Bogota, Colombia (NI) – The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced on Wednesday a month-long unilateral ceasefire that will begin on 20 July. This truce is the second unilateral ceasefire that the guerrilla movement has implemented during the peace negotiations with President Juan Manuel Santos’ government, which began in November 2012.
After the kidnapping of General Rubén Darío Alzate had forced President Santos to suspend the peace talks until his release on 30 November last year, the FARC had called for an indefinite and unilateral truce, which began on 20 December. The government, though never formally entering the bilateral agreement called for by the FARC, effectively rewarded the guerrillas’ measure by suspending air strikes against them for a month-long trial period on 11 March; a measure that was eventually prolonged for another month on 9 April. 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 have paved the way for a promising new stage of the negotiations.
Yet the path towards the end of Colombia’s conflict came to an abrupt halt on 15 April, when FARC militants in the department of Cauca killed 11 soldiers and injured 24 others. Santos reacted by resuming air strikes against the guerrilla group, and an air raid killed 26 FARC fighters on 22 May, which led the FARC to suspend its ceasefire.
Wednesday’s decision comes in what appears to be the negotiations’ most troublesome stage. Violence levels associated with the armed conflict peaked again after the FARC’s truce came to an end, while the guerrillas began to target oil infrastructure, causing catastrophic damages to the country’s natural resources. Humberto de la Calle, chief of the government’s delegation in Havana, admitted that the FARC could suddenly leave the negotiating table and force the premature death of the peace process.
The unilateral ceasefire announced by the FARC is a breath of fresh air for the negotiations’ prospects – the previous truce saw a drop in levels of violence unseen since the mid-1980s. But it is an offer that comes with a catch. The FARC hopes that the government will react to Wednesday’s statement by entering into a bilateral agreement that will stop all confrontations against the guerrillas, a move which, not incidentally, has been backed by the UN. A bilateral truce would probably help Santos to resolve the troublesome dichotomy which has thus far underpinned the entire peace process: that is, the need to negotiate in the middle of an armed conflict. But the previous ceasefire has taught a few important lessons.
First, it is far from clear whether the FARC possesses the capacity to co-ordinate its different groups across the country and ensure all troops 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 on 20 July the FARC ceases its operations against the Armed Forces of Colombia, there is still the possibility that it may not halt its extorting practices against civilians or its attacks on the country’s energy infrastructure, which carry repercussions for the environment and population alike.
Third, a bilateral truce can be a promising step forward, but only if it can be monitored by a neutral body under the co-ordination of the international community. An external actor with the political, military or moral weight to supervise a bilateral truce can make the cost of failure appear greater for both sides, and thus encourage them to work to keep it in place.
While entering a bilateral truce will be no mean feat, there are ways to make its implementation easier. One strategy could be to start by identifying some key areas across the country’s most violent hot-spots, and enforce bilateral ceasefire zones inside them. This would allow the government to test a two-way truce inside restricted areas, before eventually extending the measure nationally.
The FARC’s decision to implement a month-long unilateral ceasefire could put the peace talks back on track, provided these and other lessons are taken into account. The next few weeks will show whether the government and the guerrilla movement have the willingness to embark upon on a new stage of negotiations, or whether the talks will remain in troubled waters.