Lessons from the Peace Negotiations in Colombia: President Santos in Conversation

The peace negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC–EP)  and the Colombian government ended on an agreement last August 24, 2016.  After four years of peace talks and working meetings, despite the  disbelief of a large sector of Colombian public opinion, a deal was signed. The agreement  ended one of the world’s longest armed conflicts, a guerrilla war that that killed more than 220,000 (80% civilian population trapped in the middle of the conflict), and displaced 6 million Colombians since 1958. The peace process and agreement are major human achievements, and demonstrate that it is possible to solve conflicts through dialogue and negotiations.

Last Wednesday, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, the leader of the peace process, received an award from the Program on Negotiation at the Harvard Law School, and participated two panels that were part of a special event. In conversation with Professors James Sebenius, Deeppack Malhotra, and William Ury, Santos shared insights from the Colombian peace process. In this entry I would like to share some of the lessons I learned from their conversation.

Photo by Harvard Gazette

According to Santos, he and his team recognized and tried to create three conditions that were absent from previous negotiation with the FARC:

  1. The counterpart thought that negotiating was a good business.
  2. Military balance of power was  in favor of the state.
  3. The region supported the peace process. The closest  neighbors (Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru) were supportive.

The Colombian government, the military, and a team negotiators, tried to create those conditions. The strength of the military, in particularly was build upon the legacy of the previous government, in which Santos was the minister of defense. He said,

“I was the war hawk for the FARC”

According to the president, it was strategic that the military hit the FARC during the previous eight years using a doctrine of guerrilla war like the Vietnam. In that process, while he was the minister of defense, the military collaborated with intelligence services from U.S., Israel, and U.K. in order to attack the rebels and weaken their position.

Once the peace talks and negotiations started, Santos, as the new president, decided to change the doctrine of the military to the one of a human rights.  He explained that changing the doctrine was key so the government and military could prioritize the demobilization of the guerrillas. By recognizing that there was an armed conflict, Santos and his team sat to negotiate in the terms of humanitarian law. Although he was aware that such change could risk his popularity, he decided to do it. He said,

“Making war is very popular when you win.”

As Santos explained, he had to risk his popularity as a president in order to do the peace negotiations. According to him, “real change does not come by thinking in popularity.” Surrounded by a team of negotiators and international advisors, that included several professors from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard, he believed that through dialogue they could persuade the FARC to stop the war. He explained that a negotiator need to be convince of three things in order to do such persuasion:

  1. Be convinced you can do it.
  2. Be convinced that the others would be convinced to do it as well.
  3. Convince the other part (the FARC in this case) that they should not take advantage of the situation.

Building trust, therefore, was at the core of the negotiations. The change in the war doctrine helped the government to gain FARC trust. The human rights approach forced the military to approach to the enemy in a different way, sometimes accepting their ideas of treatment of prisoners, other times providing humanitarian assistance to the rebels.

The success of the negotiations also relied on the trust between the government and the military. Santos explained that such trust was gained by clearly defining red flags in the negotiation, that strengthened the position of the military. Those red flags were:

  1. The future of the military wont be negotiated.
  2. Understand peace as a military  victory.
  3. Two generals were part of the negotiation team.
  4. Military was integral part of the process. They were ware of all the peace talks, even the ones that were conducted in secret.

Keeping all the parties on board during a negotiation that expanded during four years was not an easy task. However, it was possible by having a structured agenda, and fostering the three negotiation conditions outlined some paragraphs above. In contrast to previous peace processes in Colombia, Santos explained, this one was organized and planned with rigor and method.

In contrast to the agenda of 100 points of the Pastrana peace process (1999-2002), for instance, the one of Santos had only six thematic issues. Those points were integral rural development, political participation, end of the conflict (including bilateral and definite ceasefire and cessation of hostilities, and surrender of weapons), solution to the problem of illicit drugs and victims; and ratification, implementation and verification. The agenda was so structured, that according to Santos, at some moments limited the possibility to advance the process in a faster mode. He said that if he had to do it again, he would allow the negotiation to treat the different points in parallel, and not in consecutive order.

However, despite being highly structured, the negotiations allowed several innovations such as the definition of the terms of transitional justice between the two parties, the inclusion of the victims and the perspective of women, and the continuity of war during almost all the process. Santos explained, such paradoxical negotiation, by restating what he said to his team:

“We negotiate as there is no war, but we continue the war.”

In contrast to previous processes, victims of war were brought to the foreground during this negotiation. The Victims Law of 2012 was a key step in that move, since it recognized the civilian victims of war, and their rights to

  1. justice,
  2. truth,
  3. reparations, and
  4. warranties of non-repetition of the harms they had suffered.

As Santos explained,

“the victims became tremendous allies for the peace process”

The negotiators and advisors learned a lot from the victims, especially in relation to transitional justice. Different groups of victims wanted to be part of the peace negotiations, and were able to participate in some of the meetings in Cuba, enriching the dialogue with their perspective and experiences.

“I talked to the victims as a regular exercise, and learned from them. They were an energizer for continuing the peace negotiations.”

The victims were very emotional in their participation and offered a unique energy to the process. According to Santos, they gave him hope and encouraged him to continue, even in the most difficult moments of the process. The victims also helped him and the negotiators to do draw the line between peace and justice.

“A peace agreement is imperfect by definition.”

Said the president Santos, recognizing that the peace deal, at some points, sacrifices justice in favor of peace. However, it is also a success since it has ended in the cease of fire of the FARC, and their demobilization.

Santos also recognized that his government and team fail in the communication strategy and how the public opinion was shaped. He recognized that they did not expect the opposition to deploy such a powerful disinformation campaign and to be able to manipulate large part of the public opinion against the peace process. Such campaign against a peace process was sui generis according to the panel experts and advisors. In the age of social media and digital networks, spreading alternative facts and disinformation can really undermine a peace process, especially in a country full of inequalities, lack of institutional credibility, and political corruption. Santos explained,

“the opposition to the peace process constructed a lot of stories, and repeated them everyday to the point that people started to believe them.”

Although many of those stories were difficult to believe at the beginning, they entered the popular Colombian imagination and grew as they were repeated in Twitter, Facebook, and Whatsup groups. Stories like the one that claimed that Santos was a communist, that the peace deal had a gender ideology and would destroy the Colombian family, and that the FARC was going to overtake the country, resonated and spread across all media. According to Santos it has been very difficult to change the perception that those stories have created, but as the results of the peace process start to become visible, people would change the perception.

“Any conflict can be solved through dialogue and negotiation.”

That is perhaps one of the major lessons from the Colombian peace process. By creating the right conditions, identifying stakeholders, building a team of negotiators and advisors, and structuring a clear agenda that can be discussed by the parties, conflicts can be solved. As a Colombian, I feel hopeful that the peace deal is a starting point in a process of social and cultural change that the Colombian society has been delaying for decades.

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