FARC and ELN: Coexisting, but estranged

Víctor de Currea-Lugo*

Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista, comandante del ELN, Gabino ELN Commander, Ejercito de Liberación nacional Colombia   Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry, comandante de las FARC, Timoleon jimenez FARC Commander,

The agenda of the ELN, as utopian as it sounds, aims more at building peace than ending the conflict, and that agenda has its strengths and its shortcomings.

Progress in the negotiation process between the government and the FARC that is underway in Havana , encourages one to hope the ELN will quickly join a possible second roundtable dialogue that could lead to peace building.

The Colombian insurgency has not been defeated on the battlefield and, as a consequence, the peace process is far from over, but neither did it seize power through force, so it cannot expect to bring about a revolution at the bargaining table. The negotiations move between these two extremes.

It is no exaggeration to say that in Havana the Colombian government is negotiating a substantive agenda for the first time, since in earlier proceedings (M -19 , EPL , CRS, MAQL , PRT) insurgent groups had already decided to disarm and only demanded a dignified means by which to do it, rather than discussions of social agendas or políticas. Today, progress in this process – and hope that the ELN will join in soon – raise questions about how much of what was agreed upon in the first negotiations (with the FARC ) will be binding at the second peace talks (with the ELN).

In early 2015, an ELN commander solemnly told me that they respect the process in Havana, they salute it, they acknowledge the progress achieved there, but (and here’s the point) they were not bound by it. Now, in a recent statement (October 2015), the ELN qualifies this position by saying something very significant: “Peace is a single entity”. I think that shift has to do with the evolution of the preliminary process and increased support for bargaining within ELN’s membership.

Both guerrilla forces have insisted on the complementary nature of the two processes. The FARC’s contribution to the country is in terms of the discussion of the agrarian sector and the ELN’s focus would be in terms of political participation, as Carlos Velandia often says. The first process opens a window that makes it easier for formal negotiations with the ELN to begin, but at the same time makes it more difficult to negotiate new issues. But this complementarity will not last if we think of the FARC as a lion that roars and that feeding him will be enough to placate him, or that the ELN is a hyena waiting for the lion’s leftovers.

With respect to victims, the ELN shares the general view of the Havana talks, but adds that we must delve into the issue of “truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-repetition” in the words of Pablo Beltran “all the truth and the truth for all”. This worries the enemies of peace, who went from asking for “peace without impunity” to panicking when a point is approved in Cuba that includes penalties (albeit alternative ones) that could impact even them.

The ELN say they do not want to repeat the history of agreements among elites, without the participation of social and political forces in conflict resolution and peace building. For the Havana negotiations, the parties agreed to a series of forums organized by the National University of Colombia and the United Nations, but this mechanism would not be enough for the ELN.

They insist that it requires knowing how to listen to the majority, those who have not been heard, that those voices also help decide the fate of a new country, with minimal changes to lay the foundations for policy making, without the use of weapons, in order to live in peace (that is, seriously confronting the issue of paramilitarism).

The agenda of the ELN, as utopian as it sounds, aims more at building peace than ending the conflict, and that agenda has its strengths and its shortcomings. Strengths because it puts on the table what is said by many: conflict is resolved by addressing its causes. And shortcomings because the wear and tear of the Havana proceedings can take a toll on the ELN. Needless to say, the Havana negotiations have a closed agenda that will hardly be reconsidered just because new issues are touched on in the second round of talks. The FARC have already gotten during negotiations much of what the elites agree to negotiate meaning that there will be little that is ‘negotiable’ left for the ELN.  And herein lies the tension surrounding the “Transformations  for peace” demanded by the ELN.

As to the model of transitional justice agreed upon in Cuba, the ELN does not approve it nor reject it, stating that, “We are not fully apprised of the agreements regarding the Special Tribunal for Peace because the details are confidential and we hear Commander Ivan Marquez say that on various matters the government is misrepresenting what was signed, and as a consequence complete documentation will be needed before issuing further opinions “(Gabino). It is clear that rebellion and acts of war accepted by International Humanitarian Law (IHL) should not be penalized, but war crimes should. International standards cannot be lowered but neither should they be increased: for example, fighters are not, at least in principle, victims. For the ELN, justice would be defined by its correspondence to the truth and with communities who would be called to impose the penalties, and not the state.

After the much celebrated September 23 announcement, Tymoshenko said that the version released by the government was not exactly what was agreed on with respect to transitional justice – similar to what happened in the first joint Government-ELN statement, in June 2014. These acts reinforce what I believe is the main obstacle underlying the preliminary talks between these two parties: the lack of mutual trust and determination to build a new country (a matter in which the negotiations with the FARC has indeed made progress).

And that obstacle cannot be overcome by increasing the pressure on the adversary but rather  by developing trust, born of concrete acts that nourish it. Believing that you’re going to pressure the insurgency by  harping on issues such as surrendering arms, prison sentences and agendas set in stone is a miscalculation.

Acts of war, painfully, will continue in the midst of the negotiation process until an agreement on a ceasefire is reached which, according to the ELN, should be bilateral, while the FARC aimed for a unilateral one. The talks in Havana began with the premise that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, but the ELN may demand preliminary agreements that serve to increase confidence and demonstrate the guarantees of political participation.

The meeting between Tymoshenko and Gabino in Cuba (May 2015), seems to have ended with a “let’s agree to disagree” which does not mean that in the future there won’t be any points of agreement. The talks with the ELN then, would be the second time that the Colombian State negotiates and, interestingly, on some issues that the Constitution of 1991 had already defined. Peace would be incomplete without the ELN, but the peace talks with the FARC are not just one more roundtable, but a new political context that the ELN should not ignore.

The problem of the moment is how to mesh the two roundtables, but articulation of the parts isn’t the biggest problem: it’s a complex matter but in the end, it’s just delicate carpentry. The Havana Peace Talks have a life of their own and the ELN knows it. It’s not a matter of accommodating the new negotiations (that is, to insist on the framework) but rather that they be viable and their viability depends on what is negotiable, which in turn depends on the government, rather than on the ELN.

* Professor, School of Law, Political and Social Sciences National University of Colombia. Member of the Centro de Pensamiento y Seguimiento al Diálogo de Paz and editor of the book: “Negociación Gobierno-ELN: Y sin embargo se mueve” (2015). @DeCurreaLugo


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