Colombia's peace dialogues are an exercise in semantics
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Colombia's peace dialogues are an exercise in semantics

The Colombian government and the FARC rebels have been in Havana, Cuba, since 2012, negotiating a deal to end the country’s 50-year armed conflict. The two sides have already agreed upon three of the five points on the agenda of the peace talks: rural land reform, political participation, and illicit drugs.

But now a crucial point has been reached in the process. The two remaining topics on the agenda of the peace dialogues — rights of victims and the end of the conflict — contain several sticking points that have proven difficult to overcome.

While the FARC has recognized — for the first time in its history — the civilian victims of its actions since it took up arms in the 1960s, and has even agreed to recognize combatants as victims of war crimes, it has been unwilling to recognize the civilian victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity for which it is responsible.

Read more: A new role for victims in Colombia peace talks: Too little, too late?

The FARC has been responsible for thousands of kidnappings, extortion and even massacres of civilians, and the United Nations has characterized certain actions of the group as crimes against humanity. Sooner or later, the FARC will have to recognize these acts for what they are.

But now, an troublesome debate has arisen regarding a question that many casual observers might think would have an easy answer: what is the FARC going to do with its weapons?

The issue was recently raised after the government and the FARC both created technical subcommittees to negotiate the issue of the end of the conflict, the final agenda point. The government delegation announced their “Strategic Transition Command,” which was created to study “demobilization and the surrender of weapons.” Later, the FARC announced the creation of their own subcommittee, the “Guerrilla Normalization Command.”

When the FARC installed the subcommittee in Havana, it included the following statement in its presentation:

The rebel group criticized the government’s declarations describing the “surrendering” of weapons.

While the distinction may appear rather semantic, the practical difference could prove to be significant.
Agreements signed in Havana, as the FARC representatives point out, have used the Spanish word dejar — to leave or abandon — to describe what will happen to the weapons possessed by both sides, while the government uses the word entregar — to hand over or surrender -0 to describe what the guerrillas will do.

The FARC also claims that no group is specified in the agreement with regards to “abandoning” weapons, which the rebel group has interpreted to mean each side — described as “equal parts” by the FARC — will be agreeing to do the same.

“[The agreement] reads, literally and unambiguously: Abandonment of Weapons. It is obvious that whatever its implications, it concerns the two contending parties. In our view, this issue, which will require a long truce and implementation of agreements, means weapons won’t be used to do politics. This applies to guerrilla and state,” states one of the FARC’s communiques.

Reading between the lines, the FARC seems to be saying it will not be handing over its weapons to the government, since it expects the armed forces to “abandon” their weapons as well. Instead, it will simply stop using them.

Given that the last time the FARC tried to enter politics, their party — the Patriotic Union — was the victim of a ‘political genocide,’ their hesitancy to “hand over” their weapons is not incomprehensible.

Read more: Remembering the victims of Colombia’s ‘political genocide’

At this point, the government finds this unacceptable.

Ultimately, if the FARC truly desires to become a political and social force in Colombian society and abandon its armed struggle, it will surrender its weapons. It may not like the idea now, and perhaps other words such as “abandon” need to be used in the meantime. A slow, multi-year plan is likely necessary to ensure they will be secure enough to get rid of their arms.

But eventually, the guerrillas will have to start doing politics non-violently. Then it will be the state’s turn.