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By Veronika Hoelker February 14, 2016

Colombian peace process – A new round of talks began on February 2, possibly taking the process into its final stretch after the parties agreed to reach a final deal by March 23.

FARC representatives have cast doubt on the viability of signing an agreement by that date, but President Santos remains optimistic. “We are seriously trying to meet the deadline. In the end, it won’t matter if the deal is signed two days later, one day before or one week later,” he affirmed during his visit to Washington last week.

– There are various topics still pending, including: the bilateral and definitive ceasefire and cessation of hostilities between the parties; the laying down of arms and reintegration of FARC members into civilian life; the fight against remaining criminal organisations, impunity and corruption; the implementation of relevant institutional reforms to guarantee a sustainable peace; and the creation of a suitable mechanism for the implementation and verification of the final peace agreement.

– On January 21, Colombia freed 16 imprisoned rebels convicted of nonviolent crimes who had been granted a presidential pardon in November as part of a unilateral confidence-building gesture. The move marks an important step forward, especially after the FARC had criticised the government for unnecessarily delaying their release. Four of the released rebels have gone on to travel to Havana to participate in the new round of talks.

– The negotiating parties jointly requested a UN-spearheaded mechanism to act as an international observer and verifier of the bilateral ceasefire and the laying down of arms. The UN Security Council acted swiftly and just days later, on January 25, responded by agreeing to create a 12-month political mission for this purpose.

– To commemorate 15 years of Plan Colombia, a USD$10 billion US-sponsored counterinsurgency and anti-drug program, President Santos met with Barack Obama in Washington. Obama announced that the United States will ramp up its annual budget for Colombia from USD$300-$450 million to support the peace process.

– In a speech delivered to the European Parliament on January 28, FARC lead negotiator Iván Márquez asked the European Union to remove the left-wing rebel group from its list of terrorist organisations. Santos used the occasion of his visit to the White House to request that the United States do the same. Meanwhile, Bernie Aronson, US special envoy to the peace talks in Havana, has stated that the FARC’s removal from the US list of terrorist groups is strictly contingent on a number of factors. In an interview with El Tiempo, he explained that the FARC would first “have to disarm, end all criminal activities and stop forming a risk for US interests.”

By Veronika Hoelker