Yesterday, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced a month-long unilateral ceasefire, to begin on July 20.
The truce is the second such unilateral ceasefire the guerrilla group has implemented during the peace process, which has been ongoing with representatives of President Juan Manuel Santos’ government in Havana, Cuba, since November 2012.
After the kidnapping of General Rubén Darío Alzate forced President Santos to suspend the peace talks until his release on November 30 last year, the guerrilla called for an indefinite and unilateral truce that began on December 20.
Although the Colombian government never formally agreed to the bilateral agreement which the FARC requested, it effectively conceded to the guerrilla group’s measure by suspending air strikes against FARC encampments for a monthlong trial period on March 11 — a measure that was eventually prolonged for another month on April 9.
The government’s concession, along with the decision to carry out joint operations with FARC rebels to remove anti-personnel mines from hot-spots across the country, seemed to be paving the way toward a promising new stage of the negotiations.
Yet the path toward the official end of Colombia’s conflict came to an abrupt halt on April 15, when FARC militants in the southwestern department of Cauca killed 11 soldiers and injured 24 others in a dawn attack on a military outpost. Amid public outcry, President Santos reacted by resuming air strikes, and an air raid killed 26 FARC fighters on May 22, which led the FARC to in turn suspend its ceasefire.
Yesterday’s decision comes amid what appears to be the most troublesome stage of the negotiations. Levels of violence associated with the armed conflict peaked again after the FARC’s truce came to an end, while the guerrilla group began to target the country’s oil infrastructure, causing catastrophic damages to Colombia’s natural resources.
Humberto de la Calle, the head of the government’s delegation in Havana, admitted that there was a possibility the FARC could suddenly leave the negotiation table, effectively ending the nearly three-year process.
The announcement of the unilateral ceasefire is a breath of fresh air for the negotiations’ prospects. The previous truce had allowed violence to drop to levels unseen since the middle of the 1980s, and the measure would appear to be a steppingstone towards the de-escalation of the conflict, before the negotiations enter their final stages.
But it is an offer that comes with a catch. The FARC’s hope is that the government will react to yesterday’s statement by entering into a bilateral agreement that will stop all confrontations with the guerrilla — a move that already has the support of the United Nations.
A bilateral truce would likely help Santos resolve the troublesome dichotomy which has thus far complicated the entire peace process: the need to negotiate in the middle of an armed conflict.
Still, the previous ceasefire has taught a few important lessons.
First, it is far from clear whether the FARC leadership possesses the capacity to coordinate its different factions scattered across the country or ensure that all members will comply with a bilateral ceasefire.
Second, a ceasefire, whether unilateral or bilateral, requires all parties involved to be fully committed to its success. Even if the FARC ceases its operations against Colombia’s armed forces as of July 20, this may not amount to a complete halt to ongoing extortion of civilians or attacks on the country’s energy infrastructure, which has serious repercussions for the environment and population alike.
Third, a bilateral truce could be a promising step forward, but only if it can be monitored by a neutral body under the coordination of the international community. An external actor with the political, military or moral weight to supervise a bilateral truce would raise the costs of its failure for both sides, and thus strengthen its chances of survival.
And, while entering a bilateral truce will be no easy feat, there are ways to ease its implementation. One strategy could start by identifying some of the country’s most violent hotspots, and enforcing bilateral ceasefire zones within them. This would allow the government to test a two-way truce inside restricted areas, before eventually extending the measure to the national stage.
The FARC’s decision can bring the Colombian peace talks back to the path they were on earlier this year, provided these and other lessons are taken into account. The next few weeks will show whether the government and the guerrilla group have the willingness to embark on a new stage of the negotiations, or whether the talks will remain in the troubled waters where they are right now, to the detriment of a peace Colombia has not seen for more than 50 years.