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COLOMBIA: Low Expectations for New Round of Talks with ELN

Analysis by Constanza Vieira

BOGOTÁ, Apr 11 2007 (IPS) - Contradictory declarations and low expectations surround the sixth round of exploratory talks that begins Thursday in Cuba between the Colombian government and the insurgent National Liberation Army (ELN), which have been engaged in dialogue with a view to formal peace talks since December 2005.

The rightwing government of Álvaro Uribe says it is “optimistic” about the new round, while the ELN says it is heading to Havana with little confidence and a sense of mistrust, because none of what was agreed in the previous rounds has been put on paper and signed.

The ELN, which emerged in 1964, says the “oral” agreements reached so far are not sufficient. “We need signed accords,” ELN spokesman Francisco Galán told the Telesur TV channel in Caracas.

“I’m not going to sign agreements on paper,” responded peace commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo, the Uribe administration’s negotiator in the talks, speaking to the Bogotá daily El Tiempo.

In any case, said Galán, both sides have been evaluating just “how real” are the offers made by the other party. IPS was able to confirm that Antonio García, one of the leftist ELN’s key negotiators, did not travel to Havana in February to take part in the fifth round of preliminary talks because the rebel group wanted an agreement to be signed, which was not going to happen.

The round of talks that begins Thursday is to last for a month and a half, with an eight-day recess after the third week. For the Uribe administration, the central objective is to come up with a “base agreement”, while the ELN wants an agenda for formal peace negotiations.

The government is demanding that the ELN agree to a cessation of hostilities and that it give up what is apparently its main source of financing: kidnapping.

In a message sent in late March to the Colombian Catholic bishops’ conference, the ELN said that in October, it set forth a suggested “agenda for a base agreement” containing “the main points proposed by both sides.”

But the order of the priorities alters the final product, and the ELN’s list puts a cessation of hostilities in second place, instead of at the top as demanded by the government.

The guerrillas also insist that a cessation of hostilities must be “symmetrical,” and that the government must stop violating human rights and must provide guarantees of safety for those engaging in social protest, in a country where social, human rights and labour activists are frequently threatened and killed.

The ELN also proposes a swap: in exchange for the release of imprisoned guerrillas, the group would hand over the hostages it is holding. A humanitarian exchange of this kind is listed as the group’s third priority.

The insurgent group is holding around 50 hostages, according to Restrepo, for whom it is charging an average ransom of one million dollars each.

The group’s top priority, a solution to the problem of those displaced by the violence, would in practice depend on an end to the four-decade civil war. According to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Internal Displacement (CODHES), a respected local human rights group, 3.8 million people (mainly in rural areas) have been displaced by the violence since 1985.

The land of those who were forced to leave their homes and small farms by the armed conflict is now in the hands of drug lords, having been violently seized by far-right paramilitary militias that have acted in connivance with the security forces.

Rural leaders say “there aren’t displaced people because of war; there is war so that there will be displaced people” – referring to the greed for control over resource-rich land.

The ELN has 4,600 combatants, according to military sources. By contrast, the biggest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has an estimated 17,000-20,000 members, and controls at least 30 percent of the territory, mainly in rural, sparsely populated areas.

But “the strength of the ELN is measured more by its political presence than by the number of armed combatants,” Daniel García-Peña, who forms part of a seven-member “commission of guarantors” set up to give the negotiations a boost, told IPS.

The ELN puts great importance on what it refers to as a “national convention”, which would consist of regional and national conferences in which civil society and other sectors would discuss draft laws “favourable to the country and to achieving peace.”

“In order for the process to move ahead, not only a cessation of hostilities is needed, but also an agreement on mechanisms for the participation of society,” said García-Peña, who this week became secretary-general of the leftist Alternative Democratic Pole, the strongest opposition party.

The fourth priority listed by the ELN is “recognition of and guarantees” for its combatants, which would include an amnesty. And the fifth and final priority is international monitoring of the peace process.

For his part, Restrepo has begun talking about demobilisation, and has stated that the ELN must “take a step” towards disarmament, although “the handing over of arms has never been discussed,” a source close to the talks, who will remain anonymous, told IPS.

The ELN’s fourth National Congress, held in mid-2006, decided to back the negotiations for peace and a ceasefire, but not a handover of weapons.

Regardless of what is agreed in this round of talks, a cessation of hostilities will not go into effect on May 1 as proposed in December by a “road map” drafted by the commission of guarantors.

Restrepo has been applying pressure, saying that if a ceasefire does not begin on that date, the entire negotiating process will lose credibility.

Galán told Telesur – the Venezuela-based South American TV channel – that the ELN will “continue debating…until a solution is reached.”

The peace commissioner, meanwhile, said “I don’t have a Plan B,” and added that his only mission is “to push this process forward.” But recent developments would seem to show otherwise.

Through a government leak to the press, the public found out that the peace process with the ELN cost 700,000 dollars in 2006, 60 percent of which came from the countries supporting the talks: Norway, Switzerland, Sweden and Spain.

At the same time, the government urged the international donors not to continue financing the talks, and warned off other countries that might be interested in supporting the process.

“The donors are astonished,” the anonymous source told IPS. The government’s next argument could be that if the ELN does not live up to its demands, the Colombian state cannot afford to continue financing more rounds of talks.

Analysts say that if no agreement is reached, the importance of the new round of talks will wane and the process will be eclipsed by the political debate in the run-up to the October municipal and provincial elections.

The elections themselves will be affected by the ongoing scandal that has led to the arrest of a number of legislators for their ties to the paramilitaries.

In 2004, a paramilitary leader, Salvatore Mancuso, boasted that the paramilitaries had links to more than one-third of the members of Congress. But the so-called “paragate” scandal has gradually brought to light just how close the relations are between the political, military and economic powers-that-be and the paramilitary militias, many of which are commanded by drug lords.

Uribe accepted electoral support from candidates who had been imposed by the paramilitaries by threatening voters and forcing rivals to pull out of the race (in some cases, by killing them).

This has hurt the Uribe administration’s international reputation, and donor nations are closely following the scandal before deciding how much aid they will continue to provide.

Thus, in order to avoid being accused of partiality in favour of the paramilitaries, it is crucial for Uribe that the ELN accept the same formula that the government followed in its negotiations with the paramilitaries, which completed a partial demobilisation process in early 2006 after three years of talks.

That formula consisted of a cessation of hostilities, the concentration of paramilitary forces in special zones, the handover of weapons, and submission to a framework law, which provides for maximum sentences of eight years for those who committed crimes against humanity and a pardon for the rest.

“Everything would seem to indicate that, if the script isn’t changed, these talks in Cuba will end in another listless communiqué or in a funereal silence,” said former health minister Camilo González Posso, the current director of the Institute for Studies for Development and Peace (Indepaz).

To keep that from happening, the government must recognise that it is now dealing with an insurgent group, not militias that declare their support for the state, the government and business, he added.

He told IPS that there are “three fallacies in President Uribe’s policy that are driving the talks into crisis”: that the ELN has been defeated; that it is involved in drug trafficking, as the government has begun to claim; and that this process is similar to the negotiations with the paramilitaries.

González Posso said “What is threatening the negotiations with the ELN is not the group’s obstinacy,” as the government claims, but the fact that the government’s “main enemy” is the FARC.

Like the ELN, the FARC emerged in 1964. But the larger rebel group has deep roots in the political violence that plagued Colombia since 1946. The FARC is the main target of the Colombian armed forces, which are the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world.

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