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9 April 2015updated 15 Apr 2015 11:01am

Talking with terrorists is a dangerous business – but sometimes, it’s the only way

In Colombia, the government and FARC are taking the first steps to a lasting peace.

By Richard Howitt

One of the most dangerous things a politician can do is to talk to terrorists, especially in the current climate around Al-Qaida and now ISIS. That is until it becomes more dangerous not to talk to terrorists, in the hope of ending violence itself.

The FARC in Colombia – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – are more accurately titled guerrillas than terrorists, but their 50 year bloody conflict with the Colombian state and its paramilitary allies, is the world’s longest civil war, a ‘dirty war’ based on killing, disappearance, kidnapping, extortion and narco-trafficking on both and on all sides.

It is a conflict in which human rights defenders and trade unionists have been the biggest victims and which, through the union campaign ‘Justice for Colombia’ (JFC), I have given my personal efforts to support peace efforts over a period of nearly twenty years.

So the chance to visit previously secret peace talks between the conflicting parties on behalf of JFC, with a joint British-Irish delegation seeking to share our own experiences of ending conflict, was an opportunity that had to be accepted.

The talks are taking place in Havana, under the neutral stewardship of the Cuban and Norwegian governments.  

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Arriving in a hired tour bus at the gates of a luxury estate, in which the two parties reside in villas on opposite sides of a lake set amongst verdant, landscaped grounds, was a surreal experience.

The privations of living on the edge of death in the dense Amazonian jungle, can only seem even more remote from the patio and swimming pool we stood on during a break in the talks, at the back of the villa.

It did remind me of the house to which Mandela was taken from Robben Island Prison to conduct talks with the South African apartheid regime, as portrayed in the film “Long Walk To Freedom.”

But there are dangers as well as possibilities of historic parallels in the exercise in which we were witnessing, and history itself may not deal quite so kindly with any of the actors in the Colombian conflict.

Nevertheless, the men and women who stood before us may call themselves guerrilla commanders, but ageing, quietly-spoken, clearly ideological, they looked and sounded genuinely ready to swap a life of violence to one of politics.

The principal spokesperson we met, Ivan Marquez, has a personal history of seeking to interchange between violent and political involvement.

One of his accompanying party Ricardo Tellez, was greying and slightly hard of hearing, difficult to comprehend as the same guerrilla leader that the Colombian military had snatched from Venezuela in a cross-border raid which had caused military tension between the two countries, and then subsequently released as part of the negotiations seeking to free the then French hostage Ingrid Betancourt.

Women were equally present amongst the guerrillas and Victoria Sandino Palmeira complains to us how it is the Colombian Government which currently refuses to include the requirements of the UN on women, peace and security in to the peace talks. Yet she calmly explained how she was the commander of two brigades.

These are self-styled revolutionaries. They defend their actions as exercising the “right of rebellion.”

Reports always describe them as Marxist-Leninist, and they do tell us that their decision-taking process is one of democratic centralism.  But the process they outline for collecting ideas from wider civil society to contribute to the peace negotiations, they say is based on the system of citizen demands in the French Revolution. And they identify their demands as ‘Bolivarian,’ in the tradition of the continent’s figurehead in the battles for independence from Spanish rule.

History is everywhere.

Including the memory of mass slaughter of a previous generation of guerrillas who had given in their own guns in the 1980s, stood for election in Colombia under the banner ‘Union Patriotica’ and found themselves slaughtered in cold blood in their thousands.

Marquez himself was one of the few to survive.

“After extermination of Union Patriotica, we need to have physical security if we are to have political participation,” he tells us.

Security guarantees are at the heart of the talks, the allocation of land, the ending of what are described as ‘feudal conditions’ for peasant farmers across much of rural Colombia.

But despite railing against multinational companies and the country’s capitalistic model, their demands today are for safe political space to pursue their aims – to secure liberal democracy much more than communism. A key demand is to change the rules for the legal status of political parties, to avoid this being restricted to past electoral support.

“People see we are a political organisation not a terrorist group and we have the well-being of the people and of Colombia at heart,” Marquez wants to impress on us.

The bizarre nature of the whole exercise returned when we asked permission to take photographs, to be told in reply: “We don’t mind but it could be the proof that gets you fifty years in prison.”

At one point, it seems we will address both parties around a single table, but a change of mind from the Colombian Government leads us to follow the path of shuttle diplomacy and meet them by travelling across to the other side of the lake.

We meet Sergio Jaramillo, Colombia’s high commissioner for peace and Frank Pearl, one of the previous incumbents of the post and a former Minister, who remains part of the Government’s negotiating team.

Refined, clearly American educated, giving every appearance of coming from the elite of the society, the Government representatives discuss their own attitude to the talks in an atmosphere of polite formality.

JFC has frequently found itself critical of Governmental complicity in abuses in the past, and I am struck now in how we are welcomed and thanked for conducting the current exercise.

The history the Government must itself overcome is one of the failed attempts at peace processes of the past, of different degrees of sincerity perhaps, but always ending in failure.

What is different this time, I ask?

The length of the process – now in its second year – and the number of detailed recommendations already identified comes the answer.

“It’s all on a white board,” Jaramillo tells us.

There is also an understanding that the current leadership of the guerrillas has an educated, political and historical approach with whom it may be more possible to agree peace than with a younger generation which knows only violence.

Time is a factor.

The guerrillas want a constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution to entrench the peace deal to come, a fresh start for the whole country.

With national municipal elections due in October and the Government’s attempts at peace openly threatened by his predecessor, current President Santos prefers a deal endorsed by referendum to coincide with the elections. 

But concessions to us made by both sets of negotiators were what persuaded me most that the current conflicting sides are in the process of making real concessions to each other.

The guerrillas acknowledged the death of innocent civilians and described their acts of atonement now. Yes, “taxes” were levied on drug production they accepted, although pointing at responsibility elsewhere for processing and trafficking. Recruitment had been altered to address concerns about the use of child soldiers.

The need to end kidnapping as a tool of war had already been acted upon, included in a list of fifteen separate ‘unilateral’ actions already undertaken to demonstrate the seriousness of their own intentions.

On the Government side, past blanket denials about links to paramilitaries are replaced by an admission that it would be “naive to deny the link to paramilitarism.” Instead of refusing their existence as an excuse to avoid responsibility, a very different argument is used about needing to deny those groups any legal justification which could lead them to act as “spoilers” for the talks.

Jaramillo also praised presentations from victims of the violence as “powerful,” when before victim reparation had been one of the issues of greatest resistance for the Government.

“Truth processes for you started 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement. The challenge for us is that we are seeking to achieve that now – the first time that has ever been tried in the context of peace talks,” he told us.

There was also an acceptance from the Government that current security guarantees would be unacceptable to the guerrillas and a recognition that international supervision will be an essential component to any deal for it to be acceptable to both sides.

Indeed it is in the need to prepare the ground  for such intervention as well as giving credibility against critics of the process on both sides, that the Government now tells us that it seeks international support for peace that it previously shunned.

“We need the ‘push’; we are grateful for your support,” Jaramillo says.

In our case that included detailed discussion of the Northern Ireland process including in international mediation for weapons decommissioning, the need to reform justice systems to ensure confidence the abuses will not recur and in the role cross-party interests such as trade unions themselves can play to draw dissidents in to the process.

The biggest prize still to be won is a ceasefire, with talks going on in Cuba but guns still being fired in Colombia.

Justice for Colombia had previously pressured both parties to end hostilities in a joint letter signed by 250 cross-party parliamentarians in Britain, Ireland, Europe and North America.

It is possible our own efforts with the U.S.Congress had partly contributed to a significant change of policy, which has now seen the Obama administration appoint a special envoy who has also met up with the guerrillas.

But a ceasefire had been a step too far when I met President Santos during his visit to the European Parliament last November.

Yet subsequently he had stopped combat operations against guerrilla camps, each side now claiming it is conducting defensive operations only. Why had that now been possible, I asked?

“The FARC surprised us by announcing indefinite ceasefire in December,” Jaramillo told us.”President Santos’ response had a high political cost to him, but came because our analysis is that FARC had complied with the unilateral ceasefire. That’s the logic of deescalation – step-by-step.”

The next agreed step explained to us is for army and guerrillas to take part in joint de-mining operations in a number of areas, to build confidence on the ground – and to save lives.

Each side recognising the need to maintain the confidence of the other; not to allow this opportunity to be lost; to mobilise support in Colombia for peace, the need for the killing to stop.

This week’s peace marches represent the deep thirst to end the violence across many strands of Colombian society, many previously feeling excluded from it altogether. The peace activists who had previously often themselves been branded guerrillas and subject to the same threats and violent attack, are suddenly being listened to.

In Havana, I left believing that we had been talking not just about a ceasefire in Colombia, but that there is a real chance of one that can be permanent.