1 October 2015
Trusting Santos – the Nicaraguan Experience and the FARC

The government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a historic agreement on Sept. 23, creating a groundbreaking judicial framework to address responsibility for human rights and other crimes committed during Colombia's decades-long civil war. The agreement gives good cause for optimism that over two years of peace negotiations centered in Cuba's capital, Havana, will have a successful outcome early next year. Both President Santos and FARC leader Timoleon Jimenez have committed their respective teams of negotiators to try and complete the peace talks within six months, by the end March 2016. Few will question the determined persistence and many practical and emotional sacrifices both sides have made to advance the peace negotiations this far. The latest agreement, on a judicial framework to resolve legal matters needing to be addressed once hostilities entirely cease, certainly overcame deep rooted prejudices and very serious reservations on both sides.

President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia addresses the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 29, 2015.

The proposed framework also represents extremely important progress for international legal norms by setting a precedent that may help resolve other intractable armed conflicts around the world. As explained by Juan Manuel Santos and Timoleon Jimenez, the agreement provides for a Special Peace Jurisdiction to ensure justice for all the victims of the Colombian civil war. This legal framework includes a tribunal and a court to investigate crimes related to the war and to judge and sentence those found responsible. The Special Peace Jurisdiction is in addition to Colombia's Truth Commission and awaits consensus too about how to structure a process to guarantee reparations. The hope is that with this agreement military actions will be suspended so as to prevent the conflict claiming any new victims.

At the signing of the agreement, President Santos talked about the need for “a truly stable and lasting peace ending the historic cycles of violence and meeting the expectations of Colombians for peace with justice, an agreement that all Colombians will have the chance to endorse, saying either yes or no”. But while President Santos mentioned components of the agreement like land reform, democratic opening, narcotics and reparations to victims, he omitted any mention of the paramilitaries. President Santos referred to the support of Pope Francis for the peace talks and thanked the various countries and their representatives for making a successful outcome possible, President Raúl Castro of Cuba, Norway, Chile and Venezuela and the U.S. special envoy Bernard Aronson and the team of jurists advising the overall process.

Bernard Aronson is a veteran U.S. diplomat who represented the U.S. government during the peace negotiations in El Salvador that culminated in the 1992 Chapultepec Peace Agreement. Aronson himself said at the Washington press conference announcing his role that he would, “push, prod, cajole, and clarify and help wherever we can”. At that press conference on February 20 this year, Aronson voiced a low key version of standard U.S. do-what-we-want-or-else gangster diplomacy when he observed, “any party to this conflict which is still debating whether to choose the path of peace or continued violence should know the partnership between Colombia and the United States will continue in the future, whichever path it chooses.” Deciphered, Aronson's diplomatic code certainly means the U.S. government will not acknowledge its own complicity in Colombia's civil war.

The important question is whether it will try and protect its terrorist narcotics-dealing paramilitary proxies and their patron, former U.S. government protege, ex-President Alvaro Uribe Velez. The FARC's Comandante Timoleón Jiménez referred almost directly to that question in his remarks at the signing of the agreement immediately after the comments of President Santos. Comandante Timoleón said, “This Special Peace Jurisdiction has been designed for all those involved in the conflict – combatants and non-combatants – and not just for one side only. From a fundamentally restorative perspective it opens the possibility of offering full and detailed truth so as to set a precedent for reparations and non-repetition that satisfies the rights of the victims and social reconciliation.”

The FARC leader went on to note that the negotiating teams now have to redouble their efforts to build consensus around a bilateral cease-fire, a process of disarmament and the transformation of the FARC army into a legal political movement. In contrast to President Santos, Comandante Timoleón did indeed insist in his remarks on the importance of “generating the specific conditions for the dissolution of the paramilitaries in Colombia”. Subsequently, in remarks to news media, President Santos acknowledged, without mentioning the paramilitaries, that the Special Peace Jurisdiction is intended to cover all those who participated directly or indirectly in the armed conflict. But among all the optimism and apparent sincere good will, clearly very much influenced by the visit of Pope Francis to Cuba and the United States, many many unhappy ghosts were also in attendance.

Most certainly present was the memory of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, murdered in 1948 as he was becoming the clear favorite to win Colombia's 1950 presidential elections on a platform of land reform and progressive social measures. Likewise, Norway's presence prompted memories of the ill-fated Oslo agreement which Israel has deliberately exploited and abused to extend its Occupation of Palestine and intensify its attacks on Palestinians. The United States itself has notoriously reneged on commitments made to the Russian Federation in relation to NATO's aggressive militarist expansion since 1990, which is the direct cause of the current crisis in Ukraine. In Colombia itself, a previous attempt by left-wing forces to integrate into Colombia's electoral politics as the Unión Patriótica resulted notoriously in the wholesale murder of well over 3,000 party members through the 1980s and 1990s, mainly by paramilitaries supported by Colombia's corrupt governments with the complicity of the United States and allied governments, like Britain and Israel.

Given such depressing antecedents, the mere fact that an agreement is underway and may well be carried to a successful formal outcome is just the start of a long and extremely delicate process, very susceptible to manipulation and betrayal. Bernard Aronson's presence may mean that United States government diplomats think they have learned the lessons of the failures of U.S. policy in Central America and the rest of the region. They may believe they can impede a future political electoral breakthrough by the FARC and its potential progressive allies in Colombia's parliamentary system. In Central America, once the wars there ended in the early 1990s, it took the Frente Sandinista and the Frente Farabundo Martí another 17 years to enter government in Nicaragua and El Salvador respectively. The U.S. government clearly has no intention of changing the well established patterns of regional control it has imposed both in Colombia and in the countries of other regional allies like Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.

Nicaragua has deep and sharp memories in relation to U.S. interference in peace talks in the region given the treacherous murder of Augusto Sandino in February 1934 by troops under the orders of Anastasio Somoza, encouraged by the U.S. ambassador, after Sandino had left a meeting with Nicaragua's then President Sacasa. Looked at from Nicaragua, the latest progress in the Colombian peace talks came just a week prior to the appearance of Nicaragua's legal team in the International Court of Justice in The Hague over its maritime territorial dispute with Colombia. On November 19, 2012 the ICJ handed down its ruling in that dispute, assigning islands claimed by Nicaragua to Colombia but recognizing Nicaragua's jurisdiction over around 90,000 sq. km of the Caribbean previously illegally usurped by Colombia. Colombia's response was to accept the court's verdict in relation to the islands but to accuse the ICJ of serious errors in recognizing Nicaragua's legitimate maritime rights in the area Colombia had usurped.

Following the ICJ verdict, Colombia withdrew from the American Treaty of Pacific Settlement, known in Latin America as the Pact of Bogotá, under which it recognized the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice. But that withdrawal was primarily for domestic political consumption and has no effect on the legitimacy of the ICJ verdict of November 19, 2012. Colombia is legally obliged to comply with that verdict but has failed to do so. Its warships continue to patrol part of what is now Nicaragua's maritime territory, although to date no violent incidents have taken place between Colombia's well equipped navy and Nicaragua's small coastguard forces.

Carlos Argüello, Nicaragua's representative before the ICJ explained to the court this week how, following the November 19, 2012 judgment, President Santos “announced that ‘Colombia emphatically rejected the aspect of the sentence issued by the Tribunal’ in relation to the maritime delimitation that was decided unanimously by its members. President Santos went on to express that Colombia rejected ‘the omissions, errors, excesses and inconsistencies that Colombia could not accept’ and asserted that the court had ‘committed grave errors’ in its decision on the maritime delimitation.” The ICJ's judgment followed a decade of legal process during which both Nicaragua and Colombia, as countries that signed and subsequently ratified the Pact of Bogota, submitted to the court's jurisdiction. As Carlos Argüello went on to note to the ICJ's members, “Nicaragua is doing no more than assert the obvious, which is that the sentence in question produced binding obligations for Colombia which have been and continue to be violated and this too entails the responsibility of Colombia.”

In sum, Colombia submitted to the ICJ's authority, rejected the verdict of a court whose authority it had accepted and has failed to comply with the binding obligations the court's verdict entails. Clearly, that reality has very serious implications for the peace negotiations between the government of President Santos and the FARC. In the light of Colombia's non-compliance with a binding verdict of the International Court of Justice it is hard to take seriously the declaration by President Santos in relation to the peace talks that, “there must be justice and respect for institutions, for national and international law”. It is debatable why anyone should believe President Santos in his affirmations about peace in Colombia when his government has shown flagrant disrespect for a binding verdict of the International Court of Justice. So while the well-worn formula “intellectual pessimism, optimism of the will” may be applicable to the peace negotiations in Havana, beyond the nitty gritty of the peace talks themselves, at least three very serious questions remain.

One is precisely whether President Juan Manuel Santos and his government have any credibility in terms of their commitment to legality. A second is, in what sense the United States government has any firm commitment to a truly just, equitable settlement to Colombia's decades long civil war in which the U.S. government itself has been an intransigent protagonist covering up massive human rights violations and rampant corruption, while major U.S. and allied multinational corporations have profited enormously. The third question is intimately related to the last. It is unclear the extent to which the U.S. government controls its covert agencies' narcotics and money-laundering operations, especially those of the CIA but also involving collusion from the U.S. Drugs Enforcement Agency and the U.S. Southern Command. Even if the U.S. government is committed ostensibly to supporting a genuine peace process in Colombia, it is far from clear whether its covert agencies will do so too.

The acid test will be the case of former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez. Uribe, still a senator in Colmbia's legislature, was quoted this week complaining, "They'll hand over the country to the FARC so as to stick me in jail". Self-evidently, President Santos is pushing hard for a successful outcome to the peace negotiations out of his own political self interest and that of his faction of the Colombian oligarchy. Achieving even a flawed peace in Colombia will confer enormous prestige on him and his circle. By contrast, Alvaro Uribe's dogged condemnation of the peace process is likely to leave him isolated. The terms of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace seem clearly aimed at securing acquiescence from the Colombian military and from Colombian society generally that, from the point of view of conservative opinion in Colombia, the FARC will face justice. But those terms also take quite precise aim at Alvaro Uribe Velez and his corrupt narco-terrorist network of paramilitaries and organized crime.

The FARC themselves have noted that the Colombian government negotiators are trying to rewrite the latest agreement. In a recent declaration they state, “For those of us who are integrated into the FARC-EP what happened last Wednesday was not something staged to impress the audience. That act carried with it the clear commitment and word of women and men in rebellion, in armed insurrection for over 60 years, who long for peace. Let no one at this time in the history of patriotic reconciliation come and confuse with untimely caprices the rest of the way towards the end of a process which should be draped only in glory. One has to keep one's word, one has to honor commitments.”

Nicaragua can bear very concrete witness, as if they needed it, that the FARC are dealing with counterparts in the Colombian government who regard such sincere sentiments as, at best, optional.

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