Colombia
By Ashley P. Reaves Contributing Writer January 15, 2015

With the recent safe return of a top military general and two other hostages held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas de Revolución de Colombia, or FARC), peace talks between the insurgent group and the Colombian government are set to resume. President Juan Manuel Santos suspended negotiations after the revolutionaries took hostages on November 16. The talks were met with resistance from citizens and former public officials, and disagreements among the negotiators turned the process into a wearisome, drawn-out affair. Yet some concessions to the insurgents will have to be made to reach a peace deal, and a successful deal is the country’s best path to security.

The FARC formed in the 1960s with the aim of overthrowing the Colombian government in favor of a Marxist state. The group has since claimed to be the voice of the rural poor, while relying on drug trafficking, bombing, kidnapping, and murder to further its agenda. Consequently, FARC has been labeled a terrorist organization by both the United States and European Union.

Colombia’s 50-year struggle with the FARC is one of the longest unresolved conflicts in the world, and has left over 200,000 dead and over four million displaced. Backed by U.S. assistance under President George W. Bush, Colombia’s previous President, Álvaro Uribe, launched a military campaign against the FARC that resulted in significant losses for the insurgent group, including the deaths of several key leaders. In a policy shift that has been met with disapproval on several fronts, President Santos abandoned his predecessor’s strategy and began negotiations with the FARC. Former President Uribe is the most vocal critic of the peace talks, arguing that democracies should not negotiate with terrorists.

Thus far, the talks have yielded agreements on comprehensive agrarian reform, a path for the revolutionaries to form a political party, and the elimination of the drug trade. The remaining agenda items address the legal future of insurgent commanders and reparations for victims. These are the two toughest issues, riddled with disagreements between the negotiating parties and among the Colombian people. Many Colombians want the insurgent commanders in prison, while the FARC argue that reparations must be provided to victims of state forces.

Despite these obstacles and the recent hostage crisis, the Santos administration is wise to end the brutal eight-year military campaign, and there are reasons to be optimistic about the current negotiations. The previous administration’s campaign weakened the FARC, and President Santos now has the backing of Cuba and Venezuela, which helped bring the insurgents to the table. Additionally, the recent reelection of Santos indicates that the Colombian people support a negotiated solution, and the president’s primary goal should be to secure the peace deal. An unpopular compromise is not likely—the final version of the deal has to be approved by the people in a national referendum.

As a starting point, reparations should be given to victims of both the insurgents and government forces. As often happens in the region, innocent civilians have not only been caught in the crossfire between revolutionaries and the state, but also targeted by both. Victims of both sides deserve equal treatment, and taking responsibility for its own injustices will give the government greater leverage with the public.

To increase the likelihood of successful negotiations, the Colombian government should agree to a ceasefire and give the insurgents a chance to prove they are serious about securing a deal. The return of the hostages suggests the group is cognizant of public opinion and interested in finalizing negotiations. President Santos should also consider granting amnesty for insurgent commanders if they clearly indicate their commitment to peace. In the end, the Colombian people may decide it is better to let a few of the guilty go free to spare thousands of innocent lives.

A peace deal would bring substantial benefits to Colombia and the surrounding region. An end to the conflict would increase stability, strengthening the country’s business and investment climate. Furthermore, money previously spent fighting the FARC could be diverted to other pressing concerns. A peaceful Colombia would foster a better relationship with Washington, and tension between Colombia its neighbors would decline.

Successful negotiations would also improve national security and human rights in Colombia by creating an opportunity for improved governance over historically lawless territories. A continued reliance on military power will only drag out the conflict and result in more deaths, kidnappings, and displacement of the rural poor, as the FARC has no incentive to give up arms without a deal guaranteeing its future. Conceding to a few of the FARC’s demands will secure support for the deal among the insurgents—the only realistic path to lasting peace for the Colombian people.

Ashley Reaves is a second-year graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs, with concentrations in International Economic Affairs and Latin American Studies. She previously earned her B.A. in Political Science and International Relations at High Point University. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyPReaves.

Photo by Francisco Santos is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Image cropped.