The Central Command of the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group published an official announcement Monday reaffirming its willingness to initiate a formal, transparent peace process with the Colombian government.
Since the release of Canadian hostage Jernoc Wobert in late August, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos has indicated its willingness to establish negotiations with Colombia’s second largest rebel group, along the lines of the one’s currently taking place in Havana with leaders of the FARC.
Recently, Norway joined a list of several Latin American nations offering to host any future dialogue. But so far, third-party discussions between the ELN and the government have yet to produce any official talks.
Monday’s announcement, then, is the first look at what a potential negotiation table would look like. In it, the ELN reiterates its willingness to dialogue, while laying out some of the fundamental differences that need to be bridged heading into any formal talks with the government.
An Open Process
For one, the ELN is calling for the entire process, including the buildup to actual talks, to be made open to the public. Unlike the FARC peace talks, which the document claims have been “characterized by secrecy”, any dealings between the ELN and the Santos administration will be broadcast to the international and national communities, according to the document released Monday.
The ELN claims it is “convinced” of the “right [of the international and national communities] to be constructors of peace”, which it called a necessarily “collective” process, and will, accordingly, encourage the participation of both the Colombian public and the foreign countries interested in ending Colombia’s armed conflict.
Before the process can begin, however, the ELN says it has “profound differences” with the government that need to be addressed.
The ELN share the sentiments expressed by various labor bodies in recent and ongoing national strikes that the Colombian government uses negotiation as a means to squash conflict, but not as a vehicle to bring solutions to the causes.
Colombia’s government, according to the ELN, thinks that the country’s armed conflict is attributable solely to the “existence of guerrillas”, and therefore views peace talks with rebel groups as a path to “demobilization and disarmament”.
The ELN, on the other hand, claims Colombia’s “armed and social conflict”, and the rebel groups behind it, is a “consequence” of other, systemic issues.
Accordingly, the ELN wants the focus of any negotiations with the government to be on “discussing the large economic, social and political problems that originally caused” the armed conflict.
Solving these problems, the document says, is a necessary prerequisite for any lasting peace.
When it began over 60 years ago, Colombia’s armed conflict was a Marxist revolution. Since then, Colombia’s various rebel groups have lost much of their ideological credibility — because of both their heavy reliance on exploitive drug and mining operations to finance the conflict and their own involvement in widespread human rights violations against the rural population they supposedly defend.
Still, there is a political element within groups such as the FARC and ELN, and longstanding stances they maintain against the government because of it.
According to the ELN document, “the road to peace requires a political exit to the conflict.” Like the FARC, the ELN will be searching for political representation in the Colombian government.
The ELN is not, it claims, willing to “reinsert itself in the existing capitalist society” and wait for the government to “implement some reforms”. Instead, the ELN leadership is calling for a “bilateral dialogue” with the government, in which both parties collaborate to “design a plan to overcome the crisis” facing the Colombian countryside and “build a new country”.
So far, the topic of political representation has been a sticking point in the Havana talks, with the government unwilling to grant FARC leaders the permanent political presence they have requested.
The ELN document did not indicate whether ELN leaders expect a guaranteed political presence, as the FARC’s did, only that the peace and reform process should include those “historically excluded from [government] power and decision making”, such as Colombia’s indigenous, afro and rural populations, all of which have also suffered grievances at the hands of the ELN itself.
According to Monday’s announcement, the ELN wants any potential dialogue to include direct representation for Colombia’s “historically excluded” social and ethnic groups.
The parties involved in the negotiation cannot, it says, “replace the struggles nor the demands of the masses”. Any negotiation, according to the ELN, should “engage and include” those masses directly “in the process and its definition”.
The document does not specify which groups would be included, or who would be designated to represent them.
The government is already close to surpassing its original time frame for negotiations with the FARC, which were supposed to end within a year of last November, when they began in Cuba. Recently, President Santos has indicated that a deal needs to be finalized in time for next March’s national elections, so that a referendum can be voted on by the public.
The FARC are opposed to a voter referendum on principle, but also are opposed to any time limit for negotiations.
Perhaps because of the FARC’s experience navigating shifting talk deadlines, the ELN are calling for negotiations free of any fixed time limit.
In Monday’s announcement, ELN leaders referred to the government’s “relatively short” time frames as “disguises for force”, saying that limiting negotiations to “determined dates is pernicious and undermines the success of the peace process”.
Any negotiations, the document said, should be “determined by the progress of the negotiations themselves” and not by any outside limits.
Still No Announcement
The ELN did not indicate whether the points laid out in its announcement were concrete demands for a potential peace process or simply an illustration of its general position.
Either way, intermediary talks between the government and ELN have yet to lead to any direct contact, or any announcements regarding a formal peace process.
Government officials declined to comment on the status of any potential peace talks, reiterating President Santos’ desire to engage the rebels.