Veronika Hoelker analyses the impact of the ELN beginning the public phase of talks in the context of other peace setbacks
Following the joint announcement on March 30 that the ELN and the Colombian government will begin the public phase of peace talks, ELN spokesperson Miguel Atalay tweeted that the negotiations will officially begin in Ecuador in May. The announcement was a much needed piece of good news for the prospects of peace, coming just one week after the negotiators in Havana were unable to meet the deadline for signing a full peace accord with the FARC.
So, what can we expect from these long-awaited talks? And how will they connect with the discussions taking place in Cuba?
In an article published in El Tiempo in February, ELN-expert Joe Broderick affirmed that reaching a peace deal with the country’s second largest guerrilla group would be very difficult. While the ELN is often characterised as the more “intellectual” guerrilla, Broderick considers them inept when it comes to negotiating. He worries that efforts to forge a bilateral agreement with the ELN will remain fruitless, as the rebel group lacks important political manoeuvring skills. “They are indifferent to the current political climate”, Broderick wrote.
Perhaps some of these observations explain why exploratory talks with the ELN went on for a long two years before the beginning of a formal and public phase of peace talks was finally announced in Caracas, on Wednesday, March 30.
One might think that, with four partial agreements already reached with the FARC, the groundwork for negotiations with another guerrilla group has been laid. But the ELN is not the FARC, and their ideological differences make it difficult to apply a one-size-fits-all model for peace.
The challenges of negotiating with the ELN
Historically, the ELN has prioritised two issues that may have been major obstacles in the preliminary talks: the direct participation of civil society in peacebuilding and the restructuring of Colombia’s oil and mining industry. With President Santos’s insistence that the economic model will not be subject to negotiations, it is unsurprising that the latter did not make it into the itinerary for peace dialogues with the ELN.
The issue of civil society participation, on the other hand, is the first item on the agenda and arguably its most distinguishing feature. The agreement envisions mechanisms that facilitate the “direct, active, inclusive and pluralist” participation of society in an effort to reach a “shared vision of peace” – something that, according to many critics, has been lacking in the negotiations with the FARC.
Introducing this new element in the peace talks is a vital step to counter the scepticism that not only surrounds the current process in Havana, but possibly also the upcoming talks with the ELN: In February, only 19.3% of Colombians believed that the ELN was willing to negotiate with the government. Given the previous failed efforts to reach a peace deal with this rebel group, that scepticism may prevail for a while even after the announcement made in Caracas. The fact that the promised deadline for peace with the FARC passed without the signing of any accord only exacerbates that attitude and fuels growing anti-peace sentiments amongst Colombians. Nowhere was this more evident than during the protests that took place across the country on April 2, spearheaded by former President Álvaro Uribe, one of Santos’s fiercest critics and most outspoken peace talks opponents.
But even if this unfavourable atmosphere did not exist, there would still be sufficient reasons to believe that the process with the ELN will not be easy.
For one thing, it must be remembered that the ELN is still in the process of meeting the terms for peace talks, which include freeing all of its hostages. President Juan Manuel Santos has said that it was “not acceptable to proceed with peace talks while the ELN continues to hold people”. In an effort to meet these terms, the ELN has recently released two officials, a former mayor of Quibdó and former governor of Chocó, Patrocinio Sanchez Montes de Oca, who the group held for over two and half years, and police officer Hector German Perez Monterroso.
This show of goodwill notwithstanding, the ELN continues to carry out attacks, as they have yet to agree to a cessation of hostilities. Just one week following the announcement of the installation of peace talks, the rebel group caused massive road obstructions in the western province of Chocó after burning eight vehicles and taking two drivers hostage, presumably over refusal to pay extortion money.
Connecting the two peace processes
While the agenda established by the parties constitutes an important milestone, its content is still very vague and many questions remain as to how it will be affected by the agreements already reached in Havana.
At first sight, there are many overlapping points, but it is well known that the ELN will apply different standards than the FARC. It may demand adjustments to the political participation and victims’ rights agreements, despite the government’s reluctance to negotiate on these points. Creating multiple agreements for multiple groups delegitimises the peace processes and defies the purpose of many provisions reached in Havana, most notably the transitional justice system. After all, it was conceived not only for the FARC, but for all actors that were directly or indirectly involved in crimes committed during the armed conflict.
These pressing questions will likely determine the success of the new negotiations. As for the relationship between the two peace processes, the Colombian government has only gone as far as saying that “once the public phase (with the ELN) has started, the delegations will define which issues require coordination with the peace talks in Havana”.
Paramilitary violence stalls peace talks
Against this sketchy background, it is difficult to say where the negotiations with the ELN are headed, especially when these issues are compounded by other worrying events.
The alarming rise of paramilitary activity in recent months, for example, is reminding many Colombians of the political violence that plagued the country in the 1980s. Discussions on guaranteeing the non-repetition of this phenomenon are at the forefront of the new round of talks that began in Havana on April 5.
In response to the armed strike imposed by the right-wing militias known as Clan Úsuga on March 31, FARC negotiator Pablo Catatumbo recently warned that the ongoing presence and threats from such groups are standing in the way of implementing peace. Not surprisingly, the issue has been a contributing factor in the stalemate the negotiations are currently experiencing.
The government insists that militias like the Clan Úsuga are criminal gangs, but many critics consider them paramilitary successor groups, made up of individuals who supposedly demobilised as part of the “Justice and Peace” process initiated in 2005. The Clan Úsuga’s recent illegal armed strike affected 36 municipalities in eight different departments and culminated in four murders and several threats.
Even within the context of this seemingly grim situation, the announcement to engage in a peace process with the ELN is extremely good news.
In the long run, it will surely help balance the scale on the integrity of the peace process in general, especially after the FARC and the government failed to comply with their self-imposed deadline.
After all, Colombia’s genuine transition into an actual post-conflict phase (and not just a ‘post-agreement’ phase) will remain inconceivable until the second largest guerrilla group sits down at the negotiating table. That is why, since the beginning of negotiations with the FARC, President Santos has reiterated the importance of engaging with the ELN – otherwise peace in Colombia will never be “complete”.
Veronika Hoelker holds a Master’s degree in International Relations of the Americas from UCL and currently works at the Bogotá-based NGO the Permanent Committee for the Defence of Human Rights. Veronika assists the judicial advisers at the NGO in matters related to transitional justice and the Colombian peace process in general.