Colombia's government and ELN guerrillas have announced the start of formal peace negotiations, but the government's lengthy peace process with rebel group the FARC cautions against expecting a quick resolution to more than 50 years of conflict.
During a March 30 press conference in Caracas, Venezuela, lead negotiators from the Colombian government and National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) announced a finalized negotiating agenda for the initiation of peace talks. (See video below)
The two sides had been holding preliminary negotiations since January 2014.
The agenda (pdf), presented by lead government negotiator Frank Pearl and the ELN's number two commander Eliecer Erlinto Chamorro, alias "Antonio Garcia," includes six points:
- Participation of society in constructing peace
- Democracy for peace
- Transformations for peace
- End of the armed conflict
Talks will be separate from those with Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). The FARC and Colombian government have been negotiating a peace agreement in Havana, Cuba since 2012.
Negotiations between the government and ELN will be based in Quito, Ecuador. In addition to Ecuador, countries accompanying the process will be: Cuba, Norway, Venezuela, Chile, and Brazil. Negotiations will occur in phases and may alternate between guarantor countries, with the exception of Norway.
Following the press conference in Caracas, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos gave a televised address to the nation from the presidential palace in Bogotá. (See video below) In his address, the president affirmed his commitment to achieving a stable and lasting peace in Colombia, but made clear that the government would not cross certain red lines it has set for negotiations.
For instance, Santos said the government would not engage in dialogue while the ELN holds kidnap victims. Santos had conditioned the beginning of formal talks on the rebel group freeing two hostages, who the ELN recently released.
Santos also iterated that the ELN and FARC are unique organizations. As a result, peace negotiations with the ELN would have distinct characteristics from those with the FARC.
Formed in the 1960s, the ELN is Colombia's second largest guerrilla group after the FARC. According to Reuters, it counts among its ranks roughly 2,000 soldiers.
No start date for negotiations in Ecuador has been announced.
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While a positive development, the initiation of formal peace negotiations between the Colombian government and ELN rebels are unlikely to result in a peace accord by the end of 2016.
To be sure, the process will benefit from the framework established by the FARC peace talks, which could help to expedite progress towards a final accord.
Santos said that although the peace processes involving the two rebel groups are distinct, there would be "coordination mechanisms" between the two. On this point, Santos made specific reference to measures and institutions already agreed upon in Havana to address victims' rights. As such, no new truth commissions or tribunals will be negotiated with the ELN, nor will there be a new international verification mission -- complex topics that have considerably slowed FARC peace talks.
Nonetheless, it may be premature to presume the ELN can piggyback on peace talks in Havana to accelerate its own negotiations.
SEE ALSO: ELN News and Profile
As Santos discussed, the FARC and ELN are different organizations with unique structures. Despite being a smaller outfit, the ELN has a more horizontal leadership structure than the FARC, with decisions primarily based on a participatory process of consensus among members of the group's Central Command (Comando Central – COCE).
This raises concerns over potential disagreements between ELN leaders that could stall talks, as well as questions over the ELN's ability to maintain cohesion among its various factions.
Furthermore, as evidenced by government negotiations with the FARC -- which have lasted over three years and recently missed a self-imposed March 23 deadline for a final accord -- certain agenda points may prove extremely contentious.
Issues regarding the ELN's political participation and reintegration into society, for example, proved to be stumbling points during nearly two years of exploratory discussions with the government. According to Semana, the ELN was resistant to signing any agenda that directly addressed the guerrilla army laying down its weapons as a condition to a final peace deal.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of ELN Peace
There is also the question of whether or not the ELN will fully comply with Santos' demand that it cease all kidnapping activities. Kidnapping is a major source of income for the ELN, and giving it up may prove difficult for a guerrilla group that could find itself under greater financial stress.
Despite the challenges that lie ahead, the ELN and Colombian government finally entering formal peace negotiations is a positive step for a country seeking to end decades of internal strife. Crucially, this development could lessen the ELN's attractiveness to disaffected FARC fighters unwilling to demobilize in the event of a final peace deal with the government. Such a migration would open the door for a recycling of violence and criminal activity in the country.