President Duque holds ground on ELN talks until demands met

By Arjun Harindranath January 31, 2019
President Iván Duque addressing the diplomatic corps. Photo by Efraín Herrera for

Following the bomb attack in Bogotá on January 17, Colombian President Iván Duque remains firm on his pledge not to resume talks with the ELN (National Liberation Army) unless the guerrilla group “releases all hostages and ceases all criminal activity.” Duque reiterated his position at an event with the diplomatic corps in Bogotá yesterday morning.

Although his position has remained largely unchanged throughout his presidency, the attack on a police training academy, that claimed 21 lives and injured 68, represented a turning point that is likely to remain during the course of Duque’s tenure.

“[O]ur Government will never seek bilateral ceasefires,” President Duque said at his address, stressing that his government’s constitutional obligation is to protect the lives of all Colombians. “We are not going to accept terrorism, kidnapping or murder as a way to win negotiating positions, because we would be legitimizing the crimes themselves”.

The ELN claimed responsibility for the attack but their leadership maintain that the Government is compelled to honour obligations based on an agreement signed by previous president Juan Manuel Santos.

That agreement called for protocols to abide with in the event that the possibility of talks became untenable. It is unclear legally whether the Colombian government is obliged to abide by the protocols.

On the one hand, speaking to The Bogotá Post, international law expert Alberto Costi stated that the protocols are not binding as they are not between two States (as was the case in the struggle in Northern Ireland).

“Unless there’s some parliamentary recognition of the protocols, the parties are not really bound by it,” Prof. Costi said.

On the other hand, lawyer Kai Both argued recently in Semana that, given the fact that the agreement includes other states like Cuba as guarantors, it would qualify as an “internationalising agreement” and would require, in principle, the Colombian government to stand by the protocols.  However, Mr Both did acknowledge in the same interview with Semana that the terrorist attack against the police training academy might have been so grave a breach of international law that they would not be assured the guarantees of the protocols.

Given the strong words issued by the Colombian head of state, the tensions between the government and the ELN seem unlikely to dissipate under the current government. Moreover, the conflict looks to spill over to a larger geopolitical struggle currently being played out: that between Colombia and their politically disintegrating neighbour Venezuela.

Along with operating in departments within Colombia, the ELN are also suspected of having safeholds in many Venezuelan territories as well, though local authorities of the latter state continue to deny any connection with the leftist guerrilla group.