Colombia gov’t and ELN to start critical new round of peace talks
January 10, 2018
On 9 January, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos announced that the fifth round of the peace dialogue that his government has been holding with the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) insurgent guerrillas in Quito, Ecuador, would begin today (10 January).
Significance: This new round of the peace talks is considered to be critical given that the ceasefire that the government and the ELN agreed to observe last year in support of the negotiations formally expired yesterday. There are high hopes that the two sides will agree to extend the ceasefire at the new round of talks in Quito. But there is also concern that, if they fail to do so, this could lead to an immediate resumption of hostilities between the two sides. The resumption of hostilities by the ELN has been identified as a potential threat to the presidential and legislative elections that Colombia is scheduled to hold this year.
The fifth round of the peace talks was originally scheduled to start yesterday as the Santos government hoped to discuss the extension of the ceasefire at the dialogue table before it expired. However, yesterday President Santos announced via Twitter that the start of the new round of peace talks had been delayed by 24 hours. “The government’s peace [negotiating] team has started working in Quito, Ecuador, and it is preparing to resume the dialogue table on Wednesday”, Santos said without providing any explanations for the delay.
President Santos went on to say that during the fifth round of talks, the two sides would continue discussing six points from the agreed talks agenda, including the issue of reparations to victims and the end of the armed conflict. Santos did not mention the possibility of discussing an extension of the bilateral ceasefire. But this was alluded to by Ecuador’s foreign minister, María Fernanda Espinosa, who said that the two negotiating teams were expected to discuss this point at the new dialogue round, with Espinosa stating that “there is political will on both sides do so”.
Various political actors in Colombia, including the national ombudsman’s office and the political parties, have repeatedly called for the ELN and the government to extend their ceasefire until after the holding of the 11 March legislative elections and the 27 May presidential election to ensure that these are not affected by violence. The ELN has said that it would consider extending the ceasefire after analysing its success and if it feels that sufficient progress has been made in the Quito talks.
‘Pablo Beltrán’ (Israel Ramírez Pineda), the head of the ELN’s peace negotiating team, has said that while the ceasefire has been positive the guerrilla group would have to evaluate if it has been instrumental in advancing the peace negotiations. Beltrán explained that, in his view, the ceasefire cannot be “more important” than the negotiations, and he noted that if the Santos government wants to extend the ceasefire it “will have to offer more” at the Quito dialogue table. Beltrán added that the ELN would like for the dialogue to move faster “to work more collaboratively…and take these talks to a point where the incoming government, whichever it turns out to be, will not be able to turn back”.
Looking Ahead: President Santos has previously said that his government is prepared to “negotiate new conditions for a new ceasefire” with the ELN despite the two violations of the ceasefire by the ELN reported by the United Nations peace verification mission. However, it is clear that an extension of the ceasefire cannot come at any cost and it will be up to the revamped government peace negotiating team, now led by former vice president Gustavo Bell, who was appointed by Santos following the resignation of Juan Camilo Restrepo, to ensure that they arrive at an acceptable deal with their ELN counterparts that will allow for the extension of the ceasefire and the continuation of the peace process.
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