On April 17, WOLA participated in the Defend the Peace Colombia (Defendamos La Paz Colombia, DLP) webinar that explored the prospects for peace with the ELN. Following the guerrilla group’s declaration of a unilateral ceasefire due to the global pandemic, hope was reawakened that this temporary truce could serve as a stepping stone for restarting peace dialogues with the ELN. DLP, of which WOLA forms part, released a statement commending the ELN for paying heed to the UN Secretary-General and Colombian civil society’s calls for ceasefires. The Government of Colombia announced that two former ELN commanders, Francisco Galán and Carlos Velandia, would serve as “peace promoters”. The DLP statement emphasizes that these steps serve as an opportunity to consolidate a full peace by opening a much-needed space for exploratory dialogues with the ELN. DLP urges the Colombian State and illegal armed groups to agree to a multilateral ceasefire in order to advance peace and as a response to the public health crisis.
The findings of the latest report by the Conflict Analysis Resource Center (Centro de Recursos para el Análisis de Conflictos, CERAC) were presented. This noted that (as of April 17) the ELN had not engaged in armed actions and that no military offensives against the ELN were initiated. Clara López, representing DLP, stated that the public health crisis should not reduce efforts for consolidating peace and that the Iván Duque administration should increase its political will to foster dialogue with the rebel group. Former Senator and Minister of the Interior Juan Fernando stated the CERAC report’s main finding- the positive developments between the Colombian government and the ELN – were not getting media attention because the pandemic was dominating the headlines. Given this, proponents of peace had to adapt their advocacy and be strategic so as to guarantee that both issues, peace promotion and the health crisis, get attention. To help mobilize efforts by civil society in support of advancing peace with the ELN, it was necessary that positive developments obtain visibility.
Senator Roy Barreras argued that the Duque administration continues to carry out warmongering acts against the ELN that generate obstacles for advancing dialogue with the rebel group. Violence committed by the group, fuels fear in Colombian society and the administration takes advantage of this to justify its military actions. Further, Senator Barreras noted that humanitarian emergencies weaken governmental plans and this is also used to explain away poor leadership. The pandemic allows governments in general to reframe political narratives in their respective countries, which can unfortunately result in assaults against critical rights. The Senator believes that the Colombian government should take advantage of this unprecedented public health emergency to reframe the political narrative around peace with the ELN. The speakers closed by asking that Colombia’s government fully implement the 2016 Peace Agreement with FARC and start peace dialogues with the ELN.
Speakers went on to emphasize that civil society participation is crucial to any peace process. César Sandino from Paz Completa said that civil society needs to be treated like an actor at the negotiating table because they are the ones directly affected by the conflict and are essential to guaranteeing a sustainable peace. Diana Sánchez added that continued oversight and support by the United Nations’ was needed.
Afro-Colombian leader and Bojayá massacre survivor from Chocó Leyner Palacios emphasized that guarantees of non-repetition are needed and that victims are central to peace negotiations. A multilateral ceasefire is needed in order to protect innocent civilians throughout Colombia. At the current juncture, communities in the Pacific face infrastructure issues, institutional neglect, and armed conflict. The health crisis is compounding all of these structural issues. Leyner pleaded that the government take action to protect the territories of ethnic minorities now affected by the pandemic. Throughout the discussion, it was pointed out that the communities affected by the ELN’s armed actions are the same that are likely to be most negatively affected by the pandemic. Despite the national quarantine, forced coca crop eradication operations continue and armed actors are murdering social leaders. Marylen Serna, a social leader from Cauca, and Ediver Suárez, an activist from Catatumbo, pointed out that the government was not implementing the 2016 peace agreement. They recommend that it be fully implemented and that negotiations with the ELN are prioritized.
Cali’s Monsignor Dario Monslave of Cali urged the ELN to free any hostages it has in its possession. He asked that the ELN respect the territories and communities it typically operates in. When doing so, the rebel group needs to be environmentally conscientious, as its operations are detrimentally impacting ecosystems. U.S. Reverend Douglas Leonard from the Global Council of Churches spoke of the importance of peace, particularly during the Easter season.
In sum, these are challenging times for communities facing on-going armed conflict and now a pandemic. Senator Iván Cepeda closed the meeting by underscoring the need to uphold democracy during these times. He stated that democracy should not be seen as an obstacle but rather a vital part of the solution to pandemic. Senator Cepeda called on other armed groups including the Gulf Clan to lay down their weapons. He said: “Facing the pandemic is a war in itself. Peace is fundamental to civilian security and is the only path forward.”