Negotiating Peace in Colombia: Interview with Bernard Aronson

Negotiating Peace in Colombia: Interview with Bernard Aronson

. 9 min read

Bernard Aronson served as U.S. Special Representative to the Colombian Peace Process from 2016 to 2019. He previously served as the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, where he also helped negotiate the peace agreement that ended El Salvador’s Civil War.

In the case of the Colombian negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), where did the negotiations stand when we were appointed as Special Representative, and what were the political motivations of appointing an American special envoy to those negotiations?

The talks, both the secret informal preliminary talks and the formal talks, altogether took six years. I wasn't involved with the preliminary secret negotiations, as I wasn't in the government at the time. But they made a lot of progress in defining the agenda, and then they started talks in Havana. They made good progress on counter-narcotics and political participation, but they were really stuck on some major issues, which were transitional justice; DDR, which is demobilisation, disarmament, and reintegration; and security for all the actors post-peace agreement. President Santos has had conversations with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry over the years, and they have been strongly supportive of the peace effort.

And in one conversation, President Santos said he thought that maybe the time was right for the United States to become more engaged. And so President Obama and Secretary Kerry made a decision to appoint a U.S. envoy and asked me to do that. I had significant involvement in the peace processes in Central America, in the war in El Salvador, so I had some relevant experience. And the then-Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson and the then-US ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker had both been part of my team. They worked for me when I was Assistant Secretary of State, so that was an easy fit. But I think they wanted me to play as a kind of catalyst to jumpstart the negotiations in these very tough, difficult issues that had stymied progress for quite a few months.

Could you talk a little bit more about your negotiation work in El Salvador and the lessons that you've applied to negotiating for the Colombian peace process?

Yeah, I mean, the negotiations were structured differently. It's important to recognize that in El Salvador, the United Nations oversaw the negotiations. They provided a mediator, and they had the power to convene meetings, to propose drafts, to compel the parties to come together.

And neither of those things existed in Colombia. Negotiations were just bilateral between the FARC and the government. They were friends in the process, there was Cuba, Norway, and two accompanying countries, Venezuela and Chile. But they didn't have the role of a mediator. None of the guarantor countries or accompanying countries had the power to say, “Sit at the table” and convene a meeting or say, “I want you both to bring me a draft in a week.” In a way, I took the role of a mediating platform, the role of a mediator, to some extent. But of course I wasn’t neutral either. Of course, I was a supporter of Colombian government, and I was representing the US government.

But you asked me some things that we learned in El Salvador that are applicable for Colombia. I'd say one is that the correlation of forces on the battleground has to be such that the guerrillas no longer believe that time is on their side, that if they keep fighting things would get better and eventually they would take power. In the case of El Salvador, they launched a final offensive in November 1989, brought in thousands of combatants to the city, and shocked the army and the government. But they didn't succeed, and the people didn't rise up. And I think they came to believe that they were suffering from attrition, losing cadre, and they thought they’d better negotiate while they still had leverage, because they were losing leverage on the battlefield every year. I think that was also true of the FARC. Their numbers had been trending way down. There was a time when they had about 25,000 soldiers in the field. When the peace negotiations were going on, they had about 8,000 full time and another five or six part time militias, but that was about half of what they once had.

And then secondly, I think I came to appreciate in the Central American negotiations the importance of deadlines and to push the party along from the outside, because with any peace negotiations ending a civil war, you have to create and sustain momentum. If you show the government of El Salvador and the FMLN guerrillas the final agreement at the beginning of the negotiations, they never would have signed onto negotiations because they think that such an agreement would have been possible. And at that stage of the process, they worked with the impossible. And so I think a similar dynamic was the case in the FARC. We had to build confidence, really build towards the more transient issues and not tackle them in the beginning.

I think I also learned the importance of being very candid and clear about the US position. I told the Colombian guerrillas something very similar to what I told the FMLN guerrillas: Your problem with the United States is not that you're trying to do away with human rights abuses and economic injustice and dictatorship and the like. The problem is that you want to achieve all the changes through violent struggle, as opposed to embracing democracy. And both the FARC and the Salvadorans went into a process where they made that transition.

And also I reinforced my belief that you have to treat your adversaries or your friends with respect. You have to tell them the truth, be honest with them, admit when they're right, not assume that everything that they say is evil because you’re the enemy. You have to listen to their narrative, even if you don't buy all the gestures they make or the conclusion. You have to accept that they have a narrative that is relevant. It's about repression and that they suffered from repression.

Going back to Colombia, could you briefly walk us through what your initial negotiating strategy was heading into your involvement with the negotiations?

The process of negotiation is like broken field running in football. You wait to see there's an opening and you try to get through it. You can't strategize and plan out ahead of time because it's constantly moving, processing. Things change and things happen and you have to just try to be responsive and handle things as they come at you. You can't go off in an office with a bunch of experts and come up with some game plan and expect it to have any real relevance. It just doesn't work that way.

You mentioned a couple of the main sticking points in the Colombian negotiations–things like transitional justice and protection for combatants after the negotiations. Could you walk us through how those issues or those sticking points were resolved?

In the case of transitional justice, neither side was coming forward, neither side was putting a proposal out, perhaps because it was too sensitive an issue for both of them. Then I suggested that we create a subcommittee: Each side would appoint three lawyers who are experts in human rights and social justice. And they would work separately from the main table, because otherwise, we would not make any progress if that was being negotiated.

The two sides appointed a group of lawyers, you know, each side picked three. First, that's an issue of international law, human rights law, you needed experts to deal with it. Secondly, these are professionals. They might have had their sympathies on one side or another, and they did, but, you know, the group itself didn't polarize. It came together, almost like the Supreme Court judges often negotiate and come up with some kind of a middle ground. Maybe that's not the best analogy, but these guys were able to leave behind all the political baggage that the two parties brought and raise it to the level of the rule of law, precedent, and what was required by the Rome Convention. It also tackled some other issues. Extradition was a very big issue to the FARC, and we were able to resolve that, so I think the creation of that separate committee was a good vehicle to move things along.

What do you consider the main turning point in the negotiations?

Well, there were many turning points. Negotiation is in significant part a matter of confidence building between the two sides. These are people who've been killing each other for 52 years—to get them to trust each other and to make an agreement or compromise was no easy task.

So everything became a significant turning point, even when there were crises. A couple of times, our ability to fix the crises and not let them blow up the negotiation strengthened the process.

But I think resolving transitional justice was a big one because the guerrilla leadership was very clear they weren't going to be the first guerrilla leaders in the history of Latin America to negotiate themselves into prison. Yet there were lots of Colombians who were rightfully bitter about what the FARC had done, the kidnapping and killing and all that. So that was a very tough issue, but I think we were able to resolve it the way I mentioned to you.

In looking back with the benefit of hindsight, is there anything that you wish had been done differently in the process?

I think that the process went on so long that negotiations fatigue set in on Colombians. They kept being told there's been a breakthrough every time one issue or set of issues had been resolved, but negotiations just kept going. I think they had the feeling of being taken to the mountaintop and then going back down and over again. I think that reduced sort of engagement in the process, and that probably led to some of the loss in the referendum, so I think that mechanism to speed up the process, if possible, would have helped a lot.

And then I think particularly on the security issues, we should have added some guarantees about how that would be implemented, because the current government has really not held up its side of the agreement on security. While the United Nations oversees and monitors their compliance, they don't have the ability to compel them to do something.

Considering the failure in the referendum, what was your overall assessment of the peace deal’s success?

Well, I think the referendum revealed that Colombia is a polarized country, and there were very different feelings about this particular issue, about justice and the sentencing of the FARC for their actions. I mean, the margin was very, very tiny. It was a very small margin. And there were some things that happened that that cost votes for the “yes” side. In particular, there were these torrential rains for several days in the northern coast, which was a strong bastion of support for President Santos in his elections. People were flooded from their homes, so they couldn't vote. Really, tens and tens of thousands of people couldn't get to the polling places.

Secondly, the “no” campaign had spread a lot of disinformation. They claimed that the agreement had language and conditions it didn't have, but they were able to scare a lot of people, including both evangelicals and the Catholic Church. Third, I think the polls showed that people supported the peace agreement by a pretty good margin. I think a lot of its supporters thought that there's no question that it’ll pass, so they didn’t bother to vote. After the “no” vote won narrowly, hundreds of thousands of people went to the streets in support of the peace agreement. So I think it was unfortunate.

It was also right after Brexit and before Trump, but it sort of captured some of that populist anti-elite feeling that was going on in a lot of countries such as Britain with Brexit.

What do you think are the main takeaways for negotiation in Latin America specifically, but also negotiation processes more generally?

First, you cannot divorce prospects for negotiation from the military situation. Like I said, at least the guerrillas, and sometimes the government, have to come to recognize that they’re losing on the battlefield. Otherwise, they're not going to negotiate in a serious way.

Second, you need a president, head of government, who has the political courage to spend and risk his political capital by pursuing a peace negotiation that may have failed in the past and could fail again. He has to be clearly dedicated and engaged in that. It helps to have, on the government side, negotiators who have the right qualities, who are able to sit down with people who may have harmed members of their family or kidnapped them or whatever and still be able to get along and build a cordial, or at least a respectful, relationship.

It's also very important to have strong regional and international and multilateral support for the negotiating process, for the peace process. This was particularly true in El Salvador, but also in Colombia. When you raise the peace negotiations to an international level, the whole world is engaged in supporting them. We had unanimous votes in the Security Council of the United Nations in support of the peace agreement, or to send experts to support it.

You had some states from Europe and elsewhere coming to see the parties, speaking out. You had the Pope. You had the dedicated US special envoy, the dedicated EU special envoy. And that creates something that especially the guerrillas hadn’t had before. These people had been living in the bush for decades, fighting a very harsh and bloody war. All of a sudden, all these world leaders are sitting there saying, “We want you to make peace.” It puts pressure on both sides not to be the spoiler, not to be the one who has to kill the peace. So I think regional and international support is quite important.

This interview was edited for clarity and condensed.