Farc rebels and Colombian government reach deal over political participation

Rebels have agreed to give up use of violence to reach political ends in major breakthrough in peace talks

For the first time in their 50-year struggle, Colombia's leftist Farc rebels have agreed to give up the use of violence to reach their political ends in exchange for full participation in democratic politics – a major breakthrough in peace talks between one of the oldest guerrilla movements in the world and the government of Juan Manuel Santos.

Farc and government negotiators, who have been meeting in Havana for a year, announced the partial agreement on Wednesday on the political participation of the guerrillas, which would take effect only once a broader agreement to end the country's conflict was reached.

"Never again [will] politics and weapons [act] together," the chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle said. The leading Farc negotiator Iván Márquez said the agreement was an important step to end the conflict. "If we continue on the path of transformation … the signing of a peace treaty will be a reality," he said.

Jorge Restrepo, director of the Conflict Analysis Resource Center, a Bogotá thinktank, said the text of the agreement – which says a final accord would imply a ban on using "violence as a method of political action" – marks a fundamental shift for the negotiations . "The exchange of violence for political participation is a fundamental manifestation of the Farc's intention to end the conflict," he said.

"Never before had we come so far in peace talks with the guerrillas."

The talks in Havana are the fourth attempt during the Farc's half-century of fighting to negotiate an end to the conflict, which has left 220,000 people dead. In May, the two sides announced agreement on rural development and land reform to deal with the grossly uneven distribution of land, which is seen as one of the root causes of the conflict.

The agreement on political participation calls for the creation of temporary special congressional districts for areas hardest hit by the conflict, which generally overlap with the areas where the Farc have the most influence over the civilian population. The statement did not lay out details of which areas would be included nor how many seats it could add to the legislature.

The agreement also establishes mechanisms to ensure the security of members of any political party that emerges from a final peace deal. This is particularly significant because the Farc's previous foray into electoral politics – the Patriotic Union party in the 1990s – resulted in the murder of as many as 3,000 members. During that experiment, the Farc continued to act at the same time as an armed insurgency.

However, the agreement stops short of tackling the knotted issue of exactly who from the Farc may have a political future. Under the Colombian constitution, anyone convicted of a crime against humanity is barred from holding public office. So far, none of the Farc leaders have been, according to the attorney general.

Whether the commanders will serve any prison time for the thousands of kidnappings and killings committed under their leadership will be an issue dealt with as part of the transitional justice chapter of the negotiations. Other items still on the agenda include drug trafficking, reparations to victims and implementation of the accord.

Despite the long road ahead, Christian Voekel, of the International Crisis Group, said it was hard to overstate the importance of the new agreement because ensuring the political participation of a demobilised Farc was the "backbone for constructing a sustainable peace".

It is important, too, for President Santos. The announcement came just days before he must announce whether he will seek a new four-year term in elections next May. With approval ratings falling to a low of 21% in the past months, in large measure because of the slow pace of the talks, the announcement of progress should give him a much needed boost.

His main opponent will be Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, a former finance minister, representing the ultra-conservative movement known as Democratic Centre and founded by former president Alvaro Uribe.

Uribe, who is constitutionally barred from running, has become Santos' harshest critic for negotiating with the Farc. Zuluaga has vowed to end the talks with the Farc if he wins, arguing that the guerrillas are a terrorist movement that must be crushed militarily.


Sibylla Brodzinsky in Bogotá

The GuardianTramp

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