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Ten things you didn’t know about Colombia’s peace process

by Anastasia Moloney

It is now eight months since the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) started peace talks to end Latin America’s longest-running insurgency.

More than 100,000 people have died and about 5 million Colombians have been driven from their homes in a war that has lasted nearly five decades.

Here are 10 things you may not have known about the peace process:

1. Colombia’s peace talks follow three previous failed peace attempts.

This isn’t the first time the Colombian government and veteran rebel commanders from the FARC – the country’s largest guerrilla group – have sat down at the negotiating table over the past 30 years.

The last attempt was back in 1999 when peace talks lasted three years. At the time, the government ceded a demilitarised zone the size of Switzerland in the country’s southeast as an incentive for peace talks.

2. Four other countries are also involved in the peace talks.

The peace talks were formally launched in Oslo in October 2012 and then moved to the Cuban capital, Havana.

Norway and Cuba are serving as guarantors for the peace talks, and diplomats from these two countries are often at the negotiating table, while Chile and Venezuela are observers.

The late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, is said to have played an important behind-the-scenes role in helping to move the peace talks along and forge trust between the two sides.

When the peace talks are in progress, the FARC and government negotiators stay in houses on opposite sides of a well-guarded and luxurious former country club called El Laguito, which the Cuban government uses to house local and visiting dignitaries.

3. This is the first time the two sides have agreed to discuss an end to the conflict.

Unlike previous peace talks, this time the Marxist rebels and Colombian government have explicitly agreed to negotiate a definitive end to the conflict, which involves the 8,000-strong rebels giving up their weapons.

4. It’s also the first time there’s a defined negotiating agenda.

During months of secret talks prior to the official start of peace negotiations, the two sides agreed on a five-point agenda on which the talks are based.

The agenda addresses some of the root causes of Colombia’s conflict, including unequal land distribution in a country where just 1.15 percent of the population owns 52 percent of the nation’s total land, according to the World Bank.

The two sides reached a partial agreement on land reform in May this year, marking the first ever agreement between the two warring sides.

The other talking points on the agenda include the FARC’s participation in politics, drug trafficking, compensation and rights of victims of the conflict, and the end of the armed conflict.

Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos has said peace can only be achieved if negotiators stick to the agenda, and he has accused the rebels of veering off the agreed talking points.

5. Most Colombians don’t want to see the FARC hold political office.

On July 1, the two sides started a new round of talks centred on the thorny issue of how the FARC can participate in Colombian politics.

Ultimately, if a peace deal is reached, it will pave the way for the FARC to form a political party.

President Santos has urged the FARC to “exchange bullets for votes”. The trouble is, many Colombians don’t seem to share his view.

According to recent polls, 80 percent of Colombians don’t want to see the FARC taking part in politics. The thought of seeing former FARC rebels in Colombia’s congress and senate without spending jail time is anathema to many Colombians.

It seems the biggest battle the FARC faces is not against government troops on the battlefield but the fight to gain trust and respect among Colombians, many of whom see the rebels as drug-running criminals with few political ideals.

6. There’s no bilateral ceasefire and deadline to the peace talks.

Shortly after the start of peace talks, the FARC carried out a two-month-long unilateral ceasefire that ended on Jan. 20, 2013.

The government has reiterated it will not agree to any kind of ceasefire until a peace deal has been reached.

So while peace talks carry on, both sides continue to attack each other, with civilians caught in the crossfire.

No deadline has been set for the negotiations to end, but President Santos has said he wants the peace process wrapped up by November of this year. The rebels have said they are prepared to sit at the negotiating table for as long as it takes.

7. A Dutch woman is on the FARC’s negotiating team.

Tanja Nijmeijer, a 34-year-old Dutch woman, is the only woman at the negotiating table and is part of the 10-member FARC team of primary negotiators.

In the 1990’s, she left her middle-class home in the Netherlands and went to Colombia to teach English. She ended up joining the FARC as a fighter in 2002, rising through rebel ranks to become assistant to a senior commander.

Also on the FARC’s negotiating team are several members of the group’s six-man secretariat, or ruling body, who have been flown out to Cuba from areas in Colombia where they were fighting against government troops. Most are wanted in the United States on drug trafficking charges.

8. The biggest opponent to the peace talks is a former Colombian president.

Former president Alvaro Uribe is the most vocal critic of the peace process. He says the FARC can’t be trusted and that a military victory on the battlefield is the only viable way to end the conflict.

Uribe also says the government will grant high-ranking FARC fighters amnesty, allowing them to enter politics without spending time in jail – a claim the government denies.

9. Nearly half of Colombians don’t believe a peace deal will be signed.

Previous failed talks and a deep mistrust of the FARC have left many Colombians pessimistic about peace prospects.

Opinion polls show that while about 70 percent of Colombians back the peace process, just over half of Colombians believe a deal with the rebels will be reached.

10. Even if a peace deal is signed, there’s still another guerrilla group to deal with.

Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), with less than 3,000 fighters, is so far not part of the peace talks in Havana.

In July this year, the FARC called on the Colombian government to allow the Cuban-inspired ELN to join the existing peace process or to start their own parallel peace talks.

Source:  Thomson Routers Foundation

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