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FARC peace talks stoke hope - and unrest - in Colombia

During a recent recess from peace talks, FARC guerrillas offered to support peasant protests with arms and troops, and government forces suffered one of the heaviest blows since talks began.

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Negotiators for the Colombian government and leftist rebels started a new round of peace talks this week, while at home the nation debates how to strike a balance between the thirst for justice and the need for peace in Colombia’s nearly half century of internal conflict.

The government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) resumed talks on Sunday in Havana, Cuba after a 19-day recess during which tensions ran high. Over the past month, guerrillas have offered to bolster growing peasant protests with weapons and troops, and government forces suffered one of the heaviest blows since the peace talks began in November with the death of 19 soldiers in two separate rebel attacks.

“Many Colombians do not understand why we are in negotiations when attacks by armed groups continue,” the government's top negotiator Humberto de la Calle said Sunday, a week after the FARC attacks. “I must remind you that the government has decided not to agree to a ceasefire until the conflict comes to an end.”

Growing civil unrest

In May, the two sides reached a draft agreement on rural development and land reform , including the creation of more special "peasant reserve zones," created in the 1990s to protect small scale farmers from land grabs and help them benefit from government aid programs. This was a critical demand of the FARC.

A month after the agreement was announced, thousands of peasants began blocking roads in the Catatumbo region, on the border with Venezuela, demanding that the government immediately declare a reserve zone there. Clashes between protesters and police have left four dead and dozens injured. Talks with numerous government delegates have failed to end the protests.

The government claims that the FARC were behind the protests, potentially trying to gain political support. The protesting farmers deny this. However, on July 22 the rebels publicly offered the farmers weapons and troops to support their demonstrations. "We are ready to receive them, to support them, and guide them to final victory," the FARC's Magdalena Medio front said in a message posted on its website.

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FARC negotiator Andres Paris said Sunday the government's refusal to meet protester demands called into question the latter's sincerity over agrarian reform. "It is worthless to talk in Havana of limiting land ownership, stopping foreign ownership, of a policy that favors the poor and national sovereignty, if the government turns what it has agreed to into empty words," Mr. Paris said. Both the FARC and the government established when negotiations began that no partial agreement was binding until a full peace accord was reached.

Alejandro Reyes, an adviser to the government on land issues who participated in the negotiations in Havana, says the protests in Catatumbo are "the first result of the [land] accord" and that Colombia could expect to see an increase in social protests in the months to come. Mr. Reyes also warns that the rebels would likely continue to take advantage of growing unrest in the countryside. Small-scale miners have also begun protests against the government and a nationwide "agrarian strike" has been announced for mid-August.

Alejo Vargas, a political analyst with Colombia's National University, says FARC involvement in the unrest is a "political mistake because they are contaminating legitimate protests."

Decades of violence

The FARC, Colombia's largest rebel group, rose up against the state in the mid 1960s. On July 24, an independent commission presented a report detailing the toll of Colombia's internal strife, which includes at least 220,000 conflict-related deaths since 1958, more than 27,000 forced disappearances, and 5.7 million people driven from their homes.

The report recommended that both the state and all armed actors involved in the conflict publicly recognize their responsibility for the violation of human rights in the context of the war.

In an unprecedented admission, President Juan Manuel Santos acted on the recommendation the following day. "The Colombian state has been responsible, in some cases by omission and in other cases through the direct action of some agents of the state, in serious violations of human rights and infractions to international humanitarian law during these 50 years of conflict," Mr. Santos declared at a hearing before the Constitutional Court.

The court heard arguments for and against a constitutional amendment passed last year, which aims to pave the way for a peace deal with the FARC. The amendment, known as the "Legal Framework for Peace," stipulates that in a context of transitional justice only those with "maximum responsibility" for systematic crimes would be prosecuted.

Gustavo Gallón, a top human rights lawyer who challenged the amendment, says it would mean impunity for some of the worst atrocities. "This constitutional reform authorizes the state to renounce the legal persecution of human rights violations and serious infractions to international humanitarian law," Mr. Gallón said.

"In addition to being a serious and inadmissible injustice, it risks putting the stability of peace in danger," he told the court.

But Santos defended the amendment, saying it would not "open space for impunity. Rather it satisfies in the broadest possible way the rights of victims of such a prolonged conflict."

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