Colombia’s president, rebels announce breakthrough in talks

  • By ANNE-MARIE GARCIA and JOSHUA GOODMAN
  • Thursday, September 24, 2015 1:02am
  • NewsNation-World

HAVANA — Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and leftist guerrilla commanders on Wednesday announced an important breakthrough in peace talks that sets the stage to end Latin America’s longest-running armed conflict.

In a joint statement, Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said they have overcome the last significant obstacle to a peace deal by settling on a formula to compensate victims and punish belligerents for human rights abuses.

Rebels that confess their crimes, compensate victims and promise not to take up arms again will receive up to 8 years of restrictions on their liberty in restricted areas still to be determined.

Santos flew earlier in the day to Havana, where talks have been going on for three years, to make the announcement.

“We are on different sides but today we advance in the same direction, in the most noble direction a society can take, which is toward peace,” said Santos, seated on the same dais as the rebel leader known as Timochenko and Cuban President Raul Castro.

Santos said Colombia’s government and the FARC have reached an agreement to sign a definitive peace deal within 6 months. Negotiators must still come up with a mechanism for rebels to demobilize, hand over their weapons and provide reparations to their victims. Santos has also promised he’ll give Colombians the chance to voice their opinion in a referendum and any deal must also clear Congress.

Further cementing expectations of a deal, the FARC declared a unilateral cease-fire in July and has been working with Colombia’s military on a program to remove tens of thousands of rebel-planted land mines.

But amid the slow, but steady progress, one issue had seemed almost insurmountable: How to compensate victims and punish FARC commanders for human rights abuses in light of international conventions Colombia has signed and almost unanimous public rejection of the rebels.

The FARC, whose troops have thinned to an estimated 6,400 from a peak of 21,000 in 2002, have long insisted they haven’t committed any crimes and aren’t abandoning the battlefield only to end up in jail. They say that they would only consent to prison time if leaders of Colombia’s military, which has a litany of war crimes to its name, and the nation’s political elite are locked up as well.

On Tuesday, Santos dispatched his negotiating team to Cuba almost a week ahead of the next scheduled round of talks and then further fueled speculation of a breakthrough by announcing on Twitter he would stop in Havana en route to New York, where he’s scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly on Friday.

The FARC peace delegation had said on Twitter that Timochenko was already in Havana and sent images of him dressed in a sweat suit arriving on a chartered flight to Havana and relaxing in a leather sofa chair with rebel negotiators. “Peace has arrived,” they said, going one step further than Santos in touting the breakthrough.

“Some people on both sides will be unhappy. Some want more peace, others want more justice,” Santos said in a speech Tuesday. “Not everyone in the world will be content, but I*m sure in the long run we*ll be much better off.”

The government has gone to great lengths to insist that its framework for so-called transitional justice doesn’t represent impunity for guerrilla crimes such as the kidnapping of civilians, forced recruitment of child soldiers and heavy involvement in cocaine trafficking, for which the FARC’s top leadership has been indicted in the U.S.

But even before details have become known, conservative critics lashed out at what they said was excessive lenience on the part of the government.

“Santos, it’s not peace that’s near, it’s the surrender to the FARC and the tyranny of Venezuela,” former President Alvaro Uribe, whose military offensive last decade winnowed the FARC’s ranks and pushed its leaders to the negotiating table, said in a message on Twitter. “Without jail time for the commanders, there will be a deal in Havana but also a recipe for more violence in Colombia.”

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Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia. AP Writers Jacobo Garcia, Libardo Cardona and Cesar Garcia contributed to this report from Bogota.

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Follow Goodman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/apjoshgoodman

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