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In the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels in Colombia have agreed to a month-long unilateral ceasefire. The ceasefire was implemented on April 1st and is set to last until April 30th. The ELN rebels have called it a “humanitarian gesture” to the Colombian people suffering from the pandemic, which came after 700 confirmed cases of the coronavirus were reported in Columbia. The left-wing rebel group has also expressed interest in reopening peace negotiations with the Colombian government and meeting to discuss an extension of the ceasefire.
The motion comes in response to UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ appeal for “an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world.” As global pandemic deaths top over a million, the UN’s call to cease violence aims to limit further loss in order to “help create corridors for life-saving aid, open windows for diplomacy,” and “bring hope to places among the most vulnerable.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway, which has been a facilitator in past peace talks in Colombia, has called the ceasefire an “important step in support of [the] vulnerable population & everyone who struggles for peace.”
In the wake of over five decades of conflict, the ELN’s commitment to a ceasefire and peace talks is a monumental step towards internal peace for Colombia. However, the ceasefire does not ensure that violence will not restart. The ELN remains an active group “against attacks carried out by state forces, paramilitaries, and drug gangs.” Binding peace agreements are needed to ensure the safety of the Colombian people, especially during the pandemic. The pandemic has proven to put tremendous pressure on states’ healthcare and political infrastructures, which would only be aggravated by continued violence between Colombian armed forces and the ELN. The ELN has expressed interest in meeting with state officials to begin peace talks that could potentially quell the violence for the foreseeable future. However, certain conditions stand in the way of achieving peace. The ELN has called on the Colombian President, Iván Duque, to release prisoners under sentences related to the rebel group, as well as those over the age of 60 and serving less than 10-year terms. The ELN claimed these requests were made in an effort to decongest the prison system, but they raise security concerns related to possible prisoner re-affiliation with the group.
The ELN has been active in Colombia since 1964 and labeled a terrorist group by the United States, Colombia, and the European Union. The group was originally formed by farmers inspired by the Cuban Revolution, with the initial goal of fighting Colombia’s uneven distribution of land and riches. The majority of the ELN’s income comes from attacking land-owners, multinational corporations, and oil pipelines. The ELN has a reputation for ransom kidnappings and collecting “war taxes” from Colombian citizens and businesses, making them a direct threat to the lives of civilians. Peace talks in early 2019 were derailed after the Colombian government was accused of failing to respect the active unilateral ceasefire. The ELN responded by carrying out a car bombing that took the lives of over 20 people and ended all peace negotiations.
It is now more important than ever to ensure peace. The ELN ceasefire must stay in effect and peace talks need to be pursued to their greatest length. Continued violence will further exacerbate pressures on the Colombian state and put civilian lives at risk. The death toll of COVID-19 continues to rise worldwide. But in Colombia, the virus has the potential to become a catalyst for peace that could end over 50 years of armed conflict.