Colombian government and ELN agree to start formal peace talks

The agreement represents a big step toward ending the five-decade-old conflict.

Marco Bello/Reuters
Frank Pearl (L), head of Colombian government delegation and Antonio Garcia, head of National Liberation Army (ELN) delegation, shake hands after signing a joint statement to begin formal peace talks at Venezuela's foreign Ministry in Caracas, March 30, 2016.

After two years of informal negotiations the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s second largest rebel group, has agreed to hold peace talks with the Colombian government, a step which will bring the country closer to resolving decades of conflict.

The formal talks will take place at the Ecuadorean capital, Quito, but other sessions may be held in Brazil, Venezuela, Chile, and Cuba. The start date hasn’t been set yet.

“The objective is to put an end to the armed conflict, eradicate political violence, center on the treatment of victims and advance toward a national reconciliation with active societal participation and a stable, enduring peace,” said Colombian government chief peace delegate Frank Pearl, the City Paper reported.

The announcement comes a few days after the March 23 deadline established to push the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the nation's largest rebel group, to reach an accord. The peace negotiations between the two are still ongoing, despite a warning from Colombia’s president that the government wouldn’t continue to negotiate past the deadline.  

“This is a very important announcement, because it means that ELN is willing to discuss what has been agreed on between the government and FARC,” said Marc Chernick, professor of the practice of conflict resolution and human rights, and director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

"It will be the end of guerrilla groups and we can all concentrate – democratically – on making our country the free, normal, modern, just, and inclusive place it can and should be," said President Juan Manuel Santos, following the announcement about the agreement, Reuters reported.

The two sides have agreed on a six-point agenda, a framework based on the ongoing peace talks with FARC, including questions of political inclusion as well as discussing how rebels can be disarmed, the BBC reported.

ELN’s agreement represents a big step towards ending the five-decade-old conflict, and a shift from the group's reluctance to cooperate, Dr. Chernick tells the Monitor. The group – which likes to ideologically distinguish itself from FARC – is particularly strong in rural areas, and is known for attacking multinational companies and oil pipelines, according to the BBC. Colombian security forces estimate that the group has up to 2,000 active fighters, including minors.

Yet skepticism runs rampant, with some analysts contending that ELN’s ideology – the group defines itself as a resistance group, and may demand more political participation – could slow the peace process, the Guardian reported.

This will not be an easy negotiation,” Luis Eduardo Celis, a conflict analyst and expert on the ELN, told the Guardian. “The FARC came to the table with the decision to end their war, the ELN does not seem to have the same firm commitment.”

Others contend that Colombia has a history of failed peace agreements, a factor Caitlyn Davis and Harold Trinkunas, writing for the Brookings Institute, point to.

Colombia’s poor track record on peace implementation: Colombia has been historically more successful at negotiating peace accords than implementing them. Colombians have frequently come together to negotiate settlements to internal conflicts, most notably in 1957 when the Liberal and Conservative parties agreed to end the decade-long armed conflict among them (sadly but aptly titled “La Violencia”), and in 1989 to 1990 when President Virgilio Barco negotiated with insurgent forces to incorporate them into legal politics (together they approved a new constitution in 1991).

They also note that the 1957 agreement excluded some parties, leading to the insurgence of other rebel groups.

That’s particularly why the ELN’s agreement is significant, Chernick tells the Monitor. “It means that the ELN be will brought to the table and given a voice.” A Colombian government deal with FARC alone will mean partial peace, which isn’t what the government or Colombian people want, he adds.

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