Colombia has announced the official start of long-delayed peace talks with the ELN guerrillas, a move that may be intended to give momentum to the stalled peace process with the FARC but is unlikely to have any serious immediate impact.
Official negotiations between the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) will begin in Quito, Ecuador on October 27, according to a statement released by both parties.
The talks will begin with the first point of the previously agreed agenda: participation of society in the construction of peace.
The statement also included a commitment for the ELN to release two hostages before the talks begin. According to El Tiempo, these will likely be Odín Sánchez Montes de Oca, who in April switched places with his kidnapped brother, former Chocó Gov. Patrocinio Sánchez, and Octavio Figueroa, a businessman kidnapped in La Guajira in March.
The six-point agenda for the peace talks was first announced in March, and also includes democracy for peace, transformations for peace, victims, ending the conflict and implementing the accords as points to be discussed.
After that announcement, progress on establishing the talks stalled, largely due to the ELN’s refusal to renounce kidnapping. Although the ELN still has not publically declared an end to its kidnapping, negotiations were unfrozen after the guerrillas released several hostages in recent weeks.
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A peace process with the ELN has been on the table since at least as far back as 2013, and was officially announced in June 2014. However, progress has been delayed for several reasons, including the ELN’s complex demands for the process, and perhaps more siginificantly because of the rebels’ refusal to stop kidnapping.
The latest announcement comes at a critical moment for Colombia’s peace process with the larger guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), which hangs in the balance after voters rejected the deal struck between the government and the insurgents in an October 2 plebiscite.
The start of official talks with the ELN will certainly add weight to Santos’ peacemaker credentials, already boosted by his Nobel Peace Prize, which the president hopes will increase international pressure on the opposition to reach an agreement over the FARC accords. But so far there has been little to suggest such pressure can have a decisive impact; international support for the peace process was already near universal before the plebiscite on the agreement.
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The official start of talks with the ELN will also address some of the criticisms of the FARC deal, especially concerns that the ELN could escalate their war and criminal activities after strengthening their ranks with FARC dissidents and taking over what had been FARC territory. If a ceasefire can be rapidly brokered then the impact of this can be to some extent mitigated.
However, any immediate impact will likely be limited. The ELN have negotiated a process that will be far more convoluted than talks with the FARC, as civil society will play a central role and so progress may well be slow.
In addition, the ELN’s horizontal structure with more autonomous fronts, some of which do not appear to be on board with the process, will complicate both negotiations and attempts to deescalate the conflict.