited victims to participate directly in the peace discussions, and issued a set of criteria by which victims would be chosen to participate in five delegations to Havana of up to 12 members each. The parties asked the United Nations, a think-tank of the National University, and the Colombian Bishops Conference to oversee the selection of delegation members and to ensure that the criteria were met. Much thought has gone into how this would be done, given the difficulties implicit in trying to represent more than 6.7 million victims. In mid-August, the first of the victims’ delegations traveled to Havana. It included participants who represented different types of victimization, regional backgrounds, and ethnic and gender diversity. Members of the delegation had been victimized by the FARC, the public security forces, paramilitaries, unknown assailants or a combination of armed groups. The use of third parties—both nationals and internationals—helped mitigate conflict on the highly controversial issue of selection criteria.

Another innovation we are seeing in Colombia is the establishment during the peace process of a historical commission on the conflict and its victims. While Truth Commissions after peace agreements are signed are fairly standard practice, this kind of broader clarification commission on the origins of the conflict as a prerequisite to agreement is not. In part, the need for such a commission in the Colombian conflict responds to the complexity of a conflict where the parties at the table are only two of many armed actors, so there has been a need to understand the full conflict context. Colombia’s clarification commission begins work on August 21, and will lay the groundwork for a future truth commission whose mandate will be more extensive. Ensuring that victims’ rights to truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-repetition are satisfied is a universal dilemma in post-conflict transitions around the world. The questions are always: what happened and why? Who is responsible? How can amends be made? And finally, perhaps most importantly, how can a return to violence be prevented in the future?

Victims are particularly well qualified to speak to these issues and their engagement at the table in Havana is promising. Victims are stakeholders with ideas, proposals, and contributions. Colombia is making victims’ voices central to its process. If for no other reason, this alone makes the Colombian peace process well worth watching.

Virginia M. Bouvier is senior advisor for Latin America at the United States Institute for Peace. She regularly blogs at “Colombia Calls” and is the editor of “Colombia: Building Peace in a Time of War”, soon to be released in Spanish. Dr. Bouvier served as a process design expert on the United Nations Mediation Support Unit’s Mediation Standby Team and is a member of the Mediation Support Network.

Mediation Perspectives” is a periodic blog entry provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts.

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