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Shocked members of the Colombian population witnessed a devastating explosion in Bogotá on January 18th which saw over 20 people killed. Describing the explosion as a “crazy terrorist act”, President Duque held the National Liberation Army (ELN) responsible for the attacks. In response to this, Duque issued arrest warrants for members of the group and requested that Cuba transfer over rebels residing in the country. Cuba has acted as a mediator for peace talks between the ELN and Colombia, though talks had stalled since President Duque took power.
Following the attacks, Duque stated, “It’s clear to all of Colombia that the ELN has no true desire for peace”. As such, turning attention to Cuba, he requested that, “it capture the terrorists who are inside its territory and hand them over to Colombian police”. Whilst the group has not claimed responsibility for the attack, it has been involved in numerous clashes between the state. Duque’s stance on the group has been largely negative since coming into power; a stance that overrides the calls for peace from his own government. Last year, the Chief Negotiator for talks with the ELN – Juan Camilo Restrepo – stated, “Every unnecessary delay in the search for peace means the sacrifice of lives and it is time lost to lay the foundations of reconciliation”. Akin to this, Cuba has resisted the demands by Duque and instead seeks to honour the terms of peace talks in promoting the security and dialogue of all parties.
Despite Duque accusing Cuba of violating human rights by protecting the individuals responsible for the criminal act, it is arguably a sensible response from Cuba. Whilst referred to as a terrorist organisation by the U.S. and Colombia, the ELN has contributed to peace talks with Cuba and with Colombia under then-President Manuel Santos in 2017. Moreover, since 2012, Cuba has played an important role in mediating peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a group that has now peacefully transformed politically. Colombia, on the other hand, has been accused by the UN of not doing enough to honour the terms of the peace agreement, namely to implement greater reconciliation. Jean Arnault, Head of the UN Mission in Colombia, highlighted this and stated, “while participation of FARC representatives in the Congress is a major step, reintegration into civilian life of former FARC-EP members is very much unfinished business”. With both groups claiming to represent the poor in Colombia, it is important that this element of civil society is implemented in before, during and after peace talks.
The ELN, like most groups in Colombia, is labelled as a terrorist organisation. Like the FARC, the group is inspired by unequal land distribution and therefore claims to represent the poor in Colombia. This has often invoked the use of violence against the state, to whom has responded equally with violence. The ELN has historically been in peace talks with the government, arguably after witnessing the instrumental peace deal with the FARC. However, recently the ELN has referred to the proposed peace offering as “unacceptable” and subsequently one that is “ending the process of dialogue”.
With President Duque in no rush to resume peace talks with the ‘terrorist group’, the ELN seems to be heading down the wrong path. To establish sustainable peace, Duque cannot merely justify the delay of peace talks due to human rights violations committed by the ELN; Colombia has a poor history of human rights violations. Moreover, instead of demanding Cuba to hand over members of the ELN whilst simultaneously having stalled peace talks with the group, Colombia must not only collaborate with Cuba and the ELN rebels themselves but critically with civil society. The ELN has constantly encouraged the integration of civil society in peace talks – a key part of the FARC peace agreement- and thus must be prioritised. Identifying the history of rebel groups in the country whilst differing somewhat, the similarity between the FARC and the ELN indicates that peace can be achieved. By no means should both parties adopt the same strategy as the FARC peace agreement as a one-fits-all approach, but it is worth seeking aspiration from it, notably its principles of reintegration, political and civil society participation.