Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings
For more than two years, the Colombian rebel group known as the FARC has been engaged in negotiations aimed at securing a peace deal with the government. In December 2014, the FARC announced a unilateral ceasefire that it said “should be transformed into an armistice.”
The Colombian government appeared to agree. In January, President Juan Manuel Santos instructed the government’s negotiating team to seize the opportunity to move quickly toward a “bilateral and definitive” ceasefire. Last month, in recognition of the FARC’s adherence to the unilateral ceasefire, Santos announced a temporary pause in bombing FARC positions. The guerrillas and the government even promised to cooperate in an effort to locate and decommission the large number of landmines laid throughout the country during the conflict.
However, an apparent attack yesterday by the FARC on a group of Colombian soldiers, which the country’s attorney general described as an “ambush” and a “war crime,” has thrown into doubt the status of the ceasefire. Eleven Colombian soldiers reportedly died and another 19 were wounded during the incident. A number of media outlets and analysis firms are describing the event as a “setback” or “hurdle” to the peace process.
That this occurrence is a setback is virtually undeniable, but not much evidence indicates that it will prove a major blow to the peace process. In response to what Santos called “a deliberate attack by the FARC” and “a clear rupture of the promise of a unilateral ceasefire,” the president “ordered the armed forces to lift the suspension of bombings on FARC camps.”
In a series of public statements released on their website and social media platforms, the FARC argued against the resumption of bombing, vehemently rejected the government’s characterization of the deadly incident and vigorously reaffirmed their commitment to the peace process.
The attack will – and has already – fueled long-standing criticisms of the negotiations, but the process has survived more than two and a half years of ups and downs. The FARC had previously held to their unilateral ceasefire despite continuing offensive actions against the group by the armed forces and neither side has mentioned breaking off the talks as a serious possibility.
At the same time, the FARC recently warned that the ceasefire could be “fading” due to the continued operations against the group. Although the FARC’s military weakness likely played a large role in bringing the rebels to the negotiating table, the resumption of bombing could cause the FARC to respond with its own escalation, which could contribute to a dangerous cycle of increasing violence.
While it is too early to predict the long-term effects of the recent attack, public diplomacy efforts aimed at reiterating both sides’ commitment to a peaceful, negotiated settlement to the conflict will be critical to maintaining confidence in and support for the talks.