The Ultimate Guide to Colombia's Peace Negotiations

PHOTO: A Colombian soldier lands in a remote area of Colombia´s Meta province, during an operation against the FARC guerrillas. The Colombian government launches peace talks with the rebel group on Thursday.Mauricio Moreno Valdes/Flickr
A Colombian soldier lands in a remote area of Colombia´s Meta province, during an operation against the FARC guerrillas. The Colombian government launches peace talks with the rebel group on Thursday.

Peace talks between the Colombian government and the Marxist FARC guerrillas began in Oslo, Norway on Wednesday, after delegates from both sides trickled into the frosty European city.

The talks are expected to last for months and, if they succeed, they could bring down the curtain on one of the world's oldest armed conflicts.

Journalists were not allowed to observe the first set of meetings on Wednesday, as these were held at a secret location in the Norwegian capital. But both sides addressed international media on Thursday and announced that talks will continue in Havana, Cuba on November 15. Here's our guide to the Colombia peace negotiations.

What Is the Goal of These Talks?

The ultimate goal here is to bring an end to hostilities between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – FARC – and the Colombian government, which have been going on for more than four decades.

The FARC were created in 1964, in an effort by peasants to defend themselves from paramilitary groups backed by the Colombian government that were forcing small farmers off their lands in Colombia's Andean valleys. More than 80,000 civilians are said to have died in Colombia's armed conflict and an estimated four million have been forced to flee their homes. The conflict also sparked the creation of half a dozen guerilla groups, and several paramilitary organizations that defended landowners from guerrilla attacks.

Today, two guerrilla groups are still fighting the Colombian state. The FARC, which has 8,000 members according to Colombian government estimates, and the smaller National Liberation Army or ELN which is not part of these peace talks, but has expressed interest in participating.

The FARC are known to finance their operations through the drug trade, but this does not mean that the group has stopped having political goals.

How Did These Talks Come About?

Both sides agreed to sit at the negotiation table, after two years of secret exploratory talks. However, there is no ceasefire, and both sides are still fighting each other as their delegations talk about peace in Oslo, and in Havana.

This poses a risk to talks, which could be derailed if the FARC takes actions that hurt Colombian civilians, or if the Colombian government kills another major FARC commander.

However, analysts that have monitored the Colombian conflict say this was the quickest, and perhaps the only way to get talks started. Previous negotiations that involved ceasefires or sanctuaries for the FARC have failed, while allowing the guerrilla group to become stronger, so it would have been difficult for the Colombian government to once again push for a similar initiative.

What Will Both Sides Talk About?

The peace talks are structured around five thematic areas. Negotiators representing the government and the FARC guerrillas will discuss the following:

• How to develop the Colombian countryside

• How to bring an end to hostilities and reintegrate guerilla fighters into civilian life.

• How the FARC would participate in Colombian politics.

• Reparations and justice for victims of the armed conflict.

• How to decrease the production of illicit drugs.

What Is the Toughest Thing for Both Sides to Agree On?

According to several analysts we've spoken to, one of the toughest issues for both sides to agree on will be development schemes for Colombia's countryside.

Ariel Avila, a conflict analyst at Bogota's New Rainbow Foundation says that both sides have very different views of how rural areas of the country should be run, with the government favoring mining projects that increase the government's tax revenues, and large extensions of cash crops. The FARC, on the other hand, favor small farming cooperatives and the redistribution of land to people who have settled Colombia's agricultural frontier.

According to Avila, lands taken by paramilitary groups throughout the conflict are now in the hands of businessmen, or politicians with ties to the Colombian government who essentially purchased illegally acquired land.

During the negotiations the FARC might ask for these lands to be given back to peasants or small landowners. "It's a big problem because those who are in government might see themselves affected by this negotiation," Avila said.

The FARC have not yet clearly laid out their requests for rural development, but Avila suggested that the guerrillas may push for credit schemes for small farmers, and infrastructure improvements in remote rural areas. "We will have to see how much of this the government can afford," Avila said.

What Will Be the Most Controversial Issue?

Government negotiators will have to grapple with a thorny issue during these peace talks: How to encourage the FARC to lay down their weapons, but still hold them accountable for crimes they have committed. Do they offer reduced prison sentences to guerrilla leaders for example? Or do they suggest no prison at all, if FARC agrees to turn in their weapons and demobilize their troops?

Christian Voelkel, a Colombia analyst at the International Crisis Group, suggests that both sides in the negotiation will have an incentive to mutually pardon each other and bury their crimes.

But Voelkel spoke out against any deal that ignores the rights of Colombia's civilian victims to justice, and to know the truth about what has happened to family members killed or kidnapped by the FARC.

"A lasting peace accord cannot be built simply on a scheme where crimes are forgotten and forgiven," Voelkel told ABC/Univision. "If that were to happen the rights of victims would be violated once again," Voelkel said.

Voelkel and other analysts we've spoken to have suggested that FARC leaders, who have been at war for three or four decades, will not stop fighting if they face 15 to 20 year prison sentences. But on the other hand, the international community will not back a peace deal under which human rights violations go unpunished. And through its funding schemes for reconstruction projects, the international community has some leverage over the Colombian government.

The most likely outcome, according to Ariel Avila, is a deal where reduced prison sentences or pardons are offered to some guerrilla leaders, but where those accused of committing massive human rights violations are held accountable for their crimes.

The government is also likely to implement truth commissions where guerrillas and members of the military provide information about any war crimes they may have committed, in exchange for amnesty or reduced sentences. This system was implemented in South Africa in order to bring an end to the Apartheid regime. Truth commissions were also used to end the civil war in El Salvador.

Can the U.S. Do Anything to Influence the Outcome of These Talks?

During the negotiations, FARC leaders are expected to seek assurances that the Colombian government will not extradite them to the U.S. or other countries where they are wanted on drug trafficking charges.

Adam Isaacson, an expert on Colombia's armed conflict at the Washington Office on Latin America, says that the U.S. can help the peace process to succeed by not pushing for the extradition of FARC leaders, as negotiations take place.

Isaacson said that in previous negotiations between Colombia's government and right-wing paramilitary groups, the U.S. backed off from extradition requests for paramilitary leaders, in order to facilitate negotiations. After those peace accords were signed, and problems with the former paramilitary leaders continued, former President Alvaro Uribe decided to ship most of them to the U.S. anyways.

This time around, as negotiations with the FARC take place in Oslo and Havana, there is little else the U.S. can do but watch and provide statements of support for peace in Colombia.

Isaacson points out that the US is not seen "as an honest broker" by the FARC guerrillas. The rebels are fully aware that this country has spent more than $8 billion in military aid to Colombia over the past decade, under the Plan Colombia anti-narcotics effort.

However, Isaacson said that if a peace agreement is reached, the U.S. could play a fundamental role at keeping the peace, by helping to finance rural development projects, or other reconciliation schemes that emerge from the talks.

He mentioned that when civil wars ended in Guatemala and El Salvador, the U.S. helped to finance reconstruction projects in those countries. "If we help to pay for these wars, we should pay to clean them up as well," Isaacson said.