Peace talks to end Colombia's half century of conflict resumed today following a brief but tense suspension amid complaints from leftist rebels that the government moved too quickly on some of the thorniest issues the two sides must tackle.
Delegates from the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) met this morning in Havana, Cuba, despite a surprise “pause” in negotiations declared by the FARC on Friday.
The FARC are chafing at what they see as the government's attempt to "paint us into a corner," top FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño, also referred to as Timoleón Jimenez, or Timnochenko, said in a statement Sunday.
Specifically, the FARC were angered by an announcement from the government on Thursday that it would seek to pave the way for a referendum to ratify any eventual peace deal reached with the rebels. The FARC have insisted that this should be done through a constitutional assembly; the government insists on a referendum.
The way in which a peace accord would be ratified is the last item on the six-point agenda. After nine months of negotiations, a draft agreement has been reached on just one point, rural development, and negotiators are currently discussing the second item, which is political participation.
"Our intention is to continue with the peace process ignoring the maneuvers that the government is attempting on the sidelines," Mr. Londoño said. But at the same time, the rebel leader leaked details of a secret government proposal that would try to reconcile the opposing positions on ratification. According to Londoño, the government floated the idea that the referendum be called not to ratify an accord but to create a temporary legislative body – which would include representatives of the FARC as well as all political parties – that would pass laws to implement the peace accords. The government did not respond publicly to the revelation.
The FARC have also rejected a "unilateral" constitutional amendment passed last year that lays out a legal framework for transitional justice in the context of a peace agreement. It says that only those with "maximum responsibility" for systematic crimes would be prosecuted.
"Let it be clear for once and for all, the FARC will not subject itself to any legal framework with unilateral intentions," the negotiating team said in a statement Monday. The amendment is currently under review by the nation's top court, which must hand down a decision before Wednesday.
Human rights groups have challenged the amendment saying it could open the door for impunity for many rebel fighters responsible for kidnappings, massacres, and attacks on civilians. For the first time ever the FARC admitted responsibility in the atrocities of the country's lengthy conflict. "Without a doubt there has also been cruelty and pain provoked by our forces," negotiator Pablo Catatumbo said Aug. 19.
Though the rebels are balking at the government's independent efforts to pave the way for a peace deal, Kristian Herbolzheimer, director of the conflict resolution NGO Conciliation Resources Colombia program, says that they should take it as a sign that the government is serious.
"Anything that prepares the ground for what may happen with the peace process is positive," Mr. Herbolzheimer says. "It's a strong message to the negotiating table that they are serious, and it is sending a message to the whole society."
The scuffles at the peace table come amid a backdrop of growing social tensions in Colombia, with thousands of agriculture workers, small-scale miners, and truckers clashing with police in week-long protests that have seen dozens of main roads barricaded. Officials say many of the demands of the protesters – which range from lower fertilizer costs to subsidies to revoking a free trade agreement with the United States – are legitimate, and that the government is willing to negotiate certain points. But Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón says the FARC are aggravating the protests, in some areas of the country even fining peasants who refuse to participate.
At the same time, fighting continued between rebels and government forces. An ambush by members of the FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army left 14 soldiers dead Saturday in the northeastern Arauca Province, a day after soldiers killed a mid-level FARC commander.
"The fact that fighting goes on during the talks creates a contradiction," says Herbolzheimer. "It's a political decision, but from a humanitarian perspective it's hard to understand."