Time to talk! With the recent appointment of the newest High Commissioner for Peace, and with FARC’s announcement of a new unilateral liberation, a narrow window of opportunity for a negotiated solution to the armed conflict seems to have opened up. It is time to take to that opportunity- Here’s why, when, and how to do it.
Why? The answer is simple: The conflict will never be truly resolved without dialogue. While military actions have been an inherent part of this conflict, and while they have played a substantial role in changing the dynamics within which the conflict is framed, no military action will lead to the ultimate resolution of a conflict that is so deep-rooted.
The armed conflict that has marked Colombia so decisively began as an expression of tensions stemming from unequal distribution of resources and privilege. While the driving forces of the conflict have changed dramatically, the systemic and institutionalized social injustice present at its inception is even more prevalent today.
More so, all those involved in the conflict, whether as victims or combatants, have had to suffer from the effects of participating in the conflict. That effect cannot simply be dealt with by using bullets. Just as it is important to discuss the legal responsibilities of FARC leaders, it is crucial to address the ability for teenagers that were pushed into the frontlines of war to rebuild there lives within the limits of lawful civil society.
Therefore, dismantling the official organizational structure of FARC, if such were to happen, would not suffice to move the nation from a stage of conflict into one of post-conflict. The resolution of the armed conflict requires a complex strategy to rebuild the social fabric of a nation in which many have been pushed into lives defined by violent conflict. Thus, only dialogue can lead to a true resolution of the conflict.
More so, Colombia is a nation that many have argued has had a history only defined by conflict. From its bloody independence, through to the ruthless political violence, all the way up to today, Colombia seems to have entered a cycle of violence that has yet to be broken. In this particular conflict, violence between FARC and the government has allowed for processes of enmification and dehumanization of the opposing party that lead to more violence, which makes those processes even more likely to happen, which in turn lead to more violence, and so on and so forth.
When? The conflict is at its most appropriate moment for intervention since Alvaro Uribe took office. The great military advancements that the Uribe administration has made have weakened FARC more effectively than ever before, thus changing the power dynamics between the two conflicting parties. The FARC’s willingness to free many of those who they’ve unjustly held kidnapped, and their changes in their leadership structure, present a uniquely positive opportunity to reinstate avenues for dialogue. More so, the Uribe administration still enjoys grand popular support, making the government more of a legitimate representative of Colombian civil society than it has ever been in the past.
How? As negotiation literature has often claimed, any parties involved in a negotiation need incentives to sit at the table. FARC can offer the government a cease-fire, which is nonetheless necessary to allow for successful dialogue. The government can offer FARC secure spaces to engage in dialogue, as well as a willingness to approach the application of the law with the flexibility necessary in order to successfully reinstate criminals into lawful civil society.
More so, it might be helpful to begin not with formal negotiation, but rather with the idea of engaging in dialogue. The latter option suggests a nature of conversation that is not necessarily binding, nor dependant on results, but rather one that allows for the creation of a space where the opposing parties can share their perception regarding the conflict, their priorities, and the requirements each would have to actually engage in a formal negotiation. Dialogue also allows for setting rules, structures, and alternative solutions within the framework of formal negotiations.
Any models of dialogue should be mediated by a group of highly-trained specialists. The group should include representatives from both parties, who also receive training in mediation. Mediators need not give the illusion of neutrality, as such a state is pragmatically unachievable anyway, but they must be accepted as legitimate mediators by both parties.
Finally, there are different models for structured mediated dialogue that are explored widely in conflict resolution literature. Yet, the most helpful seems to be that of conflict circle processes, in which a mediated safe space is created. In this space participants can uninterruptedly talk about their grievances and their ideas. Processes such as the conflict circle model allow for representatives of the parties in conflict to go beyond simply expressing their positions, and into expressing the underlying interests. Recognizing the interests that drive people into conflict is a necessary first step towards establishment of formal negotiation, and eventual resolution.
Therefore, acknowledging that the armed conflict can only be resolved through dialogue, and that the opportunity for engaging in such dialogue has not been greater in years, it is time that FARC and the Uribe administration seek direct channels of communication that can result in the establishment of conflict circle models of dialogue where the conditions for a formal and well-structured negotiation can be mutually-agreed upon. Forty years of conflict seem long enough already.
Author Felipe Estefan is Colombian and studies media and international relations in New York