As dialogue opens on the second day of the much anticipated peace negotiations between the Colombian government and longstanding rebel group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), citizen inclusion and participation in the process have been sought as part of an expressed commitment from both sides to incorporate input from Colombian civil society, a main tenet of the General Agreement for the Termination of Conflict and the Construction of a Stable and Lasting Peace. The country’s bicameral congressional Peace Commissions, with the support of the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace and technical support from the United Nations, have called for the “extensive participation in the conversations between the Colombian national government and the FARC”, inviting Colombian civil society to present proposals to be included at the negotiating table.
To facilitate this process, various platforms have been provided for citizen engagement in proposing solutions to the conflict based on the five-point agenda of the peace process, including regional meetings and a forthcoming online forum for submitting proposals. The regional roundtable meetings were designed to “guarantee the extensive participation of different regional social sectors, including organizations of farmers, indigenous peoples, afro-Colombians, women, union workers, students, human rights defenders, youth, environmentalists, LGBTQ communities, peace initiatives, churches, guilds, businesses, academics, social researchers and victims of the conflict.”
These regional meetings have been held throughout the country, offering a space for civil society leaders to present their organizations’ proposals on the first three agenda items to be discussed at the talks: agrarian development policy, illicit crop substitution, and political participation (future roundtable meetings to be held in 2013 are set to include issues related to victims, a fourth subject area of the peace agenda). Similarly, an electronic forum is said to be in the works as a mechanism to receive additional citizen input, the technical finalization of which delayed negotiations four days from their initially planned start date of November 15. With these participatory mechanisms in place, the stage now seems to be set for the desired inclusion of Colombian civil society in the peace talks as part of the larger process seeking an end to half a century of civil conflict.
Thus far, the experience has been positive, with a multitude of civil society organizations participating in the regional roundtable meetings. In the seven meetings held to date, 2449 people participated, representing 1077 civil society organizations and social movements across the country, according to UNDP figures, with the meeting in Bogotá currently underway and not yet reflected in these numbers. While indeed valiant in intention and effort to create ample space for citizen engagement in the peace talks, there are certain practical limitations preventing the realization of a truly inclusive and participatory peace process.
The process of convening the regional roundtable meetings, for example, has faced a few key challenges, with the case of the Medellin meeting held on November 7-8 perhaps indicative of the wider limitations to the process in other regions. First, the brief timeframe for convening the meeting may have limited attendance and quality of actual turnout, with pertinent invitees in some instances being called or emailed only a day or two prior to their anticipated participation. Similarly, the scope of civil society organizations included in the roundtables may have been relatively narrow since the UNDP was the only entity responsible for convening participants to attend. This signifies that many members of civil society may not have been aware of the roundtable meetings or may not have had enough time to put together coherent proposals as stipulated by the proposal format guidelines. Despite these practical shortcomings, however, the UNDP succeeded in convening 323 people to attend the Medellin meeting, representing 207 civil society organizations from the region of Antioquia, no small feat given the task at hand.
Although the UNDP expressed satisfaction with civil society turnout in the regional roundtable meetings, citizen participation at this stage in the peace process is itself limited given that the agenda for negotiations has already been set -- discussed and determined behind closed doors without civil society input. While the concerns of the Colombian people may indeed be considered through the participatory platforms created by the Peace Commissions, civil society’s contributions may have marginal influence since they were not included in the design of the peace process agenda or consulted in determining the subject matter to be discussed.
A final and related challenge is that there is no consensus between the FARC and the government on how civil society proposals will be incorporated into the peace talks, with FARC negotiator Iván Márquez stating that citizen participation will guide the rhythm of negotiations, and government officials suggesting that proposals be included later on in the peace process. Although the proposals received will be systematized and submitted to the peace guarantors (officials from Cuba and Norway) the first week of December in the form of documents consolidating proposals from the various regional roundtables, if no agreement is reached on how they will be included in the process, this discrepancy will inevitably limit the potential for the contributions of civil society to be taken into account throughout the course of the negotiations.
These seemingly technical challenges to inclusive participation exist in conjunction with the larger limitations of the peace negotiations in general, making many observers wary of the prospects for lasting peace. The greater issues at play that may stymie the success of the peace talks center around the exclusion of key items in the peace process agenda and the government’s unwillingness to negotiate on non-agenda issues (including the cessation of foreign mining operations and the FARC’s expressed interest in a national constitutional assembly following the conclusion of peace negotiations), the government’s rejection of the FARC’s call for a mutual ceasefire during the negotiation phase, as well as Santos’ dismissal of the bid presented by the ELN (National Liberation Army), the country’s second most prominent rebel group, to participate in the peace talks. And when the potential for ending the conflict rests on reaching agreements on the big issues at stake and involving citizens and all key actors in the conflict, these challenges present serious limitations to the inclusive nature of the peace talks as desired by both sides, indeed threatening the prospects for this peace process to actually contribute to lasting peace in Colombia.
And still, violent conflict continues in the countryside despite both sides’ voiced commitment to pursuing an end to the violence, with dozens of conflict-related deaths in November alone, including the November 10th murder of Edgar Sánchez Paredes, former director of Unión Patriótica (UP), the FARC’s now-defunct former political wing, as well as armed transit blockades and instability in the northwestern Chocó region. While ongoing violencecontrasts ominously with the air of optimism surrounding the start of dialogue in Havana, the FARC has offered hope for an immediate de-escalation of the conflict in the form of a unilateral ceasefire beginning today, November 20 until January 20, 2013, a bold move given the Santos administration’s unwavering rejection of the FARC’s initial proposal for a mutual ceasefire. While citizen concerns may not be awarded the power they deserve to influence the peace process given the inherent limitations discussed here, civil society may have greater impact by imploring the Santos administration to exercise more flexibility in considering the interests and issues presented by the FARC, which indubitably affect Colombian society as a whole and which will definitively determine the staying power of any potential peace agreement reached in Havana.