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25 Oct 2016 | Commentary

Colombia’s Other Peace Process: How Dialogue with the ELN Will Differ from the Havana Talks

On March 30 the Colombian government and Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), announced the formal launch of peace negotiations. At the time, the joint agreement signed by Colombia’s representative Frank Pearl and the ELN’s Antonio Garcia outlined an agenda scheduled to begin in May. Ecuador, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, and Venezuela pledged to serve as guarantors and hosts of the negotiations, while Norway would play the same guarantor role it played during negotiations with FARC.

The announcement of negotiations with the ELN came after two years of intricate exploratory talks marked by tension. Those tensions continued after the March announcement, when disagreements became public over the issue of kidnapping. President Juan Manuel Santos insisted on the release of all hostages held by the ELN before conversations could begin, while the ELN expressed that it could not negotiate under unilateral preconditions set by the government. As talks stalled, the brief kidnapping of noted Spanish-Colombian journalist Salud Hernandez thwarted any further progress.

President Santos’ July decision to appoint former ELN leaders Francisco Galán and Felipe Torres as peace promotors (gestores de paz) to move the process forward proved fundamental in narrowing the differences between the parties.

On September 27, the day after the signing ceremony of the peace accords between the government and FARC, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that if the ELN released all the hostages it held, he was willing to begin formal negotiations.

Within days, the ELN released Diego José Ulloque, a young rice entrepreneur from rural Arauca, the former mayor of Charalá, Santander, Fabio León, and Nelson Alejandro Alarcón. These measures, combined with the ELN’s decision to implement a unilateral ceasefire during the October 2 plebiscite vote, eased conditions for moving forward with the ELN peace talks.

At an October 10 press conference in Caracas, both parties announced that talks will begin in Quito, Ecuador on October 27, and the first cycle of talks will begin on November 3. Here is what we know about the process so far:

The Agenda

Both parties reached an agreement on the following agenda points:

  • Participation of society in constructing peace
  • Democracy for peace
  • Transformations for peace
  • Victims
  • End of the armed conflict
  • Implementation

The last two points of the agenda overlap with the FARC peace accords. Although the framework is not explicit about how the already agreed-upon elements of justice, reparation, non-repetition, and truth will be coordinated with the ELN, President Santos made clear during his March televised address that a new peace tribunal or truth commission will not be negotiated. Considering the current post-plebiscite impasse over these questions, this point could once again become a thorny and drawn-out issue. Depending on how much parties renegotiate in Havana, the government may be faced with push back from ELN negotiators. In March, President Santos was also adamant in highlighting that a new verification mission for disarmament would not be created, concluding that “the processes with the FARC and the ELN are different, but there is only one end of the conflict.”

In contrast, the first three points of the agenda are general and vague, though they are meant to work like building blocks as the peace process moves forward. During the first point, “Participation of society in constructing peace,” the parties will welcome proposals by civil society with the intent of creating “a dynamic and active exercise, inclusive and pluralistic, that permits the building of a common vision of peace.”

In the second point, “Democracy for Peace,” proposals developed on the first point of the agenda will be debated and discussed. This will ultimately lead to point three of the agenda, which will use proposals elaborated by society and upheld in the second point of the agenda to guarantee “transformative programs to overcome poverty, social exclusion, corruption and environmental degradation, while seeking equity.”

The challenge faced by the parties is how to decide who will participate in this process, and what will be the mechanism to receive the thousands of proposals and ideas generated by Colombia’s civil society. The United Nations and the National University of Colombia can become facilitators due to their ample experience organizing civil-society input forums in the process with the FARC. But organized regional forums already exist in many parts of the country, and the ELN will likely push for these types of regional and sub-regional forums that involve active participation of members of civil society. According to Colombia’s La Silla Vacia, the ELN will push for similar “assemblies for peace” created between the government and Colombia’s largest oil union, USO, that allow active, across-the-board participation.

Negotiating without a Ceasefire

The ELN and the Colombian government have agreed to carry out the talks even as military operations continue. Although the Colombian government has refused to immediately agree on a bilateral ceasefire (as it similarly refused to do with the FARC), the ELN has not decided to declare a unilateral ceasefire that can provide further legitimacy to the process. This means that anyone in the ELN’s area of influence will continue to suffer the impact of the conflict while negotiations take place.

This year, the ELN has already unleashed a wave of attacks. Beginning in February, the group attacked a military brigade, imposed a 72 hour armed strike that effectively shut down commerce in areas of influence, and carried out smaller attacks against infrastructure. A similar 72 hour armed strike occurred in September in the departments of Boyacá, Casanare, Norte de Santander, Santander, Vichada and Arauca. On October 20, the ELN’s armed presence in Choco and Risaralda led to the mass displacement of over 230 members of the Gitó Dokabú indigenous reservation. In addition, an ambush left 11 members of the military and 1 policeman dead in October 2015.

With less than 8 days before the launch of the negotiations, Colombia’s military has launched an offensive targeting the ELN’s public and financial wing. As combat continues, the media has reported the death of one ELN member and injuries to two members of the military. As talks begin to gain momentum, discussions of a ceasefire will inevitably occur.

Already, in their October 10 statement, the two sides agreed to work towards “humanitarian and dynamic actions” with the intent of creating further trust between the parties. This means that the ELN will likely free remaining hostages, among them former Congressman Odin Sanchez who turned himself in to the rebels to secure the release of his brother Patrocinio Sanchez. At the same time, the ELN will call on the government to improve prison conditions for its captured members, and if necessary push for participation in the negotiating table of ELN members currently in prison. These confidence-building measures will be essential to reaching a bilateral ceasefire.

Complexities in Negotiating with the ELN

Successfully attracting members in its first few years, the ELN was founded by a group of students who identified with the Cuban Revolution. Later, oil workers and Catholic priests who espoused liberation theology, most notably the charismatic priest Camilo Torres, who was killed in combat and quickly became a celebrated martyr, joined its ranks. In the early 1970s, the ELN was torn by bitter internal disputes and was practically wiped out by the Colombian Army. In the 1980s it was reborn under the leadership of a Spanish priest, Manuel Pérez, and with the help of millions of dollars extorted with threats and kidnappings.

With an estimated 1,500 to 1,800 members and many more followers in urban areas, the ELN is a fraction of the size of the FARC. Still, the ELN’s intricate roots with student movements, liberation theology, the Cuban revolution, Marxist theory, will make negotiations different. Unlike FARC’s rural base and hierarchical leadership, the ELN decision-making processes is consensual in nature and guided by its collective decisions taken at their National Congress and by leaders in the Comando Central (Central Command, COCE). Due to its affinity for causes which at times align with the goals of social movements, the ELN sees itself as an armed facilitator of social demands against the State.

As explained by conflict expert Alejo Vargas of Colombia’s National University, the ELN differs from the FARC in that it is an “armed political party,” whereas the FARC is an “an army practicing politics.” These differences impact both the form and substance of the conversations that will begin in October. The agenda for the ELN process seeks to open the peace process to civil society and a broader group of people, subsequently endorsing a national debate for peace.

Those tasked with managing a complex process will be a group of up to 30 members, including 5 plenipotentiaries and 5 alternates. Although a complete team has not been announced, on October 23 President Santos named former minister of Agriculture, Juan Camilo Restrepo, as the chief negotiator during a televised address to the country. During the October 10 announcement, government signatories included Mauricio Rodríguez (the head delegate), Major General (ret.) Eduardo Herrera Berbel, José Noe Ríos and Julián Arévalo. The ELN representatives included Pablo Beltrán (chief of the delegation), Aureliano Carbonel, Gustavo Martínez, Bernardo Tellez and Consuelo Tapias.

Convergence of FARC and ELN Negotiations

Considering the current impasse that Colombia faces, discussions about how to converge the two processes are not particularly advanced. However, according to ELN expert Víctor de Currea-Lugo, both processes must come together at some point. In an interview with Colombia’s weekly newsmagazine, Semana, de Currea-Lugo explained that the process with the ELN is giving the government much needed oxygen after the October 2 plebiscite loss. The process with the ELN is different in that it demands active participation of civil society and excluded groups, and seeks to avoid the strong sense of exclusion and alienation felt by communities heavily affected by the conflict, such as Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples.

Even within the approved agenda announced in March, both the government and ELN agreed to “establish mechanisms with the Havana table to identify issues that require coordination and synchrony.” Perhaps it is under these terms that the Colombian government, FARC, and ELN will find a point of convergence that can result in a multilateral ceasefire that can provide greater strength to all negotiations taking place in Colombia. What does remain clear is that at the moment neither process has the political stability to consider how they can come together in the short term.

The United States and the Process with the ELN

Already Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Venezuela and Norway have pledged their support to the negotiations. The United States can play a significant role by neither opposing nor distancing itself from this process. Negotiators in Havana have spoken positively about the impact Special Envoy Bernie Aronson has had in negotiations with the FARC. A similar U.S. accompaniment role can bring tremendous backing to the ELN process.

At a time when President Santos faces a crisis over negotiations with FARC rebels, and his popularity continues to suffer due to a sluggish economy and an energy crisis, shows of support from the United States will be important.

Most importantly, the United States has already pledged large support for Colombia under the 2017 “Peace Colombia” aid package. Future support for implementation of accords reached with the ELN will be central in stabilizing zones of ELN influence. The United States must become aware of the complexities this new process brings and the important role Washington is likely to play as Colombia endeavors to remove guerrillas from the scene as a generator of violence, while building state institutions alongside an active civil society.