COLUMBIA: International Peace Day and Ceasefires

Friday, September 21, 2012
Columbia Calls
South America
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Peace Processes

Today is International Peace Day. Established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1981 as an annual day of non-violence and voluntary global cease-fire, the annual celebration of peace encourages armed groups in conflict zones voluntarily to cease all hostilities on September 21 each year. I have seen no assessment as to whether armed groups in Colombia and elsewhere are aware of this global campaign or comply with its call, but the day has sometimes provided an opportunity for the United Nations or other humanitarian agencies to carry out actions such as the shipment of medical supplies and food into war zones, and it is an opportunity to carry out public peace education. On this day each year, citizens in Colombia and around the globe engage in activities designed to raise awareness about issues relating to peace and violence, and to make their homes, schools, communities, and countries places that nurture a culture of peace.


Today it seems appropriate to reflect on the question of ceasefires as it applies to the Colombian agenda for peace. The theme is anticipated within the agenda that has been set for the upcoming Colombian peace talks in Oslo this October. Although the framework agreed to by the parties in Havana on August 26th sets the issue of land as the first topic for the Oslo agenda, the ceasefire issue has already been a key point of discussion, with each side beginning to stake out positions before the talks even get underway. (For discussion of the upcoming talks and the agenda, see my earlier blog post, “Hope and Expectation in Colombia”.) Such is one of the dangers of debating in the public sphere and through the press. Public positions tend to harden, while behind closed doors there is more opportunity to seek a middle ground.

Ironically, the positions on ceasefires today are the reverse of what they were in the last peace process in Caguán ten years ago. In Caguán, when the balance of power seemed to favor the guerrillas, the government called for a ceasefire and the guerrillas resisted. Today, the roles and positions have reversed. ”Military operations will continue with the same or stepped-up intensity,” President Santos announced on September 4th when he announced the incipient peace talks. At the FARC press conference in Havana two days later, FARC commander Mauricio Jaramillo announced that the FARC would call for an immediate ceasefire as soon as the talks in Norway open. The ball bounced back to Santos, who reiterated his position during an address at a military base in Tolemaida: ”I have asked that military operations be intensified, that there will be no ceasefire of any kind. … We won't cede anything at all until we reach the final agreement.”

Some close to the government, such as the president's brother, Enrique Santos, are encouraging the guerrillas to consider a voluntary unilateral ceasefire. This would certainly be a welcome gesture of continued good will, though the guerrillas may well wonder why the government should not offer the same gesture to demonstrate its good will too. A time-limited truce while talks are under way might meet the needs of both sides and also build popular support for the process, which has been quickly eroded in past peace processes when violence has escalated.

Nonetheless, ceasefires in peace agreements are tricky business. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. While everyone would like to see violence in Colombia diminish, and a unilateral or bilateral ceasefire could go a long way to reducing the human costs of the war and reassuring the public, a ceasefire is one of the items that will need to be negotiated between the sides. Each side will weigh the pros and cons for when, where, and how a ceasefire will be reached.

One of the lessons we might draw from previous processes in Colombia is the importance of establishing systems for verification and monitoring of a ceasefire before it is formalized. Such mechanisms will help to ensure that violations of ceasefire agreements are documented, acknowledged, and addressed, and that they do not derail the talks. Establishing a ceasefire before such mechanisms are in place has its risks. If either side does not have strong control over its troops, the existence of a formal ceasefire can give spoilers an easy opportunity to undermine the process by violating the ceasefire. This was what happened in Caguán.

The role of third parties–members of the international community or civil society–can be critical to monitoring ceasefire arrangements and increasing the chances for accountability for violations. On this issue, Colombia's past successes in demobilizing other guerrilla groups (the M-19, Corriente de Renovación Socialista, Movimiento Armado Quintín Lame, parts of the Ejército Popular de Liberación, and others) underscore the potential for third-party verification to help keep a process moving forward to completion.

While at present there is no provision for a third-party mediator in Colombia's peace talks, a number of resources intended to assist mediators in thinking through the challenges, dilemmas, and sequencing of ceasefires may be useful to both sides. The following three online publications provide a range of examples of how the ceasefire has been used and structured in other parts of the world:

  • Negotiating Ceasefires: Dilemmas and Options for Mediators by Luc Chounet-Cambas (Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2011);
  • Guidance for Mediators: Addressing Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Ceasefire and Peace Agreements (United Nations Department of Political Affairs, 2012);
  • Managing Fighting Forces: DDR in Peace Processes by Kelvin Ong (U.S. Institute of Peace, 2012).

As this peace process moves forward, the literature and Colombia's own past experience reminds us of the importance of making and sequencing commitments that can be met and honoring those commitments. This process is a critically important part of building trust among the parties and among the public. Santos has noted that the FARC has made good on its commitments thus far, and it would appear that the Colombian government has done the same. Such reciprocal practices have built a relationship between the parties that will prove to be an important foundation for the next steps toward peace.