Colombia's virtuous path to peace

In talks to end six decades of civil war, the government and the rebel group FARC agree on minor humanitarian steps, such as demining, a truth commission, and rural development. These may create trust and empathy for making the hard compromises for reconciliation.

Colombia's government negotiators attend peace talks with the FARC guerrillas negotiators in Havana, Cuba, March 5. High-ranking Colombian military officers joined the peace talks for the first time, sitting across from rebel commanders they had opposed on the battlefield.

Colombia is known for many things, from actress Sofía Vergara to novelist Gabriel García Márquez. But might it soon become famous for an insightful and peaceful way to end a conflict?

For world diplomats involved in difficult negotiations, such as those focused on Iran’s nuclear program, Colombia’s talks to end a six-decade-long civil war offer valuable lessons. One big one is how to create a virtuous atmosphere that can soften attitudes before hard decisions have to be made.

Take, for example, an agreement last week between the government and the main rebel group known as FARC. They announced they will work together to remove land mines and other buried explosives, even as talks continue. By focusing on a humanitarian project, the rebels and their counterparts in the military might be able to build up enough trust – perhaps even empathy – to ease the negotiations.

In February, FARC said it will no longer recruit guerrillas younger than 17 years old, a gesture aimed at lessening tensions over its use of child soldiers. In December, the group began a unilateral cease-fire. Last week, President Juan Manuel Santos responded with an unexpected concession by ordering a temporary halt to aerial bombing of the left-wing Marxist group’s positions.

Since talks began in 2012, the two sides have inked an agreement on ways to reallocate land to the rural poor. In principle, they agreed to end illegal production of drugs if a final peace deal can be reached. They agreed that many members of the rebel group should eventually participate in politics. And they decided to eventually set up a truth commission to investigate the deaths and human rights violations of innocent people. An estimated 220,000 have been killed in the conflict, with thousands more abducted.

At the talks last year, which were held in Cuba with Norway as a mediator, a group of soldiers and rebels met for the first time. And a delegation of victims of the war was at the table to present their case for reparations 

Such positive steps are the easy bits in the negotiations. Still unsettled are difficult questions of how to disarm and demobilize FARC, and whether any of its members deserve jail time or an alternative. Colombia’s government also needs to show it can satisfy the demands of the rural poor.

Yet the seeds for reconciliation between Colombians are being planted, as Mr. Santos puts it. Progress on addressing the common concerns of both sides might lead to uncommon compromises on the biggest divides.

To be sure, decades of war have created bitter, hardened stances. Most Colombians do not favor any amnesty for rebels who have killed innocent people. Yet with a few dividends from the peace talks now being implemented, a compromise form of punishment might be agreed upon, one that might even satisfy Colombia’s obligation to the International Criminal Court.

If enough acts of patience and mutual sympathy can be stored up, final breakthroughs might be possible. Colombia could be a new model in the art of peacemaking.

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