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Negotiating for Colombian Peace in Havana

January 9, 2013

by Michael Belinsky

Two decades ago, when political scientist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history and declared that democracy had triumphed over fascism and communism, Marxist guerrilla groups listened. Many of them shed political ideology and turned to illicit mining, drug trafficking and kidnapping for ransom. Since then, facing military and political pressures, these groups have largely demobilized. And now the last Marxist-led rebellion in South America might come to an end as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC) negotiates for peace with the Colombian government in Havana, Cuba.

The negotiators face an uphill battle. Not only have numerous past negotiations between the FARC and Colombian government failed to deliver durable compromise, but, historically, successful bargains in civil wars across the world in the last century have proven to be rare and improbable. According to the civil war scholar Barbara F. Walter, only 17 of 41 civil wars between 1940 and 1990 contained formal negotiations for peace. Negotiations produced settlement agreements only eight times.

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One reason for this is that civil wars differ from other wars. Negotiated settlement in civil war, unlike that in inter-state war, typically includes the complete dismantlement of the armed forces of the losing side. Whereas parties to international wars retain, post-conflict, the security that their respective militaries and territorial sovereignty allow, one side in a civil war loses all ability to defend itself. After dismantling their army and surrendering their conquered territory, combatants face increased vulnerability and diminished ability to verify the other side’s compliance with the settlement. A rational actor will not commit to agreements if it cannot be assured of the other side’s compliance as it transitions from strength to weakness.

The FARC has experienced this before. When several FARC factions disarmed in the 1980s to form a political party, their visibility and vulnerability made them perfect targets. Drug lords, paramilitary groups and government troops slowly exterminated the group.

A central task of government negotiators in Havana, therefore, will be to assure their counterparts that the Colombian government will comply with and enforce a negotiated settlement.

Negotiators on both sides have brought outside organizations to enforce compliance. Enforcement by credible third parties has proven vital in other civil war settlements. Of the eight agreements between 1940 and 1990, six contained third party enforcement. In the ongoing Colombia-FARC negotiation, Norway and Cuba have provided neutral ground for negotiations. Venezuela and Chile have been planning logistics. And the Red Cross has helped verify intermediate commitments.

However, the third parties at the table in this negotiation are insufficient to guarantee compliance, since they may be unable to deter or punish the Colombian government’s potential breach of agreement, or weak enforcement, years later. Although FARC negotiators have sought additional international legal status to further deter potential breach, they may not receive it.

Therefore, government negotiators need to pursue two additional strategies in this negotiation. First, they need to redouble efforts to create a space in which the FARC feels comfortable entering into negotiated agreement. Second, they need to make sure that FARC feels uncomfortable with the alternative of returning to the status quo.

To pursue the first strategy, government negotiators must create multiple, verifiable intermediate agreements. The most recent negotiations with the FARC, held by President Andrés Pastrana between 1998 and 2002, failed partly due to the inability of both sides to honor intermediate commitments. In this round, process agreements have held so far; both sides agreed on who will meet, when and where, and have set the agenda for negotiation.

Now each side must restrain its lieutenants—something easier said than done. Some FARC groups have launched attacks during ceasefire, only to apologize later. The Colombian Defense Minister’s belligerent remarks have unsettled FARC’s negotiators. The FARC is testing further Colombia’s ability to comply with agreements by demanding that Ecuador release the bodies of FARC fighters who were killed near its border. If government negotiators accede to this request and carry through, they will demonstrate future compliance to the FARC.

Demobilization must be similarly gradual. By allowing FARC militia to observe the Colombian government’s adherence to a signed agreement, negotiators will create the necessary safe space for the fighters to disarm and demobilize. The country’s largely successful 2002 demobilization, disarmament and reintegration efforts with the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia—AUC), a Colombian paramilitary organization, help lend additional credibility to the government’s promises.

Government negotiators have also diminished the attractiveness of alternatives to negotiated settlement. By securing a unilateral cease-fire, Colombian negotiators enabled the military to continue fighting the FARC. Whatever happens over the next 12 months at the negotiating table, Colombia’s military intends to batter the guerrillas in the field.

At the end of the day, the five-point agenda for the ongoing negotiations depends on both sides’ trust that the other side will stick to a deal. To the extent that the FARC fears breach, its fighters will bury weapons instead of surrendering them, as happened with some cells of the AUC in the early 2000s. They also may push for demilitarization over demobilization, maintaining political power as they surrender arms.

But to the extent that government negotiators can strike a credible bargain, and the FARC leadership can impose conditions of that bargain onto its troops, Colombia and the world may finally end the 50-year-long trail of blood and suffering.

*Michael Belinsky is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is a research assistant at Harvard Business School and holds an MPP from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. 

Tags: FARC peace negotiations, Colombia, Colombian civil war

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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