Bogotá, 12 March 2015. © Olivier Vogel.
In a televised speech on March 10, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos ordered the temporal suspension of air raids against the FARC. The decision came after Colombians biggest guerilla group had declared a unilateral and indefinite cease-fire in December 2014 that, according to governmental sources and non-governmental organizations, was maintained so far.
The Colombian delegation and the FARC plenipotentiaries also announced a joint effort of the Armed Forces and local guerilla forces to begin to identify and eliminate anti-personnel mines in rural areas of the country. To facilitate such operations, the government will lift arrest warrants for FARC combatants willing to collaborate without uniforms and weapons. Norwegian People’s Aid, a NGO with vast experience in demining activities will accompany the parties.
Both announcements come in a time of accelerated mutual trust-building measures between the guerilla movement and the government. After being harshly criticized by the right-wing opposition and national opinion polls showing skepticism towards the peace process, the public opinion meanwhile supports again the negotiations in Cuba. According to freshest opinion polls (Gallup), 72 percent of the Colombians support the peace negotiations and 53 percent do think that they will finally lead to the end of the armed confrontation.
The announcement of a quasi de-facto temporal bilateral cease-fire – a longtime demand by the FARC and leftist political actors in Colombia – came for many as surprise. Until January 2015, President Santos and government chief negotiator De la Calle insisted in negotiating amidst ongoing armed confrontation and so it was agreed between the parties in a joint statement in November 2012. There are several reasons however, that incited the Colombian government to change the strategy.
First, the negotiations have been longer than expected. President Santos must deliver some substantial and visible progress with regard to the so-called desescalamiento (progressive de-escalation) of the conflict. This is both important for his political credibility and to persuade the domestic critics of the peace process that it is worth to negotiate with the FARC.
Second, given that the negotiations on the modalities of transitional justice advance very slowly, the government and the FARC alike are keen to show their commitment towards the Havana process by signaling growing mutual trust. The meeting between high-ranking militaries and the FARC at the negotiation table, which both sides considered “respectful”, underlines this trend.
Third, the Santos government recognizes good-will gestures by the guerilla such as their announcement not to recruit combatants under they age of 17 and to begin to remove anti-personnel mines they installed in huge parts of the national territory. Furthermore, the reduced hostilities between Armed Forces and the FARC guerilla lead to a significant decline of killings related to the conflict. The Colombian NGO Paz y Reconciliación calculated that in 2014, the desescalamiento policies by both sides would have saved more than 1000 lives in comparison with the previous year.
The temporal cessation of aerial attacks on FARC camps is not yet a fully implemented bilateral cease-fire between the belligerent forces. It is a very fragile and delicate matter that may easily be broken. Nevertheless it is obvious that the negotiation process has come to a crucial phase where the incentives to disturb the peace process become lower and the costs to leave the negotiations higher. At the moment, the circumstances are promising that the latest steps may lead to an enduring bilateral cease-fire. This could further facilitate to continue discussing problems of transitional justice, the most complex issues yet to be resolved.