Thursday, September 24, 2015

Peace at last for Colombia? (Sept. 24, 2015)

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced a breakthrough in peace negotiations aimed at ending the country's fifty year conflict that has killed an estimated 220,000 people and displaced millions.

Santos and the FARC's top commander, Rodrigo Londoño, also known as Timochenko, shook hands yesterday at a Havana press conference, urged on by Cuban President Raúl Castro. They announced that a final agreement will be signed within the next six months, and the guerrillas have agreed to begin handing over their weapons 60 days after a deal is signed.

Silla Vacía's Juanita León celebrates the historic move, noting that it means guerrilla disarmament in less than a year, breaks with the FARC narrative of simple rebellion and provides an opportunity for both sides to start a new history.

The two sides agreed on special peace tribunals to try the worst crimes of the 51-year conflict, from sex abuse and kidnapping to torture and executions, but a possible amnesty for other combatants, reports Reuters.

"Peace is near," tweeted Santos yesterday, announcing a surprise trip to Havana where, government representatives have been negotiating a peace accord with country's largest rebel force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), for the past three years.

On their part, the FARC posted photos on Twitter of Londoño meeting with members of his negotiating team in Havana, with the message, "Peace has arrived."

The long-awaited announcement comes after gentle prodding from Pope Francis in his Havana Mass on Sunday (see Monday's post). According to the Associated Press, the guerrilla group's negotiators rushed to demonstrate progress ahead of the papal visit. In a separate piece the AP says "the spirit of the popular pontiff hovered over the negotiation of the historic agreement, people involved in the talks said."

The latest advances in the talks involved three central elements that have been sticking points in the negotiations: the transfer of weapons; how combatants -- both from the FARC and from the military -- will be punished for human rights violations committed during the war; and the deadline to complete the deal, reports the New York Times.

Both sides had already agreed on plans for land reform, political participation for guerrillas who lay down their weapons and how to jointly combat drug trafficking.

The new deal outlines how special peace tribunals will work: those who confess to human rights violations and war crimes will face punishments of up to eight years -- the consequences will involve community service or assistance to victims of the war, and some form of detention, but not prison. Combatants who deny crimes but are found guilty will get up to 20 years.
Guilty military personnel, guerrillas and civilians alike will have to pay reparations to their victims. 

Those who sign the peace deal, accept responsibility, face charges and pay reparations will be safe from extradition if they are wanted by the United States on drug trafficking charges, explains Colombia Reports.

And those accused of lesser political crimes might be eligible for amnesty under the agreement, reports the Miami Herald.

The system will give heavy incentives for participants in crimes to confess and implicate the entire chain of command, argues León.

Special tribunals, which will be run by national and foreign jurists, will be in charge of sentencing and giving response to victims.

The deal forces the FARC to admit to crimes, already an important advance, rights León in Silla Vacía. But the guerrilla group won some important concessions from the government, and were able to negotiate as equals against the state she notes. 

Citizens will have to approve the potential deal somehow, possibly through a referendum, which will likely be a bitter political fight, according to the international press coverage.

Critics of the peace process are concerned that the agreements will let human rights violators off lightly, both guerrillas and members of the armed forces, reports the New York Times.

But Senator Roy Barreras, president of Colombia's congressional peace commission, is quoted in the Wall Street Journal emphasizing the importance of reaching any sort of sanctions at all: "This is unique," he said. "Remember that in South Africa, Ireland and the Southern Cone [of South America], the agreements ending conflicts were completed without criminal sanctions." (He neglects to note the counter example: Argentina has followed a path of "memory, truth and justice," instead of the "truth and reconciliation" model.)

The issue of justice has been a gordian knot for negotiators, explains Silla Vacía. The FARC leadership has strenuously denied criminal actions and rejects prison time as a possible result of the negotiations. At the same time, the government is loathe to appear to be letting the rebels off the hook, and wary of running afoul of international conventions on war crimes and human rights.

Still, Human Rights Watch said the transitional justice deal does not go far enough, and might not survive a review from Colombia's constitutional court and the International Criminal Court if those who committed abuses don't spend a single day in prison.

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) also emphasized the importance of consequences, saying it hoped the agreement "includes real accountability for individuals on both sides who committed war crimes ."

A 2012 International Criminal Court report on Colombia says "there exist reasonable grounds to consider that the FARC, the ELN, the National Army and the paramilitaries have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in Colombia after the beginning the court's temporary competence" on November 1, 2002, says Colombia Reports. This means the court could feasibly step in if it considers that those "ultimately responsible" for war crimes were not adequately punished.

Silla Vacía has a review of yesterday's announcement on transitional justice and analyzes some of practical questions that arise, such as how the tribunals will be put together and who will be included in the transitional justice process (everybody).

The agreements will also permit former rebels to join in the country's political process reports the Los Angeles Times, although Silla Vacía notes that the mechanism for their participation (ie: whether they can become a political party) is difficult, as people who have committed war crimes will not be allowed to run for office.

The government has said that a deal could add up to 2 percent to Colombia's GDP, as dangerous areas open up to legal businesses and the rebels suspend their attacks on infrastructure, according to Reuters.

And the negotiations are already paying off in terms of violence reduction: Colombia’s Conflict Resource Analysis Center says violence in recent weeks has hit a 40-year low after the FARC declared a unilateral ceasefire June 20, reports the Miami Herald.

History lesson: The Associated Press has a review of the fifty-year conflict.

News Briefs
  • On Tuesday Santos unveiled a strategy against illicit coca cultivation, replacing the polemic U.S. backed aerial herbicide spraying program with one that aims to foment voluntary eradication of coca fields. Growers who abandon the illicit crop used to make cocaine will receive support for alternative crops, reports the Associated Press.  "Colombia doesn't need to continue being the biggest exporter of coca on the planet and we're going to prove it," said Santos. (See May 11th's briefs.)
  • Despite moving forward to ending the Venezuela-Colombia border dispute (see Monday's post), Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced that the 1,400-mile shared border could remain closed for another six months, according to Colombia Reports.
  • Guayan President David Granger said Venezuela launched an "extraordinary military deployment" near a disputed border area, reports Reuters
  • Parents of 43 Mexican students who disappeared last year began a 43-hour hunger strike on yesterday, reports AFP. Today a group of families of the victims are scheduled to meet with President Enrique Pena Nieto ahead of the crime's anniversary. Peña Nieto has resisted meeting with them and the meeting is likely to be unpleasant, reports El Daily Post. A meeting last year ended poorly and the families have embraced the role of political adversaries, accoridng to the piece. In Mexico 11 police officers were injured in clashes with protesters angry at the disappearance of 43 students, who threw Molotov cocktails at officers in riot gear who responded with tear gas on a road near the Ayotzinapa teacher training college, where the missing students were studying, reports AFP. A piece in The Guardian reviews evidence that the students were killed after they unwittingly commandeered a vehicle which was carrying a hidden shipment of heroin or money. (See Sept. 8th's briefs.)
  • Brazil's ongoing economic woes, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal: The country's Central Bank attempted to maneuver to prop up the slipping value of the real. As that was happening, the national Congress handed President Dilma Rousseff a win in the form of permitting presidential veto of spending bills that worsen Brazil's fiscal problems as the government attempts to close a budgetary hole. Reports on the country's rising unemployment rate, cuts to this year's GDP forecast and falling consumer confidence are only available to VIP subscribers.
  • The Brazilian Congress is also looking at legalizing gambling to increase revenues, reports Reuters and postponed a decision on a possible salary increase for judicial employees. And hundreds of demonstrators protested deep budget cuts that form a government austerity plan reports AFP.
  • A group of former Volkswagen employees has filed a civil lawsuit against the firm, accusing the carmaker of allowing its workers to be detained and tortured under Brazil's military rule from 1964 to 1985 reports the BBC.
  • Three polls this month put Argentine presidential candidate Daniel Scioli near to winning the first round of elections next month, avoiding a run-off vote with his nearest rival, Mauricio Macri, reports Reuters.
  • And Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is denying rumors that she might resign, despite facing her lowest popularity ratings ever, according to the Associated Press.
  • Forty members of the Mara Salvatrucha street gang accused of at least eight killings, five kidnappings and membership in a terrorist organization were arrested by El Salvador's police on Tuesday, reports the Associated Press.
  • The International Court of Justice in The Hague agreed to review Bolivia's territorial dispute with Chile, giving the country a major step forward in its historic demand to regain access to the sea after more than 130 years, reports Bloomberg. The court will now review whether Chile is obliged to negotiate its border with Bolivia. 
  • The Bolivian Congress took the first step towards allowing for three consecutive presidential terms, which would allow President Evo Morales to run again in 2019, potentially extending his mandate until 2025. The Legislative Assembly's constitutional committee approved of the constitutional amendment, which will now pass to the plenary session, where two-thirds of legislators must vote in favor in order for it to pass, reports the Wall Street Journal. However, according to TeleSur, the change will be put to a citizen referendum in February. Under Bolivian law, the constitution can be altered through a grassroots referendum called by 20 percent of the electorate or through a reform within the legislature with two-thirds support. Both instances require a referendum.
  • Three Guatemalan judges were arrested Tuesday on corruption charges, the Guatemalan Attorney General's Office said. One Marta Sierra de Stalling allegedly accepted bribes in exchange for freeing members of the La Linea customs corruption ring last April, reports EFE.
  • A a new World Bank report calls for a social contract to improve the lives of all Haitians, dig itself out of poverty and head to sustainable and inclusive economic growth, reports the Miami Herald.
  • A senior Nicaraguan official reaffirmed the country's commitment to an inter-oceanic canal mega project at a Council of the America's event in Washington. The $50 billion proposed grand canal would theoretically cut transport times for mega-ships too big to transit the Panama Canal, but has been questioned and protested by indigenous and environmental groups, reports EFE.
  • Opposition to Southern Copper Corp's Tía María mining project in Perú might be easing thanks to a door-to-door outreach campaign carried out by the mining company, reports Reuters. The project was put on hold in May after protests against it by locals turned violent. (See April 23rd's briefs.)
  • Looking for exotic erotic inspiration? Check out this New York Times piece on São Paulo "love motels," where couples looking for some intimate time alone can take advantages of services such as helicopter rides over the city, water slides that end in private plunge pools, dinners by celebrated chefs or 4-D movies on undulating sofas. (I don't even know what that last one means!)

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